SEATTLE, Wash. — There was little doubt that TCU rookie quarterback Andy Dalton would be taking the reins of the Cincinnati Bengals' offense in 2011 — with team owner Mike Brown and former franchise quarterback Carson Palmer at loggerheads about where Palmer would ply his trade in the future and Palmer threatening to retire, the move was made to take Dalton in the second round of the draft and bring him along on a team that has had two winning seasons in the last 20 years.
In other words, not much was expected. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have been the bullies of the AFC North for long enough, and most everyone expected that to continue this season. What very few people did expect was for the Bengals to get off to a 4-2 start, nipping at the heels of the Ravens and Steelers while those two teams developed issues of their own. All of a sudden, the Pittsburgh run defense has been vulnerable for the first time in about 50 years, and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has been regressing at an alarming rate. The Bengals are tied with the Ravens in the division, one game behind the Steelers, and they still get to face each "big brother" twice this season.
Cincinnati's been propelled to these new heights with a tremendous defense coached by the brilliant Mike Zimmer, and rookie receiver A.J. Green has moments where he's basically uncoverable. But as much as anyone, it has been Dalton — the spread offense quarterback with the questionable arm — who has turned the team around. Dalton currently ranks 17th in Football Outsiders' DYAR efficiency metrics, which puts him above Flacco, Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford and other esteemed hurlers of the rock. The traditional stats look pretty good as well — 118 completions in 189 attempts for a 62.4 completion percentage, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Hardly earth-shattering, but good enough to help a team that has been surprisingly above-average in other areas.
Head coach Marvin Lewis, who was front and center for the drama between Brown and Palmer, said on Wednesday that Dalton's progression as a passer has mirrored — but not necessarily exceeded — his own expectations. "He's doing very well. He continues to play within himself, [which is] what we kind of expected. Each and every week he does the things that you want him to do — taking care of the football and giving us an opportunity to win the football game."
What made Dalton the right choice, even as Lewis and the team had to know there would be a very good chance Dalton would be starting right away?
"I think just all of the time that we spent with Andy," Lewis said. "We felt like his maturity, his experience with playing, the way he's handled every situation he's ever been in, how he carried himself, how he learned football — he went right into college and became the starter as a freshman. The game has not been too big for him."
On Wednesday, Green was asked just what it's been about Dalton that's surprised; in his case, the perception has been outstripped by the reality. "Yeah, I hear a lot of people saying that," Green said, when asked if he's been told that rookie quarterbacks aren't "supposed to" be playing this well. "Just his poise in the pocket and the way he conducts himself on and off the field, the way he goes out there and works every day and he's never rattled. He's poised out there no matter what's going on … he's always been that way."
Perhaps the most surprising stat of Dalton's young career is the fact that he's already managed 12 passes of 25 yards or more. Given the (mostly accurate) perception that he was a bit noodle-armed in college, it's been a surprise to see him roll deep as much as he has. Dalton has thrown a few floaters, but with a receiver like Green in tow, there's always a good chance that good things will happen if the ball's in his vicinity.
"I think he just feels confident in me that if there's a one-on-one [situation], that I can go make the plays." Green said. "That starts off in practice, giving him the confidence just to lob it up there and see if I can make the play. All of this starts in practice."
Green leads all rookie receivers with 29 catches for 453 yards and four touchdowns.
Most thought that when Dalton went to the Bengals, and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden fixed a West Coast offense game plan on him, that he'd be more about dink-and-dunk, and yards after the catch. In truth, Dalton's receivers have accounted for just 549 of his passing yards — that's 41.8 percent of his total. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the league with 1,229 yards after catch, and that's a full 49.6 percent of his league-leading 2,477 yards. In that regard and others, Dalton has impressed.
Of course, there's still work to be done — Dalton is good for a first-down conversion on just 29.1 percent of the third-down passes he throws, one of the lowest figures in the league. By comparison, Brees gets it done a league-leading 56.7 percent of the time on third down.
But as Lewis said, Gruden's focus in a balanced offensive attack has greatly enhanced Dalton's situation — that's one of the reasons the Bengals hired the brother of Jon Gruden and former Arena League quarterback.
"I think the thing that I was looking for is we were interested in trying to find a way to mesh our run and pass game together," Lewis said of Gruden's expertise. "I think that's the hardest part to defend, when you take a look at opposing offenses -- teams that do a great job of packaging the runs and the passes together and all the things that come off of it as they set up their plan. I think that was important, number one. Secondly, that you felt comfortable utilizing young players. In Jay's vision the offense unfolds through the quarterback and I think that has been really helpful. That was another real positive."
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The Bengals are traveling to Seattle for a game against the Seahawks this Sunday, and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll won't have to do much in the way of advance scouting on Dalton — Seattle was very high on the rookie all the way through the pre-draft process.
"I met with them at the Senior Bowl and maybe one other time," Dalton said on Wednesday. "I had talked with them a couple of times. They did show some interest. I thought I had a chance of going there, especially at the end of the first round. I knew there was definitely some potential there, but it didn't work out."
After inconsistent performances from Tarvaris Jackson this season and an epically bad start by backup Charlie Whitehurst last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Carroll may have wondered, in retrospect, whether his team was better off having drafted right tackle James Carpenter with the 25th overall pick.
"We really liked him," Carroll said. "We liked everything about him. We did en extensive study on him to make sure we had a really good sense. The thing that's really cool about what Andy's done is he's just like he was in college. He's demonstrated that he's going to get better and better, but the thing he already has is great timing. He hasn't been intimidated by the challenges of [the NFL] — he's brought his game with him."
Carroll also said that it was more important for the Seahawks to establish more of a presence on the offensive line in that draft, and it's a valid point — Dalton behind Seattle's 2010 patchwork line would be a very different quarterback than he is behind a more established group.
If he manages to help the Bengals to their fourth straight win, Dalton would accomplish several things — further make his mark as a rookie, put his team closer to a divisional pole position not seen in years, and also leave the losing coach with a bit more envy than usual.
All in a day's work for a young quarterback who seems to have a preternatural ability to handle the next level of pressure.
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