October had been kind to Andy Dalton for 30 days, but Halloween became a horror for the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback when he turned the ball over four times in a 22-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Dalton will take home the AFC Offensive Player of the Month award, but Thursday night's game raised questions about his consistency moving forward, especially for a team poised to make a deep playoff run.
Dalton's struggles went beyond a good quarterback having a bad game. Typically passers will try to do too much with the football or try to force a play into existence without logic, but Dalton routinely made poor decisions or threw the ball inaccurately. At times he was let down by poor receiver play, particularly from Mohammad Sanu who dropped numerous passes, but many ill-advised throws were a byproduct of Dalton throwing high or wide, and two of his three interceptions came when he threw behind his receivers.
Cincinnati needed a spark in the second half and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden turned to rookie running back Giovani Bernard, who put the team on his back and led them back to a second-half lead. Despite the plethora of receivers, Gruden needed his ground game to be the steadying force when facing adversity. Bernard was forced out of the game due to a rib injury, and pressure was back on Dalton to perform as he withered in overtime and gave up the game-winning points on an avoidable safety.
Dalton's 55.4 passer rating was his lowest since September 2011, which was his third career NFL start. Thursday night's game was an inauspicious return to a time poor performances could be easily written off as rookie growing pains, but this was in a game when his team needed him to transcend simply being a smart passer and put the team on his back.
Herein lies the issue with projecting Dalton moving forward. At times, he appears to be the player than can shoulder the weight of a franchise, while others he looks like an above-average game manager. Cincinnati's Week 3 victory over the Green Bay Packers was the only time this season he's led his team to victory after trailing at halftime. It's not Dalton's fault that he is surrounded by one of the NFL's best defenses (when healthy) but he isn't a player accustomed to playing from behind.
The big question that's left to be answered is whether Dalton is a product of his surroundings or the catalyst for the team's success. Earlier this year there was serious doubt whether he could be the upper-echelon quarterback the Bengals need, then he turned it around with a stellar four-game stretch. Now we're back at square one, still unsure whether he can be consistent enough moving forward.
There's no ultimate solution or single answer. Inconsistency in play had led to a lack of surety in evaluation, and there are simply too many elements that need to be broken down before coming to a final conclusion. Is Andy Dalton more Tom Brady or Mark Sanchez? The truth is, he's neither, and it's important to not constantly search for analogs of others, rather than evaluating them on their own merits.
Andy Dalton is a very smart quarterback that has a tendency to be middling. That is good enough to win a lot of games on a team with a great supporting cast, but it's not clear if he can do it without them. At least if Thursday night's game is any indication.