Andy Dalton looks different.
That has been the prevailing narrative surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals following a Week 4 handling of the Kansas City Chiefs and in anticipation of this weekend’s high-voltage matchup with the media-vaunted, 2-2 Seattle Seahawks. After four straight impressive performances by Dalton earned him the second-highest QB rating in all of football (123.0, behind only Aaron Rodgers 125.9) and put him near the top in just about every relevant statistical category, the talk has shifted from, man, Andy Dalton is playing well to how the hell is Andy Dalton playing so well? In the past few days, ESPN.com has praised the accuracy of his deep ball. Grantland noted how he is taking advantage of some stellar play by the offensive line and AJ Green and limiting his own mistakes. The Cincinnati Enquirer pointed out how confident and relaxed Dalton seems in the locker room and on the sideline, even cracking jokes in postgame press conferences. There is no shortage of (encouraging) explanations. But each of them is also tinged with a hesitancy, an unwillingness to outright claim that this is the real Andy Dalton, that those 2.0 QB-rating performances are finally a thing of the past. Because we’ve seen this before. Dalton has had solid three- and four-game stretches at times over the past few seasons, but they’ve always preceded a swift and plummeting fall from grace and inevitably end in the fiery ashes of a playoff collapse. We’re skeptical, and for good reason.
And yet, there are encouraging signs from this latest string. The Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. did a nice job detailing a few from the Chiefs game last week; Adam Flango and I discussed it a bit in the most recent Fulcher 2 Stay podcast as well. Whether it’s a smart play on the field or some newfound sideline swagger, there have been a handful of flashes—some subtle, some striking—that at least suggest this run is distinctive from the others. That indicate this Andy Dalton is, in fact, different.
One of the earliest moments came just before halftime in Week 1 against the Raiders, when Dalton turned a collapsing pocket into a first-down dumpoff to Giovani Bernard.
The “old” Andy Dalton usually didn’t handle these situations very well. There’s even a split-second where you can see that version of the Bengals quarterback trying to sneak through, when Dalton drops his shoulders and looks to escape out of the pocket. We’ve seen those plays plenty of times before, where the pressure causes Dalton to freak out and abandon a play early. Sometimes it would result in a harmless throwaway or scramble, other times it was a back-breaking sack or turnover. But not this time. It’s almost as if he stops, reminds himself he’s a professional quarterback, and then finds a wide open Bernard for a positive gain. Here’s another angle.
There was a similar play in the third quarter of the same game: Dalton was feeling pressure from his strong side, but instead of tucking the ball and floundering, he stepped up in the pocket, kept his eyes downfield, maneuvered out of trouble, and found an open Rex Burkhead for a big gain. (Thanks to @JoeGoodberry for the Vine, and a few others below.)
Dalton has always had under-appreciated athleticism. His speed and (relative) shiftiness is decent enough to escape most defensive linemen and linebackers. The problem thus far in his career has been that he either resorts to it too early—completely abandoning a play at the first sign of pressure—or it ends in some boneheaded mistake or blunder—like his diving-forward fumble in the 2013 playoff game against the Chargers, or throwing the ball out of bounds despite being four yards past the line of scrimmage last season against the Browns. But this season, there have been multiple occasions where we’ve seen a growth and maturation in his game, where he has kept his cool under pressure and turned what used to be negative (or catastrophic) situations into positive plays. His two come-from-behind touchdown passes to Green in the fourth quarter against the Ravens were huge, but I was most impressed by this play, from early in the team’s final touchdown drive that ultimately led to a victory.
For a moment, I thought we were about to relive that way-past-the-line-of-scrimmage throw against the Browns, the first sign of a guaranteed collapse and gutting loss. Instead, it was just the opposite. Dalton was in control the entire time, even drawing the hovering defender toward him before zipping the ball to Bernard.
The trend continued in Week 4 against the Chiefs, first with a nifty scramble to his left and a perfect throw to Burkhead.
And then there was the game-changing, 55-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Tate (BRANDON TATE!). Dalton, flushed out to his right, keeps his eyes downfield the entire time, even avoiding the urge to throw a quick dumpoff to Tyler Eifert, which still likely would have resulted in a positive gain. Instead, he turned a busted, improvisational play into a throat-punch to the Chiefs’ jugular (and involving Brandon Freaking Tate, no less).
I know, I know. Maybe these are all fluky red herrings, and this is simply another impressive stretch soon to be soiled by a crapfest performance against Seattle this week, or Buffalo next week, or Pittsburgh after the bye. (See, there it is—the hedging, the inescapable doubt.) But if there were any reason to shed our lingering skepticism and go all-in on the declaration that this is a “different Andy Dalton,” these are the plays that suggest we aren’t crazy, that offer proof of change. He may not look like that on every snap, and he’ll still make mistakes and have less than stellar games. But up until now, we haven’t really seen this version of Andy Dalton before, even when he was at his best. Here’s to hoping he sticks around.