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The highest-paid free agent quarterback to change teams this offseason was Josh McCown, who signed a two-year, $10-million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March. McCown earned that contract largely as a result of playing relatively well in five starts last season for the Chicago Bears (with a 3-2 record in those games), along with abbreviated relief efforts in three other contests. It was an impressive showing for a backup QB, sure, but it also wasn’t enough to convince the Bears he was worth keeping around, especially after they gave regular starter Jay Cutler a seven-year extension (and $54 million in guaranteed money) this past January.
The second-highest-paid free agent quarterback this offseason was Ryan Fitzpatrick, who signed a two-year, $7.5-million contract with the Houston Texans. Bengals fans are plenty familiar with Fitzpatrick’s work.
Amidst all of the back-and-forth debate/outrage regarding Andy Dalton signing a six-year extension with the Bengals this past Monday, the point that people aren’t paying enough attention to is that the Bengals didn’t really have much of a choice. The team HAD to re-sign Andy Dalton.
Since 2010, the only franchise-altering free agent QB signing was Peyton Manning by the Denver Broncos in 2012. And that was a pretty unique situation, which still required the Broncos to give a five-year, $96-million contract to a 36-year-old who sat out the previous season and underwent four neck surgeries. Since that time, NFL teams have extended the underwhelming likes of Cutler, Matt Stafford, and Matt Ryan, a trio with a collective playoff record of 2-6. You can throw Joe Flacco on that list as well, who despite his 9-4 playoff record and Super Bowl ring, is widely considered to have one of the worst contracts in the entire league. The point is, even semi-competent quarterbacks aren’t reaching free agency anymore. Decent teams would rather roll the dice with what they have rather than take a chance—the whole “devil you know” type deal.
This is exactly the situation the Bengals were in with Andy Dalton. He’s an average quarterback (with, as local radio host Mo Egger discussed on Mike & Mike in the Morning, a proven ability to oscillate from above-average to way-below-average any give week) who in his first three seasons has led the Bengals to the playoffs three straight times—something no other quarterback in franchise history has done—and subsequently sucked something fierce in each of those three appearances. Everyone is well aware of his struggles and shortcomings, and no one is even close to convinced that he’s worth six years for $96 million (or the rather misleading “six years for $115 million” number that was initially thrown around). But the Bengals also realized that if they didn’t re-sign him, there was no Plan B.
The only other way to cultivate a franchise quarterback is through the draft, and the chances of doing so with anything other than a high-end pick is particularly risky (if not damn near impossible). This wasn’t really an option for the Bengals because overall, the team is far too talented. Much to their credit, the Bengals organization has spent the better part of the past decade developing and acquiring talent all over the roster. The current window they have—with guys like AJ Green, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, etc—is too precious to blow up by tanking for a top draft pick or plugging the QB spot with a stop-gap, journeyman backup. If Dalton isn’t your starting quarterback—this year and for at least the next couple—what is your fallback plan? Unfortunately, the biggest question for the Bengals wasn’t whether Dalton can lead them to the Super Bowl. The biggest question was, what’s the alternative? What gives this extremely talented team the best chance to win right now? You can’t waste AJ Green’s prime on an unproven rookie or an over-his-head backup. As Bengals.com writer Geoff Hobson tweeted earlier this week, all that cash the team is throwing at an unproven, erratic Dalton is just as much about preventing a void as it is about filling one. In today’s NFL, you either have to shell out $100 million for the guy who’s already in the seat, hit rock bottom and win the draft lottery, or roll the dice with Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Paying Andy Dalton is the cost of doing business.
Arguments can be made that the Bengals should have spent their first-round draft pick this year on Teddy Bridgewater (a guy who might not start over Matt Cassel), or let Dalton play out the last year of his deal before offering a new deal (which could have actually proved to be financially debilitating), but neither of those scenarios assure a solution any more than Dalton’s team-friendly extension (which the Bengals can get out of in a couple seasons if necessary). And while you can’t ignore Dalton’s struggles in big moments, you also can’t ignore the fact that he’s won 30 games in three years. Things could be—and have been—a lot worse.
There is no guarantee that Andy Dalton can be the guy. But it’s pretty obvious he’s the best one available.