The Dalton Legacy: What Next For The Red Rifle?
By Simon Carroll
Andy Dalton’s release from The Bengals adds another seasoned veteran quarterback to market. But what legacy does he leave in Southwest Ohio, and what next for the man that epitomised Cincinnati football for nine years?
Football is an unforgiving sport. A job that offers an average career length of approximately 3.3 years, even those that buck the trend and go on to reach the pinnacle of the game come to a moment where they are expendable. Andy Dalton will not be held in the same esteem as some to grace NFL fields, yet today is the first time in his NFL career where he wakes up unemployed.
The writing had been on the wall for some time; picking first in the NFL Draft meant many had mooted Joe Burrow being a Bengal as far back as November. That possibility became reality a week ago, and Dalton was deemed surplus to requirements. Synonymous with ‘The Queen City’, it will no doubt be an unusual feeling for him. But what opportunities await him? What next for ‘The Red Rifle’?
Much like his professional career, Andrew Gregory Dalton’s college record was under-appreciated. Born just outside of Houston he headed just a few hours north and became a four-year starter at TCU. Dalton set multiple records during his time in Fort Worth, including for career wins, passing yards and completion percentage.
But what really put him on the map was his final game as a Horned Frog. Dalton led his team to a tense 21-19 victory over Big 10 powerhouse Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl, winning MVP in the process and capping off an undefeated 13-0 season for TCU. His humility in victory endeared him to many college football fans and indeed the NFL Draft community, who began to sit up and take notice. The next step on his journey would be proving to this community that he had the ability as well as the temperament to become a pro quarterback.
The Pre-Draft Process
As a draft prospect, Dalton had a lot to prove. As good as TCU was during his time there, they weren’t considered a premier football program and didn’t garner attention the same way as, say, Auburn did – the only other team in the nation to go undefeated in 2011. Their quarterback, Cam Newton, went #1 overall to the Panthers.
TCU ran a heavy spread offense, with the majority of the snaps taken in the shotgun. This meant Andy had more time to process what was in front of him, aiding decision making. The transition to a more conventional pro-style offense in the NFL would be a learning curve for him. Former 49ers and Lions head coach Steve Mariucci put Dalton through his paces at the whiteboard as the NFL Network gave viewers a glimpse of what prospects endure during team interviews:
Not flawless by any means, but you can appreciate that Dalton had the football smarts to assuage scheme concerns. On the field, Dalton was noted for his accuracy, ability to break contain and throw on the move, leadership and toughness. As ever the scouting term ‘upside’ was bandied about, like it’s easily quantifiable just how much progression a prospect can make as a pro. Dalton’s ceiling was deemed limited, never once considering that team fit, coaching and surrounding talent would surely be other determining factors in his future career arc.
The 2011 draft saw Dalton fall to the second round. Newton aside, three other quarterbacks were taken in the first that year, and thus deemed better than The Red Rifle. Their names? Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.
One team that can be forgiven for passing on Dalton in the first round was Cincinnati. After all, they selected wide receiver AJ Green with the fourth overall pick. A seven-time Pro-Bowler with over 600 receptions, 63 touchdowns and nearly 9,000 yards justifies the pick. Green and Dalton have been in lockstep ever since.
Dalton was hardly entering a happy locker room. Current starting quarterback Carson Palmer had refused to play for the Bengals ever again. He held out for a trade or release, claiming he had more than $50m in the bank and he would rather retire than put the striped helmet on. That left Dalton in a quarterback battle with Bruce Gradkowski, a wily veteran who had bounced round a few teams as a late-round pick. His touchdown-interception ratio before 2011 was 20-23. Dalton won the battle and was named starting QB for their week one game against The Cleveland Browns.
Dalton had a strong debut for thirty minutes, going 10/15 for 80 yards and a touchdown before being replaced due to a minor injury. His rookie season was an undeniable success, so much so that Marvin Lewis felt comfortable trading Palmer to the Raiders for a 1st and 2nd round pick mid-season. Dalton and Green helped take the Bengals all the way to the playoffs, where they succumbed to the Texans. Dalton had three turnovers in a 31-10 loss.
This playoff collapse was a sign of things to come for the 2010’s Bengals, yet Dalton still had had a hot start to his Cincinnati career. He had four fourth-quarter comebacks, earned a Pro Bowl spot, and became the first quarterback in NFL history not selected in the first round to start 16 games as a rookie.
Firmly entrenched as their franchise quarterback, Dalton would have three further years starting every game in Cincinnati. Each year they made the playoffs, including an AFC North title in 2014. And each year they fell at the first hurdle, losing convincingly to the Texans (again), Chargers and Colts. As we know now, the Bengals never would get over the playoff hump in the Marvin Lewis era, it now being 29 years since they last tasted victory in the postseason.
In an ironic twist of fate, Dalton was not under center for the most excruciating playoff loss of them all. After breaking his thumb playing the Steelers in week 14 he would be riding the pine as AJ McCarron led them into playoff battle against their division foes once again. In what was a true war of attrition where The Bengals were 90 seconds away from sealing the win, Jeremy Hill fumbles the ball. The Steelers march down the field and kick the game-winning field goal, The Bengals defense also coming under scrutiny for reckless tackling that resulted in big penalties for Pittsburgh.
This would be the last time Dalton or The Bengals would make the postseason. A team challenging for double-digit wins year in, year out began to break up due to injury, player departures and ill-discipline. Marvin Lewis held on to his job until the end of 2018, when Mike Brown replaced him with Zac Taylor. He didn’t know it yet, but Dalton’s time in Cincinnati was at the beginning of the end.
'The Dalton Line'
Dalton’s best period in Cincinnati came between 2013 and 2016, when The Bengals enjoyed thirty-nine regular season wins in four seasons. In 2013 he threw for nearly 4,300 yards, earning himself a six-year contract extension worth $115m. His stats didn’t fall with his new contract either; he recorded a career-high QBR of 106.2 in 2015, and threw for another 4,200 yards in 2016. In 2015 and 2016 combined he threw for fewer interceptions than any year since his rookie season, showing improved decision making and ball security.
Of course, Dalton’s rise in production coincided with a big injection in talent to the roster. Marvin Lewis built The Bengals into a competitor, with a nasty defense under the leadership of firstly Mike Zimmer and then Paul Guenther. Jay Gruden had developed the offense into a diverse attack, with AJ Green joined throughout this period by Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu. A strong offensive line allowed Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard to thrive. Quite simply, Dalton was surrounded by talent.
And as the talent waned, so did Dalton. Since 2016, his stats fell away every season. Already considered by many in the league to be a product of his environment, Dalton was taking flak from all directions. Critics would point at Dalton and say he was the physical embodiment of the average NFL quarterback. ‘The Dalton Line’ was crudely invented by the talking heads – if your team’s starting quarterback was better than Andy, then you had a chance of success. If he was worse, you didn’t. Never really receiving the credit he deserved when times were good, Dalton was now being too heavily critiqued as his career took a downturn.
A New Era
With Zac Taylor coming in, many expected the offense to be transformed into a dynamic unit in the mould of Sean McVay’s in LA. Taylor heralded from the Shanahan & McVay coaching tree and you could understand the connection. But of course, the talent wasn’t there and the pieces didn’t fit. An offensive line besieged by injury simply couldn’t get the run game going; Joe Mixon finally went for over 1,000 yards rushing but couldn’t get two yards a carry in the first six weeks. AJ Green missed the entire season due to injury. And the defense could not stop a thing, heaping more pressure on Dalton. Unsurprisingly, Taylor benched Dalton for three games mid-season to take a look at Ryan Finley. The writing was on the wall – The Red Rifle’s time in Cincinnati was up.
Dalton had one year left of his deal, with $17.7m due his way in 2020. The Bengals knew they were drafting Joe Burrow since the start of free agency, and have tried finding a new home for Dalton since then. This would predictably prove tough; Dalton was getting paid too much for his output. The Bengals would also be demanding reasonable compensation in draft capital – not unreasonable considering his career and compared to Nick Foles, who ended up costing Chicago a 4th round pick. Finally they wanted to put him in a decent situation as a thank you for his efforts the last nine years. But with teams acutely aware that he was a likely cut candidate should no trade materialise, they held out. And on Thursday, following the selection of Joe Burrow a week earlier, Dalton was released.
The Dalton Legacy
Andy Dalton was much more than just a quarterback to the city of Cincinnati and the Bengals organisation. He was the model professional, a team-first guy who lifted those around him and never brought any trouble to the franchise’s doorstep. Considering the Bengals’ recruitment policy the last decade, that last point is not to be overlooked. He leaves the team as their all-time leader in completions, passer rating and touchdowns. Not bad for an ‘average quarterback’.
He and his wife Jordan set up a foundation that raises money for ‘seriously ill and physically challenged children and their families’ throughout the Cincinnati area as well as his home state of Texas. Bengals fans, and indeed Buffalo Bills fans, have responded with thousands of $14 donations to match his jersey number. 95% of all donations to his foundation come in the form of $14, showing the admiration and love the city has for their quarterback, even if the respect isn’t matched outside of Ohio. And as for Buffalo? Well, they’re thankful for Dalton after he helped end a playoff drought of their own. After not tasting the postseason for 17 years, Dalton’s 4th & 12 touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd led the Bengals to victory against the Ravens and saw The Bills sneak into the playoffs:
The reaction of Dalton’s release tells you what kind of man he is. From teammates to beat writers to fans, nobody has a bad word to say about him. I’ve selected a few below, but take a look at Jay Morrison’s article for The Athletic to get a complete perspective of the legacy he leaves in Cincinnati:
The Dalton Legacy
After almost a decade in Cincinnati, watching Andy Dalton put a helmet on not garishly adorned with tiger stripes is going to be unusual. But he’s only 32 with enough in the tank to attract interest even at this late stage of the offseason process. Despite most teams finding a solution under center by now, there are still some fits out there.
I lost count of the amount of Bill Belichick GIF’s in the immediate aftermath of Dalton’s release. And for good reason too – The New England Patriots failed to add a quarterback via the draft and now head into 2020 with Jarrett Stidham and Bryan Hoyer in their quarterback room. Only The Patriots truly know just how ready Stidham is to lead this team, and even they won’t get a real perspective until he’s thrust into the bright lights of an NFL field. At the very least, adding Dalton to the room brings experience, professionalism and a viable alternative should it all go horribly wrong.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have already professed ‘real interest’ in Dalton according to beat writer Tyler Dragon. Again, this is hardly surprising – as exciting and promising as Gradner Minshew was last season, there is no guarantee he is a franchise quarterback. Sorry to upset all the moustachio’d faithful in Duval County, but Dalton is a known quantity and in all likelihood a better option for The Jags this season.
Beyond that, Dalton’s market becomes one for a backup. If willing he’ll have no end of suitors for that role. But don’t count him out – The Red Rifle isn’t done just yet.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.