Ten offseasons ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were in a state of disarray. Their franchise quarterback laid out a “trade-me” ultimatum, while an embattled coach returned after a disastrous 2010 season.
From a bigger picture standpoint, the NFL was staring down the barrel of a lockout. In short, it was a very bleak time in The Queen City.
In the ensuing draft, a number of quarterback options presented themselves as the team sat with the fourth pick in the class. After seeing Cam Newton go No. 1 overall, Cincinnati snagged A.J. Green three picks later and waited until the top of the second round to grab TCU quarterback, Andy Dalton.
Expectations weren’t high for Dalton and the club after the selection, as many believed he’d go the way of another second-round pick from a year prior in Jimmy Clausen. Some prognosticators even made the bold prediction that the Bengals would go winless that year, thanks to a poor quarterback and a lack of a full offseason to prepare.
Instead, Dalton helped to engineer the first of an improbable five straight playoff berths for the team, three subsequent Pro Bowl appearances for himself and nine years of starting-level quarterback play for a team that sorely needed it.
But, on Thursday, the inevitable occurred.
After drafting Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals released the veteran quarterback. It was the only card left to play after the team failed to execute a trade over the past month or so.
We know the deal: after drafting Burrow and spending well over $100 million in free agency this year, Cincinnati needed Dalton’s $17.7 million off the books to feel more comfortable with their 2020 cap situation and ability to extend other stars like Joe Mixon and/or A.J. Green.
A new era of football is officially underway.
Dalton, the perennial underdog
Somewhat-lost in all of this hubbub is a true reflection on Dalton and his tenure with the Bengals. His nine-year stint in Cincinnati has to be one of the most complicated football career tapestries ever woven in the league.
This can most recently be seen by some of the comments made in the above-embedded YouTube video and in the ones surely to follow in the comment section below. For a guy who was an ardent Christian and never moved the off-field needle in a negative way, critics were plentiful.
If you lauded him, you were content with mediocrity and unable to make proper “business decisions”. If you disparaged him and his on-field play, you were a cruel cynic, unable to see the forest for the trees and were unappreciative of competitive football being back in Cincinnati.
Many fans loved him. His affable nature, hard-working approach to the game and modicum of success in the face of a possible disastrous situation early in his career ingratiated him to a large segment of the fan base.
Others looked for every opportunity to push him out the door. Whether it was in AJ McCarron’s (who has still yet to gain a true starting gig with four teams) 2014 arrival, or in Zac Taylor’s selection of Ryan Finley last year (which yielded poor results in his three 2019 starts), some Bengals fans were always ready for the next big thing under center.
Needless to say, the wish for a new franchise-changing quarterback took place last Thursday night with the on-boarding of Burrow.
Personally speaking, I’ve been on both sides of this fence. I’ve publicly taken him to task on his recent play, but have also criticized the team for not following through on proper talent supply techniques to support him from 2016-2019.
While the franchise was steadfast in its support for Dalton, the fan base’s foundation on that front was far less sturdy.
Truth be told, Dalton resided in the shadows of two massive preceding Bengals signal-callers before he even took a meaningful snap. Carson Palmer came to Cincinnati with his Southern California cool and shiny Heisman Trophy, while the No. 14 jersey Dalton chose was previously-worn by another Bengals icon who is enduring a decades-long Hall of Fame bid.
Andy Dalton has represented the city of Cincinnati and the Bengal QB family with class and success both on and off the field. I am proud to call him a friend and wish him nothing but the best of luck. Wherever he goes will be lucky to have him. #whodey— Ken Anderson (@KenAndersonNFL) April 30, 2020
In a way, Dalton created a sort of underdog persona. Aside from the need to step out of those immense aforementioned shadows, Dalton rose above low professional expectations set forth by others—be it by his suboptimal size and traits for the position, being a part of a franchise with a spotty track record of success, or even in some of his own on-field failings.
Yet, Dalton managed to carve out a very respectable career for himself in spite of operating amidst other factors working against him. Many outsiders won’t readily note it, but Dalton sits atop many major statistical categories in franchise history:
Passing yards: 31,594 (Second)
Passing touchdowns: 204 (First)
Wins: 70 (Second)
Completions: 2,757 (First)
Completion percentage: 62% (Second among passers with 100-plus attempts in club history)
Passing yards per game: 237 (First)
Pro Bowls: Three (tied for second-most by Bengals quarterbacks)
Single-season passing yards: 4,293 in 2013 (First), 4,206 in 2016 (Second)
Single-season touchdown passes: 33 in 2013 (First)
Some of these can be attributed to the inflation of the passing game and surrounding talent, but his impressive standing in team history should be crystal clear by now. Not bad for a guy largely seen as a stopgap option at the time of his rookie year.
“What if’s” and “yeah, but’s”
Of course, as it has always been with Dalton, the “yeah, but’s” seem to rule the conversation.
He was 0-4 in postseason starts (he was injured in one of the team’s best chances for the 2015 Wild Card game against Pittsburgh), putting forth woeful performances in each contest. This style of play was also a theme on regular-season primetime ventures and it became an unfortunate media narrative about he and the team.
The other major storyline with Dalton was in his need for a solid supporting cast. When the roster deteriorated, be it from free agency attrition, injuries and/or poor draft selections, some of his shortcomings took center stage.
Back-and-forth arguments can and have been made about this facet to Dalton’s career. He played poorly in big contests, but so did those around him—including coach failings.
Still, some of the Dalton-supporting retorts to these debates bear weight and remain unanswered as he hits free agency.
What if Andy didn’t injure his thumb late in 2015 when he was playing the best football of his career? What if he didn’t have Green to rely upon throughout their respective careers? What if those strong supporting cast members actually showed up in big moments against the Texans, Chargers, Steelers and others?
Would some of the narratives surrounding Dalton be different?
The Philanthropic and fan-friendly quarterback
For the many on-field positives Dalton brought to the Bengals, what he has done for the greater area of Cincinnati merits even more applause. His foundation has impacted literally millions of lives, routinely giving out six-figure amounts to groups of families and to hospitals serving children.
If you want to slight Dalton the quarterback, fine, but you certainly lack any merit in attacking the man. In fact, just days before he knew the Bengals were going to take Burrow to seal his own future with the team, he and his wife donated $150,000 to the UC Health Crisis Fund to battle the COVID pandemic in the area.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dalton reportedly reached out to Burrow to welcome him to Cincinnati upon his being drafted by the club. Would you be stoked at the idea of welcoming your replacement into the company—especially in these times?
On Thursday my Twitter timeline was flooded with Dalton sentiments—mostly positive and reflective of his nine years as the team’s quarterback. Many Bengals brethren like “Bengals Captain” Jeremy Conley, Sam Ainger across the pond, and others in our little, tight-knit Who Dey community shared video clips and even some positive interactions between themselves and Dalton.
My own interactions with Dalton have been limited, but there have been a couple. Aside from an awkward, albeit funny elevator ride with him in San Diego back in 2013, my family and I ran into him in downtown Phoenix the night before the big 2015 Sunday Night Football clash against Palmer’s Cardinals.
My older brother and I have unfortunately passed the Bengals bug on to my nephew (his son), and he was in hog’s heaven when he ran into a number of Cincinnati figures that weekend. Tyler Eifert, Darqueze Dennard and Marvin Lewis were all kind to the little guy, then eight years old.
But so was Dalton, whom my nephew approached as he was waiting for a ride outside of the lobby. He met him, got an autograph and received a friendly exchange from one of the most high-profile guys on the team.
It may seem like a small gesture and one that should be part-and-parcel of a face of an NFL franchise, but many of us know these interactions can go differently. The brief meet-and-greet is a lasting image for our family (even though the actual photo is blurry).
Thanks for the memories, Andy—even the not-so-sweet ones
In all honesty, the move away from Dalton could be interpreted as being overdue. That still doesn’t tarnish many great moments over the past nine seasons.
The record-breaking 2013 passing marks. The historic 8-0 start to the 2015 season, including the absolutely wacky wins in Week 3 against Baltimore and Week 5 versus Seattle that year.
How about the Christmas gift to the Bills in the 2017 finale, courtesy of the Ravens? Or, we could readily point that Dalton still had glimmers of being a winner amid a franchise-worst 2019 season wherein Dalton became the team’s leader in touchdowns and grabbed a win against the hated Browns in his final start as a Bengals quarterback.
We could go on and on.
if this is it for andy dalton and the bengals, then it's— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) October 30, 2019
Ironically, the stretch of 2011-2015 was never supposed to occur. The Cincinnati Bengals were going to wallow in quarterback hell in the new decade, as they did before from 1998-2002.
In an odd sense of the phrase, we were spoiled. Many believed the post-Palmer era would be a wasteland for the Bengals once again, yet we found ourselves in the inexplicable position of being dissatisfied with early exits following Wild Card berths and divisional crowns.
So, when your Dalton memory reflexes conveniently take you to the disappointment felt at times during his stint with the club, maybe take a look at an alternate reality. One where the Cincinnati Bengals could have made a different quarterback decision that very easily could have erased the most successful stretch of seasons this franchise has ever seen.
Dalton was far from a perfect quarterback, but he was a stable presence the team needed at the time and then some. His starting record tells you he’s a winner, his stats show you he’s one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history and his charitable work speaks for itself. Those labels will stick with him for the rest of his life.
Whether you’d like to admit it or not, Dalton leaves big shoes for Burrow to fill—both from a production and a philanthropic standpoint. Thankfully for the Bengals, Burrow appears ready to slide into those loafers and carve his own legendary path.
It’s been a heck of a ride, Andy. Thank you.
(If you’re able, please think about donating to The Andy and JJ Dalton Foundation. They will continue to be doing great work in the community and need support during these unprecedented times.)