In Cincinnati's 19-13 wild-card loss to the Houston Texans, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's day was defined by one underthrow and one overthrow, and a whole lot of bad throws in-between.
With 11:10 left in the first half and the ball on his own 38-yard line, Dalton tried to throw a deep pass to receiver Marvin Jones -- a throw that would have required Jones to beat two Texans defenders and Dalton's pass to split the defenders. It's a pass that perhaps five NFL quarterbacks can make consistently. Dalton's pass, however, was at least five yards short, and it was almost intercepted by Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson.
And with 2:57 left in the game from the Houston 36, Dalton tried to hit A.J. Green with a touchdown pass, but he overthrew the wide-open star receiver. Just two unsuccessful passes, but each were emblematic of Dalton's severe limitations as a pure passer.
It's important to mention that Houston's secondary played extremely well all through the game, but Dalton looked far more lost than any second-year quarterback should have -- especially a quarterback with 34 total starts to his name. In two postseason games, both losses to the Texans, Dalton has thrown four interceptions and no touchdowns, and he looked completely lost in this game. Quite often, Dalton was trying to hit his first read despite the fact that other receivers were finding openings. He showed little presence or awareness in the pocket, and his throws that weren't easy screens were often erratic. Houston prepared for this by attacking Cincinnati's underneath receivers and often blowing up those screens for losses.
Dalton's final stat line -- 14 of 30 for 127 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception -- could have been even worse. Had Texans quarterback Matt Schaub played better, and if the Texans could have done more in the red zone, Dalton would have been forced to throw more. And that's a reality which should make Bengals fans, players, coaches, and executives nervous.
Dalton, who was selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of TCU, reverts too often to the characteristics that he got away with in his collegiate games. He doesn't see the entire field well, and unless he's carefully managed and manipulated by offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (who did not call a good game), he's often at a loss as to how to make things go. In this game and frequently down the stretch this season, Dalton's 2011 Pro Bowl nod seemed like a distant memory.
Dalton did throw 27 touchdowns in the 2012 regular season, but he had a lot of help -- especially from Green, who might be the best young receiver in the NFL right now. Dalton did Green no return favors in the Texans game, though. He didn't target Green at all in the first half, and didn't hit him with a pass until more than five minutes had elapsed in the third quarter. On the Bengals' next possession, Dalton and Green had some sort of miscommunication, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph had an easy interception.
It's also worth mentioning that Dalton padded his scoring stats with a 10-touchdown November against some very iffy pass defenses -- four touchdowns against the New York Giants (16th in Football Outsiders' pass defense metrics), three against the Oakland Raiders (30th in those same stats), and two against the Kansas City Chiefs (31st in the league, per FO).
The Bengals want to build their team with Dalton as much as they do around a talented, aggressive defense. But two years in, it's safe to say that Dalton rarely presents himself as the kind of quarterback one can build a franchise around. At his best, he's a game manager you don't have to worry about, and at his worst, he's prone to the kind of mistakes that have people trying to run Mark Sanchez out of New York.
While it's possible that Dalton will improve over time, the Bengals may have to accept -- if they haven't already -- that they have a try-hard quarterback of limited physical abilities. In a modern NFL that is predicated more and more on the passing game, especially in key situations, that leaves them with a precarious margin for error.
Especially in the postseason.
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