The Cincinnati Bengals looked primed for a deep playoff run heading into wild-card weekend. They had all the ingredients of a Super Bowl team: the top-tier defense, the bruising offensive line, the play-making receiver, the dynamic backfield, even a capable quarterback. But, just as optimism for Cincinnati’s first playoff win in 14 seasons reached an all-time high, Andy Dalton happened.
Dalton threw two interceptions and turned the ball over three times altogether on Sunday, doing everything but serving the Chargers the win on a silver platter. The 27-10 loss marked the third time in three seasons that the Bengals have fallen in the opening round of the playoffs, and, while it might seem somewhat unfair, Dalton is the one to blame.
Now, after a third consecutive letdown in the postseason, it might be time for Marvin Lewis to start his search for a new quarterback.
Sure, it’s difficult to find a quality quarterback in the NFL. Only half the teams in the league have committed to a quarterback for at least the near future, and even fewer have found a “franchise quarterback” — no matter how much money they’ve invested in him. Only six quarterbacks in the NFL right now can truly claim the “franchise” label — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger — with plenty of wannabes lining up behind them. Meanwhile, Dalton hasn’t even earned a place among the posers.
Over the last three seasons, Dalton has grown into a better and more dynamic passer. His yardage and touchdown totals continue to rise — career highs of 4,296 yards and 33 touchdowns this season — during the regular season, but he continues to choke away any goodwill he’s built up in the postseason.
In three career playoff games, Dalton has completed just 56.9 percent (70-for-123) of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions. The third time was setting up to be the charm for Dalton. The Bengals were finally hosting a playoff game in Cincinnati — where Dalton was 8-0 in the regular season — as opposed to heading into a hostile environment like he faced in Houston the past two postseasons. The environment might have changed, but the results didn’t. Dalton completed just 29 of 51 passes with one touchdown and three turnovers in Sunday’s loss, sending the Bengals home early once again with another choke job.
Some Bengals fans might point to Joe Flacco‘s career arc as some sort of fleeting hope for Dalton, but the two actually have more differences than similarities. Unlike Dalton, Flacco has never been much of a regular-season quarterback. His numbers typically are very average during the season, but somehow he knows how to shift into a different gear once the playoffs hit (a 9-4 record with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his playoff career), and things didn’t just suddenly click for him in the playoffs. He’s been steady since his first venture into the postseason in 2009.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dalton has the eye-popping regular-season numbers. He was among the top quarterbacks in nearly every statistical category this season, finishing seventh in passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. Yet, when it comes to the postseason, the nerves seem to set in, and Dalton becomes almost incapable of making the big play. Rather than joining the likes of Flacco, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson in the next tier of “franchise quarterbacks,” Dalton has pigeonholed himself into a category with Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford — the “fantasy quarterback” types.
Much like Flacco did last season, Dalton could bet on himself heading into a contract year, with some major upside if he wins big. However, it seems unlikely that he’ll do a complete 180 over the next 12 months and suddenly figure out how to win come January. With that in mind, the Bengals would be smart to at least explore finding a successor at the position. This year’s draft is stocked with tons of quarterback talent, and, now set at No. 24 in the first round, Cincy may be able to snag Fresno State’s Derek Carr or another franchise-caliber quarterback for the future.
Maybe Dalton figures it out during the offseason and proves everyone wrong with a brilliant 2014, but the future doesn’t look too bright for big red in Cincy right now — no matter how much smoke Lewis blows. And it’s easy to understand why.