SB Nation is taking a look at the NFL's most notable underachievers, the players who failed to live up to big expectations in 2013, and exploring whether or not they can turn things around in 2014.
Let's do a little exercise. Both of the players below are starting quarterbacks in the NFL and the numbers represent the last two regular seasons.
|Player||Completion Percentage||Yards Per Attempt||TD Percentage||INT Percentage||Passer Rating||Win/Loss|
Without looking at any other variables like supporting cast, style of offense or strength of opponent, it appears obvious Player B is a slightly better player. He completes more passes for more yards and more touchdowns. While he throws more interceptions, the other factors give him a slight edge overall. Both players played on good teams.
Player A is Andrew Luck. NFL analysts have spent the last two seasons gushing in praise for Luck, anointing him as one of the top quarterbacks in the league and a future super star. Even players have been effusive in their praise of Luck, with 56 picking him as the player they would pick to start a franchise, second only to Peyton Manning.
Player B is Andy Dalton. Despite having better numbers in a vacuum, the Bengals quarterback hasn't made any top 10 lists, or been praised as a franchise quarterback. Instead, most of the media attention around Dalton has been how the Bengals need to replace him.
"How Can the Bengals Move on From Andy Dalton?" - Grantland.com.
"Is it time for the Bengals to move on from Dalton?" - ProFootballTalk.com.
"Cincinnati is too good to let Andy Dalton blow another season" - USAToday.com.
Dalton hasn't been great in the playoffs, in fact he's played pretty poorly, along with the rest of the Bengals. However, in a league where Chad Henne, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer could be starting quarterbacks, Dalton is hardly the caliber of player you kick to the curb. That hasn't stopped some analysts and Bengals fans to call for Cincinnati to do just that. Now, entering his fourth season Dalton is in a contract year and may need to ditch the "underachiever" tag, especially in the playoffs, if he's going to have a long-term future in Cincinnati.
How he got here
Drafted with the No. 35 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dalton wasted no time earning the starting job with the Bengals. He started every game since, leading the Bengals to the playoffs three times while improving on his yards per attempt and touchdown percentage each season. He had a career year last year, throwing for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns while averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. The improvement and production would earn many young quarterbacks the "franchise quarterback" title and a significant contract extension.
So why are some eager for the Bengals to do just the opposite and move on? There are two major issues. While Dalton's passing numbers have gone up, so have his interceptions. In a sport where coaches preach "it's all about the ball" and protecting the ball, Dalton has turned it over at a higher rate each season. High interception totals, especially when some of those interceptions come at an inopportune time, can overshadow any positive production.
The even bigger issue is Dalton's postseason production. The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of his three seasons only to bow out in the first round. The team as a whole hasn't played well in the postseason, but Dalton's struggles have been at the center of it. He's tossed just one touchdown in three games, compared to six interceptions. His yards per attempt drop to 5.8 with a very meager 56.2 passer rating. Based on regular season numbers, Dalton is an above average quarterback. In the postseason, however, he's played like a mediocre backup. As Joe Flacco proved, a quarterback's reputation is often more about what they do in January and February than from September through December. Dalton has come up smallest in the biggest games.
At one point, not that long ago, a .500 season was considered a success in Cincinnati. The franchise went 14 years between playoff appearances and qualified for the postseason twice from 1991 to 2010. Expectations have risen in recent years and simply making the postseason isn't good enough. When the Bengals lost in the first round in 2011, it was easy to give Dalton a pass. He was a rookie quarterback and had led his team to the playoffs as a second-round pick. Another loss in the first round in 2012 and there was less of an excuse. A third straight first-round loss and now Dalton is on the proverbial hot seat and labeled by some as an underachiever.
Dalton and the Bengals need to win, and they need to win now. The offense is loaded at the skill positions, led by A.J. Green, and the Bengals have a formidable offensive line. They've gotten better offensively each season and were the sixth-highest scoring offense last year. With Dalton entering the final year of his contract, the stakes couldn't be much higher. If he finally captures some postseason success, he'll be in line to cash in on a contract worth at least $15 million a season. Win a Super Bowl in his walk year like Flacco did and that number will only go up.
If that doesn't happen and the Bengals are one-and-done again, or fail to reach the playoffs, what do they do with Dalton? Do they invest upwards of the $18 million per season it might take to re-sign him, if he gets a deal similar to Jay Cutler? That would be major question and possible a franchise-altering decision. If the Bengals have another similar season, they might opt to franchise tag Dalton, which will be costly and lead to another high-stakes season in 2014. Dalton and the Bengals could resolve his contract situation this offseason, but that won't change the face he needs to perform on the field and in the playoffs, as Jason Marcum of Cincy Jungle wrote:
However, none of it matters if this doesn't translate to better performance on the field. Ultimately, it won't matter if the Bengals win 9 games or 11 games in the regular season, as a 1-and-done playoff trip negates that.
People don't see the 30 career wins Dalton has. They see his 0-3 career record in the playoffs.
It's time for Dalton to play to his potential in the postseason, and until he does so, there will be doubt he's a true franchise quarterback.
Can he succeed in 2014?
The Bengals have a very good crop of wide receivers, two solid tight ends, a pair of explosive young running backs and an above-average offensive line. Everything is in place for Cincinnati to be one of the top offenses in the NFL. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has said he's going to take some of the pressure off Dalton by throwing less and utilizing the rushing attack more. That will put the ball in the air less, which should reduce Dalton's interception total. If Jackson installs more of a downfield passing attack, and Dalton picks his spots well, his efficiency numbers should climb considerably, into the range of Russell Wilson's averages.
Next season, however, isn't about regular season numbers. Dalton can throw for 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns and the season won't be a success unless the Bengals win at least a game in the playoffs. With Geno Atkins returning on defense, the Bengals should have all of the pieces to contend in the AFC. Unless Dalton just collapses under pressure, a trip to the Divisional Round should be a legitimate possibility.