A new season is upon us! With the start of the NFL Preseason, courtesy of the Hall of Fame Game last night, we are officially back to football or well… being able to watch football. With that wonderful return, we begin to consider the likely occurrences of the 2014-2015 NFL season, the uncommon predictions and the straight-up shots in the dark. Where better to begin with the news today of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and his new six-year, $115 million extension?
Dalton is a curious case of sorts. NFL pundits refer to him as the “prime meridian of quarterbacks” as he is good enough to make the playoffs, but isn’t on the same level with those who win those playoff games. The idea is that if your quarterback is worse than Dalton, you need to find a new one. If he is better, you have something special and you should hang on to it. So, that’s just what Cincinnati is doing, but is it for better or worse?
Here’s the thing… Dalton isn’t awful. He has made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as quarterback (I don’t think you can keep using his missed rookie offseason due to lockout as an excuse, but it’s worth mentioning) and has thrown for more touchdowns over his first three seasons (80) than… well… everyone not named Peyton Manning (85) and Dan Marino (94). He threw 28 touchdowns from Week 6 through Week 17 last season and had five 300+ games during that span.
The debate over an extension like this comes in when you factor in random games during that stretch like the combined eight interceptions he threw in Weeks 9,10 and 11 (two of the three games resulted in losses). After throwing for an average of 286 yards per game through the first 10 weeks last season, Dalton only accounted for 93 passing yards in Week 11 against Cleveland, which interestingly enough, was the one win from Week 9 through Week 11. Factor in the three first-round exits from the playoffs, in large part due to the struggles of Dalton, and you can see why fans are… confused. His deep-ball arm-strength is still a bit of a question mark (in terms of easily placing the ball where it needs to be as opposed to just throwing it far), as is his decision-making. However, in the spirit of this “bring on the new season thing” I’m here to tell you that the extension is not only worth it, but will pay off this season. Why?
The new offensive coordinator is stepping in for the new Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden. Gruden worked exclusively with Dalton over the last three NFL seasons, bringing Dalton, a former second round pick, up to wherever he is now. Jackson now has to step in and take a immensely talented Bengals offense, harness Dalton’s ability and finally win in the playoffs. Jackson is the guy who can and, I believe will, do it.
Gruden was a successful offensive coordinator in Cincinnati due to his ability to get creative with the play-call by calling opportune screens or setting up a play for Dalton to get the ball to one of the Bengals playmakers. However, I believe his relationship with Dalton is what actually held Dalton back. At times, the play-call could be a little stale and predictable as if trying to avoid taking chances for Dalton’s sake. Gruden was one who worked with Dalton and sort of protected him as a way to build and maintain confidence. He wasn’t really a coach to “lay-into” Dalton for a bad play in practice because he wanted to keep the young Dalton moving forward and didn’t want to tear him down. This sort of coaching style can be advantageous for a lot of players and a lot of people in general. It is actually a big reason why Washington, and Robert Griffin III, could be players come the playoffs this season and I believe “RGIII” will benefit from this coaching style.
However, for Dalton, he has had his time to be brought along, now it is time to win when it counts and that’s what Jackson brings to the offensive coordinator role. Jackson has been very successful during his time as a coach, working with the Bengals receivers in the mid-2000s (the Chad Johnson/ T.J. Houshmandzadeh days), the Atlanta Falcons (offensive coordinator – 2007), the Ravens and Joe Flacco (2008-2009) and then with the Oakland Raiders (offensive coordinator – 2010 and head coach – 2011) for a brief time. What he brings to the table is a run-focused gameplan and more emphasis on accountability, specifically for Dalton.
The value of a run game, like Jackson is implementing, is that it makes a quarterback’s job easier. If the run game is effective, the defense needs to account for it, so they must move people up or they may fall for a play-action pass. Even pass-heavy teams like New Orleans use short passing routes to stay ahead of the chains (get positive gains on early downs for a short third down) and to make defenses commit to the line of scrimmage setting up downfield throws. If Cincinnati runs the ball well, Dalton’s limitations aren’t as pronounced as he may not need to force the ball between three defenders to complete a pass, but rather has a one-on-one opportunity down the field due to the effectiveness of the run game.
The accountability factor is that Dalton is going to hear about his mistakes and Jackson is more aggressive about getting to the root of what caused it. This sort of pressure and atmosphere creates a stressful environment and one that prepares Dalton, and the rest of the offense, for a high-stress situation like the playoffs. Some players need some tough-love. As a rookie, Dalton had no offseason due to NFL lockout, so maybe Gruden’s style was necessary for handling a rookie walking into an intense spotlight (see Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jake Locker from the same draft class who have struggled with a similar transition). Now, Dalton needs to be pushed over the NFL playoff hump and Jackson should do that. The Cincinnati offense is stacked and poised to be a factor this season assuming Dalton plays to his “prime meridian” status, much less any better.
The point is, Dalton’s contact seems a little absurd considering the media’s criticism of him, but I am willing to bet he has room to grow and develop. I know the NFL is now more of a passing league than ever, but you have to possess some ability to join the ranks of Manning and Marino. He has to be capable considering his ability to lead his team to the playoffs for three straight seasons out of the AFC North. Sources have said the contract will most likely be dependent on his play on the field, which is perfect for Cincinnati’s sake as it shouldn’t ruin the Bengals if things don’t work out. The money is a lot, but the pieces are in place for that money to look like fair compensation by the end of this season, maybe even a bargain.
Dalton may not seem to deserve a contract extension like this based on our current fascination with “win-now”, but, looking forward, Dalton should be better this season than any season prior. If he is, where does that put Dalton? If he really does have room to grow, how long would it take for his value to equal this sort of compensation? At that point, we would be looking back on Dalton’s extension thinking Cincinnati is sitting pretty with a franchise quarterback. Dalton looks to have the pieces in place to get over the playoff hump this season and when that happens, isn’t that what you really need from a quarterback? Someone who can get you there and always has a chance to win? There is a long way to go and a lot of discussion to be had before we can really reflect on the new contract extension in Cincinnati, but with the dawn of a new season upon us, I’ll just say…
It’s good to be back.