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Andy Dalton should get the chance to prove he’s not just the Bengals personified

Dalton is set to escape the Bengals. Is it too late to be anything other than Marvin Lewis’ perfect QB?

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The Andy Dalton era in Cincinnati is all but over.

The 0-8 Bengals announced back in October they would start rookie quarterback Ryan Finley over the man who’d presided over the past eight-plus years of football on the Ohio-Kentucky border. Dalton, the man who has thrown more passes than anyone else in the league through half a season while trying to will an outmanned squad to victory, was headed to the bench. And though he’s been restored to the top of the depth chart after three more Cincinnati losses, he still doesn’t have much of a future in Ohio.

The three-time Pro Bowler had missed games in orange and black before, but all those were due to myriad minor injuries that led quarterbacks like Jeff Driskel and AJ McCarron to play in his stead. This fall, he was purposefully benched in favor of a fourth-round draft pick whose college career at North Carolina State rated out marginally better than Mike Glennon’s. Finlay’s three game audition ended with a 47 percent completion rate and a 62.1 passer rating.

Cincinnati’s intentions are clear. With the team careening toward a top selection in a quarterback heavy draft, the Bengals threw Finley into the fire to see what he’s capable of before setting their blueprint for 2020 and beyond. Though he failed to impress, that doesn’t mean the team will be sticking with its longtime starter for long. With no dead money remaining on the six-year, $96 million extension Dalton signed in 2014, it’s understood those plans don’t involve the veteran QB.

And that’s a shame, because Dalton was the most Bengals quarterback imaginable.

Dalton’s just-good-enough routine was the perfect fit for Marvin Lewis

Dalton, like his since-deposed head coach, existed in a vacuum of acceptable mediocrity. His teams straddled the line between contention and dissolution, leaving Cincinnati stuck in a no-man’s land that gave fans a little to cheer for in December and nothing but heartache come January. His final regular season record as a Bengal, barring a return to the lineup in the second half of the season, will go down as 68-58-2.

Take away 2019’s tank job and his average season (68 victories over eight years) resulted in exactly 8.5 wins. He never won more than 11 games as a starter in a single season (and only did that once), but he also never finished more than three games under .500 until this year’s collapse. He went to the playoffs four times in his first five seasons as a full-time player, a feat shared with contemporaries like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers. These are all perfectly fine numbers!

And then you get to the postseason, where Dalton made four starts ... and threw just one touchdown and six interceptions in those opportunities. His playoff passer rating was 57.8. His regular season passer rating, at the time of his benching, is more than 30 points higher.

Regular season Andy Dalton vs. Playoff Andy Dalton

Andy Dalton Games Cmp% TD rate INT rate Yards/gm Adj. yards/att Passer rating Record
Andy Dalton Games Cmp% TD rate INT rate Yards/gm Adj. yards/att Passer rating Record
Regular season 128 62.2% 4.6% 2.6% 237.1 6.9 88 68-58-2
Playoffs 4 55.7% 0.6% 3.8% 218.3 3.9 57.8 0-4

The closest thing Cincinnati got to a postseason win in the Dalton era was an 18-16 loss to the Steelers — and even that was quarterbacked by McCarron thanks to an injury to the starting QB. In eight-plus seasons with the Bengals, Dalton’s name became the perfect descriptor of the break between the postseason’s cutdown from 12 teams to eight. Can’t win your wild card game? Your championship hopes died at the Dalton Limit.

This was a perfect fit for Lewis, who in 16 years as the team’s head coach — half of which came with Dalton behind center — won 8.2 games per season. Lewis made seven trips to the postseason and won none of them. He turned his previous Pro Bowl quarterback, Carson Palmer, into a shell of an NFL player who would rather retire than spend another season in Cincinnati. It ultimately took him two years and a failed stint with the Raiders to become a functional passer again with the Cardinals.

So it wasn’t that surprising that half a season under Lewis’ newly hired replacement (Zac Taylor) surrounded by Lewis’ former guys (minus an injured A.J. Green but PLUS re-signed non-impact players like C.J. Uzomah, Bobby Hart, and Andre Smith) have failed to spark any major positive change for the Bengals. That wheel of mediocrity has pushed Finley’s spoke to its top. Unless he can drastically outshine expectations — and there’s a chance, given his solid preseason campaign — he’ll be auditioning to play backup to whichever rookie quarterback Cincinnati selects next April. That incoming QB will bear a torch that Taylor is tasked with proving can stay lit beyond Wild Card weekend.

It’s time for the journeyman phase of Dalton’s career to begin

For eight-plus years, Dalton was to the Bengals what Jay Cutler was to the Bears — a once-promising beacon of hope who eventually dimmed to something acceptable and then nothing at all. Now the next step in his career will be to see if he can weave a late-career revival like his predecessor Palmer, or whether he’ll fade into a supporting role on an E! Network reality show like his cross-conference colleague. The numbers suggest this could go either way:

Andy Dalton vs. Carson Palmer vs. Jay Cutler with their longest-tenured teams

Player From To QBrec Cmp% Yds/game Y/A TD% Int% Rate
Player From To QBrec Cmp% Yds/game Y/A TD% Int% Rate
Andy Dalton 2011 2019 68-58-2 62.2 237.1 7.1 4.6% 2.6% 88
Carson Palmer 2004 2010 46-51 62.9 234 7.1 4.8% 3.1% 86.9
Jay Cutler 2009 2016 51-51-0 61.8 229.8 7.2 4.7% 3.3% 85.2

Dalton may not have had the arm strength of his Chicago peer or the first pick pedigree of the man who preceded him in Cincinnati, but his more cautious approach, stronger supporting cast, and winning ways ultimately give him the edge over Palmer and Cutler — the latter of whom is now the measuring stick against whom all “eh, he’s fine” quarterbacks are graded. Even so, the three put up some awfully similar numbers in the midwest.

Dalton, however, is only 32 and still has the chance to put an underwhelming phase of his career behind him rather than allow it to define him — something Cutler couldn’t do after briefly retiring, playing one forgettable season in Miami at age 34, then retiring again. Palmer got there, though he had to languish in Oakland before uniting with Bruce Arians in Arizona and becoming an MVP candidate for a contending Cardinals team.

There’s some good news on that front, too. Arians is back in the NFL coaching a Tampa Bay team that currently only has Ryan Griffin under contract at quarterback for 2020. The Buccaneers also have limited avenues to the top of the 2020 NFL Draft where a plug-and-play starter could be found. Would Arians be willing to recycle another half-empty can of beer Marvin Lewis left by the side of the road? Would another team like the Titans, Broncos, or Bears — all in similar situations as the Bucs — be willing to hedge whatever bets they’ll make, or have made, on young developmental passers by signing Dalton?

These are the questions that will have to wait until next spring after Bengals management holds a maudlin press conference and solemnly makes the top-rated starting quarterback in franchise history a free agent. The future can still be bright for Dalton, it just depends on how long it may take to shake the past eight years of football malaise from his shoulders.

Dalton’s final start in stripes before being benched was Week 8’s 329-yard (on 52 attempts), one-touchdown performance in a game against the Rams he hardly had a shot of winning. It was a perfect snapshot of 2019 Bengals — a plodding running game, a slipshod offensive line that allowed five sacks, and a quarterback who had to throw the ball entirely too much in a futile effort to overcome the first two problems.

He was just good enough to earn a demotion from a floundering team who deemed him too dangerous in its race to the bottom. With no need for wins and little room for for a short-term answer at quarterback, the Bengals are moving on from a quarterback who defined “good enough but entirely untrustworthy.” For a solid chunk of the past decade, that was the perfect descriptor of a Cincinnati team that wasn’t threatening in any real way.

The franchise even half-botched his benching, announcing it not only on his 32nd birthday (cold!) but also hours before the trade deadline. This left Dalton unable to find a new home in 2019 and the Bengals unable to glean any compensation for a player they no longer plan to play.

Soon he’ll be free to test his fortunes elsewhere and see if that Dalton Limit was really a Bengals Limit all along. But if Palmer is any indication, it might only happen if he can find the right landing spot. And if Cutler is any indication, that’s no easy feat.