CINCINNATI -- Eight days ago, it was easy to point a finger at Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and declare him the primary culprit behind the team's third consecutive first-round playoff exit in as many seasons.
After all, his right arm was the one that threw the two second-half interceptions in the wild-card round loss to San Diego. Right before them, it was his right elbow that wasn't strong enough to keep the football tucked on a dive into slick turf. Like the interceptions, the resulting fumble became one of the three turnovers that came in an error-filled half that allowed the Chargers to race past the Bengals and into last week's divisional round.
As bad as those plays were, though -- and bear with me here -- maybe they were just a normal part of the process for a young player who could be close to grasping this whole NFL quarterback thing. Maybe Dalton's apparent postseason ineptitude shouldn't be alarming. Maybe he's just going through the normal stages of development of a possible star on the rise.
According to this year's preseason narrative, though, his star was supposed to have already hit its brightest stage of luminescence. Instead of the Chargers winning a first-round playoff contest, the Bengals were supposed to be the ones who moved one step closer to reaching the game many had predicted they would: the Super Bowl.
Back in those innocent late-August days, there was a belief that after back-to-back abysmal playoff showings, this year would be different. Dalton would learn from his mistakes and grow another year into his quarterback development. An already good Bengals defense was better and more experienced, too. Hopes were high in the Queen City that combination would give Bengals fans something to genuinely celebrate. After 22 years of being teased by their pro sports franchises, the fans' generation of postseason horror seemed close to coming to an end.
Lo and behold, though, "Playoff Andy" showed up. He's an offshoot of "Bad Andy," the player who often appears when the stage gets big and the bright lights come on. Both are polar opposites of "Good Andy," the version of Dalton nicknamed as such because of the type of stellar play that allowed him to earn AFC player of the month honors in October.
It is because of the latter version that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis declared one day after Cincinnati's playoff defeat that the third-year quarterback remain his man.
"I believe in his abilities, I believe in his makeup, I believe in his maturity," Lewis said in a news conference last Monday.
Now that time has allowed for calm to settle around the Bengals, let's pause for a moment and take a look at whatever it is Lewis might see.
"We ask him to do a lot," Lewis continued. "We're comparing him to guys that have been in the league for a long time, and he's doing a lot. Some of them didn't play [as early as] when he played."
Unlike Lewis, I'm far from the conductor's car of the stay-patient-with-Dalton train, but I can understand why he's so ardently engineering it. Aside from the obvious (Dalton is his quarterback; the one he drafted in the second round in 2011), there's this:
Dalton isn't the only quarterback to have lost three straight playoff games to start a career.
Eventual Super Bowl winner and one of the stars of this weekend's AFC championship, Peyton Manning, did, too. So did Matt Ryan. Same with Randall Cunningham, Bobby Hebert, Steve Grogan and Bert Jones. No quarterback has ever lost four postseason games to start a career, though.
Here's some favorable evidence for Dalton to show why that may not happen. Looking specifically at Ryan and Manning, the most recent quarterbacks on that list, you can see that a light flicks on in a major way by playoff game No. 4.
After three straight sub-200-yard passing performances, Ryan was a different man by Game 4. Manning, who couldn't complete more than 53 percent of his passes in his first three playoff games, was nearly unstoppable, posting an 84.6 percent completion rating in his fourth postseason game; one that came against his current team in 2003. Could Dalton see a similar fourth-game turnaround?
Maybe we'll see next January.
Below are statistics from Manning and Ryan's first four playoff games. As he nears the end of his 16th season, Manning has a 10-11 playoff record entering this weekend's contest. Ryan, who lost his fifth playoff game in a thrilling NFC championship last year, is 1-4 in the postseason. A playoff Game 4 victory came in Ryan's fifth season and Manning's sixth.