Peter King, with Sports Illustrated, published spring/summer power rankings and listed the Bengals as the 12th-best team in the NFL:
The running game, and the offensive line, should be enough to make up for Andy Dalton if he struggles. But I don’t think a team can be great unless its quarterback is close to great.
It's unsurprising that King would use his annual offseason mention of the Bengals by denigrating Andy Dalton -- the red rifle of awesome -- after such optimistic commentary like: Is Dalton worth $15 million/year, coming up small in big games, "the outside world has lost faith". Even Robert Klemko with Sports Illustrated offered:
Dalton didn’t necessarily lose the game; he just failed to win it. Without wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham in uniform, the Bengals planned to run the ball early and often. And Indianapolis had an answer. Perhaps Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden summed it up best in the postgame locker room when he said, "We just felt like we’d stop the run and see if Andy Dalton can beat us. And that’s just not Andy."
Fast-forward six months and Dalton has exuded confidence and a surprising amount of leadership. His work with Tom House is installing better technique and Dalton is feeling stronger as a result.
"It not all that different, but it’s a little more in-depth," Dalton said earlier in April. "I’ve got a good understanding of what they’re trying to do and they have a good understanding of me. It’s like with anything. The more you know, the more you can do. I’m not at the beginning stages of this thing; I’m in the middle of it. So I can do more and more. It is more advanced."
Dalton added last week, "I’ve really dedicated myself to what we’re doing here. I think that’s why I’m a step ahead where I was last year…I feel like this is the best I’ve thrown it. That’s a big reason for it. I’m ready to get back and show everybody what I’ve been doing."
Detractors will detract. However, applying lessons and grades based on Dalton's performance last year is without stating the obvious:
- Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert missed the entire season.
- A.J. Green missed multiple games (including the wild card game) and when he did play, his toe prevented him from playing at max capacity.
- Mohamed Sanu stepped up but for some reason, his contributions took a dive late in the season.
- Jermaine Gresham had a lot of "Jermaine being Jermaine" moments.
- James Wright missed the final quarter of the season with a PCL.
As a result, the deep passing game was erratic. Pro Football Focus compared all quarterback performances on passes thrown between 21-30 yards. Dalton was the worst (that happens when your talented players suffer injuries). On passes thrown between 31-40 yards, Dalton was neutral and ranked No. 5 on passes over 40 yards (aka, games that A.J. Green played).
Let's also recall the starting lineup for the Bengals during the Wild Card game: Rex Burkhead started (as a receiver/HB hyrbid like thing), with Ryan Hewitt at H-B and Kevin Brock at tight end. The snap count for wide receivers in that game:
1) Mohamed Sanu (61)
2) Brandon Tate (49)
3) Cobi Hamilton (28)
4) Rex Burkhead (10)
5) Greg Little (4)
Dalton is Dalton. I'm not making excuses for him, nor am I going to artistically defend him. It's also a bit foolish to blame/punish him for aspects of his play that were out of his control. After all, this is the quarterback that set the franchise touchdown record in 2013 when he had all of his weapons.
Other notable mentions from King's offseason ranking in the division are: Baltimore (No. 1... LOL!), Pittsburgh (No. 8) and Cleveland (No. 27).