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The continuing quarterback conundrum for the Bengals

In some respects, Andy Dalton has shown a renewed vigor under Zac Taylor. However, mistakes and an 0-3 start to the season have familiar questions arising about the team’s status at the quarterback position.

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For the past nine years, the Cincinnati Bengals have felt that they have their franchise quarterback. For the most part, they’ve been proven correct, as Andy Dalton helped to spearhead five consecutive postseason berths from 2011-2015.

Things haven’t fallen the Bengals’ way recently, as free agency attrition, poor draft classes and injuries have all plagued the team since 2015. Zac Taylor was brought in to head up the team, as they hoped his refreshing, offensive-minded approach will be enough to maximize Dalton’s potential as the team’s quarterback.

However, three straight losing seasons to follow those playoff runs, two recent stints on Injured Reserve by Dalton and an 0-3 start under the new head coach have people re-thinking the status of the position.

When examining the situation, there are so many pathways to take. Dalton has shown the ability to regularly sniff double-digit wins in this league, which is uncommon ground for the Bengals. Unfortunately, these seasons have coincided with a healthy, fully-stocked roster and the tenures of assistant coaches whose minds have been coveted for head coaching positions around the league.

So, what now?

The ebbs and flows with Dalton

In Week 1, Dalton played a solid game, throwing for 418 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Yet, in a microcosm example of the definition of Dalton’s career, he also had two critical fumbles in a one-point loss (though one at the end of the game should not have been ruled as such).

And, in Dalton-esque fashion, he’s currently the second-leading passer, in terms of yards, to Patrick Mahomes with 979 through three games. Yet, the Bengals are staring down the barrel of a winless September, as Dalton is coming off of a poor performance against the Bills—another contest Cincinnati could/should/would have won.

He clearly looks comfortable in Taylor’s system, but costly turnovers continue to occur. Some concerns resurfaced this past week when, on a couple of occasions, Dalton felt pressure and failed to keep his eyes downfield to extend the play. It was the polar opposite from Josh Allen who ad-libbed all afternoon—both for positive and negative plays.

Dalton has been a streaky quarterback in his nine professional seasons—both in terms of series-to-series in a single game and from week-to-week. This is the unfortunate reality with No. 14 under center, as well as why the whole “Good Andy, bad Andy” theme was created.

Organizational failings

Cincinnati has made it known they believe in Dalton as their signal-caller as long as they continue to build around him. And, to both the credit of the franchise and their quarterback, it’s a plan that can and has worked.

The Los Angeles Rams have done the same, to an extent, as they’ve brought in a lot of productive help from the outside. Names like Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler, Jr., Clay Matthews, Andrew Whitworth and others have helped to turn L.A. around into perennial contenders, while giving Jared Goff a lot to work with in a quarterback-friendly system.

In their playoff stretch early in this decade, Cincinnati used castoff veteran free agents with former high draft designations and a solid few draft classes to make the January bracket. It’s a formula Cincinnati’s front office has continued to employ.

Unfortunately, big whiffs in recent drafts—particularly in rounds one and three—and great inactivity in outside free agency, outside of those aforementioned castoffs, have greatly reduced the depth that once made this roster one of the best in the league. Throw in some critical injuries to uber-important players and the “Dalton prop-up plan” has been a recent failure.

No NFL quarterback does it all by themselves, but some need more surrounding help than others. If Cincinnati wanted to truly ensure that Dalton was properly set up for success, they would employ more scouts, maneuver for immediate-impact players in the draft and bring in more mid-to-high tier outside free agents.

Dollars and sense

The question we asked on this week’s Orange and Black Insider centered around what you’re getting with Dalton under contract. In what seems to be the case with all aspects of No. 14, his contract has facets of both extreme positive and negative.

Dalton’s 2019 cap hit is $16.2 million (per Spotrac), but the dead cap number he carries is just $200,000. In the final year of his deal, the salary number jumps to $17.5 million, but he carries a goose egg in the dead cap column.

On one hand, it’s wise of a team to carry a contract with “bailout options” in case the team finally decides to move on from Dalton in 2020 or 2021. On the other, doesn’t it seem like quite a few quarterbacks can give the Bengals similar production with a potential lower up-front price tag?

For instance, a guy like Dwayne Haskins carries cap hit numbers between $2.6-$3.9 million from 2019-2021—albeit with much higher dead cap numbers. If the Bengals like the idea of “building around their quarterback”, wouldn’t an extra $11 million or so be helpful to use in free agency for that purpose to truly prop up their signal-caller?

Somewhat-unresolved conclusions

In truth, Cincinnati’s front office hasn’t lived up to their end of the bargain in the Dalton plan. The allowance of Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to leave in the 2017 offseason is still affecting this offensive line, while the team continues to bring in draft classes with minimal immediate impact.

To the latter point, one would have to look to the team’s third pick in the fourth round (their sixth of the class) to even find a starter at the beginning of the year (Michael Jordan). He was out last week and now may not start after Billy Price stepped up in his stead (another first-round pick who had lost his job). These types of yields, or lack thereof, have hindered Dalton to potentially take the next step.

The reality is that Dalton is a talented enough quarterback to continually have the Bengals to be at least competitive, if not contenders (2013, 2015). But, as this team perpetually teeters around .500 under his watch, it fuels their belief that no changes need to be made.

In essence, the conundrum we’re referencing is that they have committed to Dalton and the plan to surround him with the needed pieces, but fail in the execution of said blueprint. And, since Dalton is talented enough to keep this team from drafting within the top-10, a generational talent is out of reach, unless the Bengals move up using draft collateral. They don’t like to do that, we are.

The overall bottom line is that all fans and those associated with the club want to see Dalton succeed. He’s one of the league’s good guys, has done wonders for the local community and has teased us all with a couple of franchise record-setting marks. But, between some of his few limitations and the shortcomings of the organization, in terms of their operating practices, we’re not sure this marriage is built to last.

Also on this week’s episode:

  • Some big news about the Cincy Jungle podcast channel on SB Nation’s network! Three new shows have been added to the channel along with OBI’s content!
  • What had the biggest impact on the Bengals’ loss to the Bills last Sunday: mental mistakes, poor coaching, or the officiating?
  • Can grabbing a win against the Steelers on the road and in primetime turn around the Bengals’ season? Can they make a playoff push if they get to 1-3?
  • What 2019 win-loss records would it take for the Bengals to either stick with Dalton, or make a move in a different direction?

Our thanks to the live listeners and to our subscribers to all of our channels! Join us for each live recording, whether it’s our weekly show, special listener question episodes, as well as our postgame reactions!

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