CINCINNATI -- It has been the multimillion dollar question looming over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Are they going to extend quarterback Andy Dalton's contract this offseason?
The inquiry has gone from one asked out of sheer curiosity to becoming the opening setup for a punchline many Bengals fans don't find the least bit funny.
The masses are nervous. They aren't sure they trust the path the Bengals are carving at quarterback. It's a path that intends to keep Dalton in stripes for the foreseeable future. Dalton is safe.
But what's keeping him that way? What is it that has the often-inconsistent quarterback holding the title of Mr. Untouchable this spring? What is it about him that has the Bengals convinced he is their man for the long haul?
It's all about timing. We'll get to more on that shortly.
The anxiety of the vocal majority -- Bengals fans who aren't yet sold on Dalton -- was heightened late last month when coach Marvin Lewis spoke about the signal-caller's potential contract extension at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla.
"We feel like we have a great young player in Andy. We're hopeful that we can get a deal done that works," Lewis said. "Andy's done a fine job for us. We all want him to be better, and once he does that, all the rest will go away."
If we're using the regular season as the base metric for Dalton's success, then yes, Lewis is right. He has done a fine job for the Bengals. Through 48 career regular-season starts, the 2011 second-round pick is an impressive 30-18 and has led the Bengals to three consecutive playoff berths to begin his career. No other stretch in franchise history had as many consecutive postseason appearances, and few quarterbacks in league history have started with as many consecutive playoff trips.
Last year, Dalton set season franchise records for passing yards (4,293) and passing touchdowns (33), easing just past marks previously held by Carson Palmer, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003.
When Dalton has played well, he's played exceptionally well. When he's played poorly, he's been about as bad as a quarterback can be. The latter performances often seem to come on big stages -- AFC North contests, Monday and Thursday night games and the postseason. He is 0-3 in two playoff starts against the Texans and one against San Diego.
That's the tricky part about consistency. The best players seldom have a break in it, or at least keep that break from being too noticeable.
That's where timing can be important. It is at the foundation of being a good quarterback, the key to longevity at the position. It's needed to complete passing routes. A favorable set of well-timed conditions can lead a player to quarterbacking his team for years.
The on-field component of Dalton's timing has been OK, but it ought to undergo a positive transformation this offseason as new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson pushes Dalton and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green to limits neither knew he had. With the fiery Jackson riding them, the hope is the pair eliminates some of the cutoff routes and overthrows that have been a rather large part of their existence in Cincinnati.
Jackson's promotion to offensive coordinator has also been one of those off-field conditions that has led Dalton to earning the type of trust that appears to be setting him up for a long tenure with the organization.
The day he took over as offensive coordinator, Jackson made it known that he planned to run more in an effort to take pressure off Dalton and keep the ball in the hands of the many dynamic playmakers who fill Cincinnati's roster. By doing that, and particularly by doing that in the playoffs, he believes Dalton will perform better, creating a domino effect across the team.
Dalton also seems poised to benefit from the Bengals' addition this offseason of veteran Jason Campbell. He finally has an older quarterback around who feels comfortable working with him as a mentor. Ahead of arguably the most important year of Dalton's young career, the timing of the addition couldn't have been better.
This year's quarterback draft class has also helped Dalton. As far as immediate impact players go, this class might be the worst since Dalton's 2011 group. These quarterbacks have teams like the Bengals thinking about bringing in signal-callers for depth, not to battle for the starting job.
That effectively keeps Dalton safe. Even though the Bengals likely will be drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds, he has no reason to be looking over his shoulder for now. The rookie would simply be an insurance policy, one that it just so happens could be groomed to start in future seasons.
"Helping out Dalton ought to be the argument rather than trying to sign his successor," Mel Kiper told me last week. "Because if you don't win, who knows what's going to happen with this organization."
Timing has saved Dalton. But will Dalton's salvation be enough make the Bengals on the whole more competitive?
Only time will tell.