The defending AFC North champion Bengals, 3-6-1 and off to their worst start since 2010, are the most disappointing team in the conference.
Which begs the question: Is it time for Cincinnati to move on from quarterback Andy Dalton?
From my NFL management experience, I understand why it’s not an easy call for Bengals management.
Dalton, a good regular-season quarterback up until this year, has led the Bengals to five straight playoff appearances. But we all know what has happened in the postseason — Dalton’s playoff numbers in four starts (injured for last season’s wild-card loss to Pittsburgh) have been abysmal: 11 points per game, one touchdown pass, six interceptions, two lost fumbles, a 57.8 rating and, worst of all, four losses.
Dalton is in the second season of his six-year, $96 million extension signed in 2015. It was a controversial signing at the time, since Dalton was coming off his fourth straight playoff defeat.
But Dalton responded with his best regular season in 2015. He led the team to an 8-0 start and produced a career-best 106.2 rating, over 20 points above his career average to that point. It appeared he was poised to finally get over his playoff hurdle, but disaster struck against the Steelers in Week 14, when he suffered a fractured thumb while making a tackle after throwing an interception.
He hasn’t been the same since.
Dalton’s stats and the team’s record have dropped this season. He has thrown just 11 touchdowns with six interceptions, and his quarterback rating of 91.2 ranks 17th among NFL starters. He also has been sacked 29 times, fourth most in the league.
In the Bengals’ home loss to the Bills on Sunday, their fourth loss in their last six games (one tie), Dalton threw two interceptions. Losing his prime target, A.J. Green (hamstring), certainly didn’t help.
Prior to his injury, Green was outstanding as usual with 66 catches for 964 yards and four TDs. But the offseason departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamad Sanu, coupled with Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert coming off ankle surgery, have hurt Dalton and the Bengals’ passing game. They’ve been especially impactful in the red zone, where the Bengals are among the NFL’s least productive teams.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s defense is allowing five more points per game and forcing fewer turnovers than it did last season. There also are problems in the kicking game, as Mike Nugent has missed five field goals and three extra points.
The Bengals are not mathematically out of the race in the lackluster AFC North— they have two games left against the Ravens and one against the Steelers. But it will be a tough climb for Dalton and an offense that’s scoring six fewer points per game than last year’s 12-4 team.
And that’s where the Dalton question comes in, because in today’s NFL, the winning playoff teams typically are those with elite quarterbacks capable of overcoming such obstacles.
On the plus side, there is Dalton’s good past production in regular season (53 wins in 87 starts), especially when he has had his full complement of weapons. He’s a team leader and does great things off the field, including his charitable work for children through the foundation he and his wife Jordan launched in Cincinnati and his college town of Fort Worth.
On the negative side, there’s that unsightly playoff record. There’s the feeling that the 29-year-old is in his prime and will not get any better. Therefore he can’t be expected to lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl.
I can see Bengals management looking at Dalton’s $13.3 million due next year (a $2.6 million jump from this year’s pay) and deciding to trade or release him, absorbing a manageable $4.8 million dead money hit to the 2017 cap.
Part of their thought process might be that they can draft a future franchise quarterback with their likely top 10 pick, or perhaps find a Russell Wilson- or Dak Prescott-type; not a first-rounder but a guy who can come in at a lower initial cost and change the franchise’s fortunes.
They also might want to take a long look at AJ McCarron as the season winds down. The Bengals’ backup started the final three regular-season games last season with Dalton out and went 2-1. He threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions in those games (97.1 rating). His playoff start against the Steelers was a mixed bag, as he threw for 212 yards and one TD with one interception and a lost fumble.
As for coach Marvin Lewis, he dodged the firing line after that bad playoff loss. Based on his history with the organization, he likely will survive this down year, too.
Dalton might not be so lucky.
If the Bengals are out of contention with two or three games to go, I suggest they give McCarron another audition so they have a better idea if he’s a viable candidate to lead the team in 2017.
In the final analysis, if Mike Brown and his executive team decide to move on from Dalton, they will be making the call that Dalton can only take the team so far; that he will never do what Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason did for the Bengals in leading them to the Super Bowl.
And, ultimately, that’s what it has to be all about for teams in judging their quarterbacks.
Jeff Diamond is the former president of the Titans and the former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.