SO, BENGAL NATION, the good news or the bad news?
First, the good: Andy Dalton is the only quarterback in three decades to lead Cincinnati to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. He's 25 and whip smart. In his '12 sophomore season he had a better passer rating and was more accurate than Jay Cutler and Eli Manning.
Now the bad: January football. In his two playoff games, both at Houston, Dalton's been ineffective, completing just one deep throw (longer than 25 yards) to star wideout A.J. Green and underthrowing him noticeably several other times. In 21 possessions over those two games, Dalton led one TD drive. His postseason TD-to-INT ratio of 0 to 4 led to a passer rating of 48.6.
If you're around the Bengals for a while, you get this distinct sense: We've built a defense (ranked sixth in the league last year, with a franchise player in tackle Geno Atkins) that can win a game in late January. But do we have a quarterback who can?
When Dalton entered the league in 2011 as the 35th pick—one ahead of Colin Kaepernick—the book on him was pretty much what he's shown so far: He's an efficient offensive commander, able to move the chains with his accurate arm, but without the kind of deep cannon to take advantage of such world-class talent as Green. "I know I [have to throw the deep ball better]," Dalton says. "But it comes down to things other than the throw itself—the footwork, the trajectory, knowing when to let it go. We're working on it a lot."
"Andy's throwing deep a lot better this year," says Green, who should know. "It's about getting our timing down. We're working on it every day."
On one of those days in camp, Dalton took a snap from center in a 7-on-7 drill, with Green split left in man coverage against cornerback Adam Jones. As soon as he took his last step out from center, Dalton hopped on his back (right) foot and let go a rainbow to Green. Forty-eight yards later, the ball settled into the receiver's soft hands, a step past Jones.
Duplicate that 30 times this season, and the Bengals will go far. Deep-into-January far. The team around Dalton is that talented.
For now, Cincinnati is all in on the Red Rifle. "The baton's been passed to him as the leader of this team," says coach Marvin Lewis. "He knows that for us to win in the playoffs, he has to play better. I've seen a lot this off-season that tells me he will."
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Dalton have worked extensively on the mechanics of the deep ball. On a five-step drop, for example, Gruden wants Dalton to plant his back foot on the fifth step and let it go. "Our efficiency," says Lewis, "has to be to get to the last step of the drop and get the ball out. I can show you a throw from this spring where Andy did just that and A.J. laid out for it—he was parallel to the ground, maybe 18 inches off the ground—and caught it. That's what we need."
"Andy will improve," Gruden says. "He made a couple poor decisions in Houston, a couple poor throws. But we've got to get out of this 'Andy's got to be better' thing. Everybody's got to be better on offense. I've got to call a better game. Last year we didn't have the running backs to beat [Houston's] linebackers coming out of the backfield. I think we might have a good matchup problem there now [with second-round quick back Giovani Bernard]. Now that we have a versatile tight end in Tyler Eifert, we feel good about preventing defenses from constantly rolling everything to A.J.'s side."
Gruden will field a three-receiver set at times, with the 6' 4" Green and a pair of large ends—6' 5" Jermaine Gresham and Eifert, the 6' 6" rookie from Notre Dame. Dalton's going to have the chance to throw to three athletic basketball forwards in that case.
It was a former Bengals passer, Ken Anderson, who coined the cliché, The quarterback gets too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they don't. But Dalton knows—everyone in Cincinnati knows—that he has to be a more complete passer for this team to play at home in January instead of being a road wild-card team destined for an early exit.
THE CASE FOR ...
Strongside linebacker James Harrison
Harrison, who looks very strange in a striped helmet, is 35 now. His best days are long past. Maybe he can't do what Marvin Lewis brought him in to do, which is to rush off the strong side better than ex-Bengal Manny Lawson did last year. "But I think he can still draw some attention around that edge," says Lewis. "And if he does, that takes some of the pressure away from Geno Atkins inside." Not just Atkins, actually. Atkins led the team—and all NFL defensive tackles—with 12½ sacks in 2012, but defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson combined for 17½ sacks themselves, and Lewis knows one more strong rusher will boost their games as well. Harrison may not be an every-down player anymore, but even if he gives the Bengals a good presence on third downs alone, he'll be worth the risk that Cincinnati has taken on him (two years, $4.45 million). "I love having him on the outside," Atkins said in camp. "It's not just me—it's the other guys who'll benefit. It's good to have him on our team; he's a winner." He's also the kind of one-year fix that could pay dividends, if the Bengals don't overuse him.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB ANDY DALTON
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