The Return of Bad Andy Dalton

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Due to gusting winds from an onrushing Hurricane Irma (I live in Atlanta, City of Trees—though more likely City of Fallen Trees after this storm), the sports bar where I watched the Bengals-Ravens game on Sunday lost color on many of its TVs.

Trust me, it didn’t look any better in black and white.

Since I can’t bear to dwell on the catastrophic decision tree that has decimated what was among the NFL’s top offensive lines just two years ago into a bunch of turnstiles, let’s worry instead about the quarterback they have undone. Bengals fans have seen all manner of Bad Andy Dalton performances since 2011, but this one was particularly worrisome: 28.4 quarterback rating, four interceptions, numerous poor throws and worse decisions.

Sure, Red was under constant duress, and he simply doesn’t have the ability to make subtle pocket adjustments. But his interceptions, in particular the three that mattered in the first half, weren’t purely the result of T-Sizzle in his grille. (Though that was the issue on his fifth turnover, the third quarter strip sack, when Dalton’s first read was covered, and he bailed the pocket.)

But Dalton had time to throw on the interceptions. For much of the game, Baltimore “parked the bus,” to use a soccer term—they packed the middle of the field with linebackers, daring Dalton to throw to the perimeter. That led to the first pick, when Patrick Onwuasor made a very good play, after pretending to be drawn in by play action, to deflect the pass targeted for a streaking A.J. Green. (Optimistic slant: it would have been a monster play, possibly a score, if the pass wasn’t batted.)This defensive approach also led to the second pick, when the Ravens dropped eight defenders into coverage; C.J. Mosley saw the post route coming all the way, and dropped right into the passing lane for an easy pick in the end zone on a ball that should never, ever have been thrown. (Uber-optimistic slant: Brandon LaFell was interfered with before the ball was intercepted, and the Bengals should have gotten a mulligan). And it led to the third pick, when Terrell “Thank God Andrew Whitworth is gone” Suggs dropped into coverage, and got his helmet on Dalton’s pass to Gio Bernard. (Optimistic slant: a fluke play that sadly totally changed the game?)

Baltimore could play this style of D in part because they knew they could stop Cincy’s running game without stacking the box. And, because they are quite familiar with Dalton and the Bengals offense, they know the Red Rifle can be frustrated by showing him one defense pre-snap and rolling into another as play goes live. What they couldn’t have counted on was Dalton making so many brutally bad decisions—in essence regressing to his worst habits in his 2011-14 mode. Even when Dalton made the right choice, he simply blew several throws, most obviously when he badly missed a wide open Cody Core on a deep go route, a throw much worse than any of the interceptions.

I suppose the good news for the Bengals, if one squints hard enough at the fuzzy black-and-white picture, is that with better decision making and a bit more luck, that game was there for the winning, despite it feeling like an insurmountable blowout (more on that later). In some ways, that makes Sunday’s loss even more alarming. The last few seasons have been devoted to improving Dalton’s play while under duress. He certainly has taken care of the ball much better the last three seasons, and defenses that used to blitz him relentlessly have had to change tactics. His spectacularly bad games are fewer of late as well–his nine worst performances by passer rating (before Sunday) all came in his first four seasons.

Unfortunately, the deterioration of the pass blocking has affected Dalton’s internal clock and seems to have influenced offensive coordinator Ken Zampese’s play calling. A great many of Cincy’s pass plays are designed for quick, initial reads to be open. When they aren’t, like Sunday, Dalton is far too fast to bail on the pocket and turn the play design into pickup ball. That’s something you see from the Blake Bortleses of the league—young quarterbacks can be scarred by lack of belief in their offensive lines.

You’d like to think a veteran like Dalton would be made of tougher stuff, mentally. Certainly he has shown it in the past. Dalton has a history of following rancid performances with good ones—remember the “Dalton 2.0” game against the Browns in 2014, when he was similarly godawful in a primetime Battle of Ohio? Written completely off by the pigskin commentariat, Dalton torched the Saints in the Superdome the following Sunday, keying a run of three straight road wins and eventually a playoff berth. Indeed, Cincinnati is 7-3 the week after Dalton’s ten worst games by QB rating. Heck, his up-and-down nature is the reason why we call it the DaltonCoaster, right? Sunday was the very bottom of a long drop. Nowhere to go from here but up.

But this feels like a real crossroads for Dalton, and the Bengals in general. Without any glimpse of quality o-line play on the horizon, the natural solution is to spread everything out and play quick-hitter ball. Cincy did have some success with that on Sunday, which is how they had six separate drives into Ravens territory. (Man, you have to work hard to come up with no points on that many forays past midfield.) But that offense marginalizes Jeremy Hill, Ryan Hewitt, and to some extent Tylers Eifert and Kroft. Meanwhile, no wideout has yet made defenses consistently pay for doubling Green. Going to a full-on, spread based attack will be very hard for the Bengals to pull off with their personnel, unless John Ross develops very quickly. Bengals Nation would probably settle for him staying upright at this point.

More to the point, Dalton can’t be relied upon to play a consistent, hurry-up attack without making a bad decision or throw along the way. That’s not a terrible slight—few quarterbacks are that good. But without a quality running game, and few opportunities to throw even intermediate routes, much less long-developing deep ones, the Bengals are forced into playing a risky style. Otherwise, they could go for weeks at a time without topping 21 points.

Almost as worrisome as Dalton’s ugly game Sunday was the early surrender. Once Suggs knocked that ball free down near the Ravens end zone, the Bengals seemed to psychically move on to the Texans, even though there was 25 minutes left and 17 points is hardly too much to overcome, even with a misfiring offense. Not only did the run defense sag, but Marvin Lewis ran up the white flag by inexplicably punting with 9:54 to play…from the Ravens 43-yard line. Granted, it was 4th & 9, but nothing says “I’m a coach trying to keep the score respectable, rather than trying to win” like those give-up punts. In general, the Bengals seemed to be running through the motions in the second half.

That’s a bad sign in an opener against a very beatable division rival (in a series in which comebacks are the norm), and a terrible message for a team that all too often appears to be waiting for something bad to happen. Ever since Jeremy Hill fumbled and Tez and Pac went nuts, the Bengals have spent far too much time scanning the skies for those dark clouds.

Forget storms like the one hammering my city as I write this—these Bengals are running for shelter in a slight drizzle. That’s an awful mindset for a pro football team. Lewis has pulled the squad from the ooze before. If he can’t do it this time, it will finally be time for a replacement.

Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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