Bengals fans better hope Lewis gets wish

Like it or not, coach Marvin Lewis' insistence that Andy Dalton (14) be extended sooner rather than later is in the Bengals' best interest. David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- This may come as a shock to many of you. It may even disappoint some of you.

But like it or not, Cincinnati Bengals fans, it's best you resign yourselves to this simple fact: Your team views Andy Dalton as its quarterback of the future.

Dalton, the third-year signal-caller out of TCU who has started every game for the Bengals since the first preseason contest of 2011, is expected to be behind center not only this season, but next season and for the foreseeable future.

We've known for some time about the trust the Bengals' ownership and coaching staff has in Dalton. But when some of those same officials go on record and continue to proclaim their faith in the quarterback, we have to take note.

Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expressed to reporters present his hope that the club can re-sign Dalton sooner rather than later. Bengals fans, you better hope Lewis gets that wish. There's nothing worse for a team than a quarterback forced into playing through a season with contract uncertainty looming above his head.

That is, unless that quarterback is Joe Flacco and can drown out the outside noise en route to having one of the best seasons of his career. Flacco ended up signing a six-year, $120.6 million deal last offseason after playing through his own lame-duck year. But is Dalton capable of doing that? Maybe, but given his background of inconsistency under pressure, it’s doubtful.

Astute followers of the Bengals blog know that such sentiments about signing Dalton sooner rather than later go slightly against what I wrote about Dalton's future what I wrote about Dalton's future the day of the Bengals' wild-card round playoff loss in January. But time -- not to mention a few changes to offensive personnel and philosophy -- have me thinking a little differently.

Just hours after witnessing Dalton's second-half collapse I wrote:

"A performance like Dalton's latest playoff dud certainly doesn't engender much external confidence. It probably shouldn't engender much internal confidence in him, either. With his contract expiring after next season, the Bengals seriously have to question whether they want to extend him ahead of the 2014 season or let him play next year as a lame duck."

Harsh, but at the time, true.

In the months since, the Bengals have made it clear numerous times that Dalton is their man. They also have changed offensive coordinators and seem on the verge of having a scheme that will allow others, namely running backs, to take control of the offense on occasion. That effectively relieves some of the pressures that Dalton has shouldered his entire career.

Along with getting an upgrade at offensive coordinator, Dalton got a boost last week when veteran Jason Campbell was signed to a one-year contract. The nine-year veteran should give Dalton the locker-room mentor he's never had.

"I remember when I first came into the league and the most important thing to me was having a veteran guy in the room," Campbell said at his introductory news conference. "Someone you can relate to when there's questions."

There's a chance Dalton's deal won't come before the NFL draft. There's a stronger chance the Bengals will draft a quarterback, possibly raising the level of doubt in Dalton's mind. If that all happens and he is still without a deal by June and July, he might begin wondering if the Bengals really want him to be their future quarterback, or if they're just paying him lip service until his contract runs out.

Campbell knows exactly how such uncertainty can feel.

"Nobody wants to feel like you are out in la-la land," Campbell said, specifically referring to his free-agency experiences. "You want to be sure of what you are going to do and the things you are going to be doing."

Lewis understands that. It's why he wants a new deal for Dalton right now.

"He doesn't have to go into the season and worry about this contract thing where every week someone is going to ask him a question and then it gets to there, then you are franchising -- all those things that come into play later on," Lewis said to reporters Tuesday. "Let's get it behind us. Let's get something that works for everyone and enables us to keep tackles in front of you, receivers on the outside, and guys on the other side of the football so it works for everybody."

Team president and owner Mike Brown expressed frustration over the Bengals' mostly quiet free-agency efforts this year. With Dalton's big second contract looming, the franchise hasn't been able to re-sign free agents it wished to keep and been forced to cut others.

Brown may not know exactly when Dalton will get his deal, but it's clear he doesn't want another loss-filled March like this one.

"At some point we are going to have to do something more than just let everyone else leave waiting to get something done with that situation," Brown said Sunday in Orlando. "We held back this year trying to put ourselves in a position to get him done. If it turns out it can't be made to work we will do something elsewhere. I don't think we plan to go another year the way we did this year."

Plans to ultimately go in another direction are an act of last resort. Brown and Lewis both want to get Dalton out of his rookie contract and into a fair new deal that keeps him in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future.

Those are your team's plans, Bengals fans. So you better hope that new deal gets done as soon as possible. If not, "Bad Andy" could turn into "Worried Andy," and you certainly don't want to see him at all.