- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' quarterback still wears the No. 14 jersey like last season, and his locker remains the same one in that corner of Paul Brown Stadium. But this year's Andy Dalton is different than that publicly bland rookie who surprised the league last year.
Dalton has come into this season with an unexpected edge, something that quarterbacks need to succeed in a division that eats up wide-eyed passers.
This isn't to say Dalton has a mean streak like Ryan Leaf. He just has a lot more bite than, say, a Tim Tebow. Maybe this comes from his experience of playing in the Pro Bowl. Perhaps this stems from the motivation of getting back to the playoffs.
Or it could boil down to the fact that he constantly hears analysts talk about the potential of him not putting up the same numbers as last season. Sophomore slump? Dalton has to chuckle. It's more like a sophomore swagger.
Case in point: last week's preseason game. After months of hearing how he lacked arm strength, he threw a high-soaring pass to A.J. Green for a 50-yard touchdown. If he hadn't made his point on the field, he certainly got it across in an interview that followed.
“My arm feels great," Dalton said, "and you can tell everybody that it’s not even close to what I’ve got if I need it.”
That was a James Harrison-type hit to the skeptics. Critics like to point out what Dalton isn't. At 6-foot-2, Dalton doesn't tower over linemen like Ben Roethlisberger. He doesn't have the rocket arm like Joe Flacco. What he does have is great anticipation, accuracy and an understanding of where to throw the football.
Dalton has every right to be confident in his ability and his arm. He proved it last season. Dalton completed 46.2 percent of his throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, which ranked fourth in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information's Keith Hawkins. The only quarterbacks who completed those throws at a higher rate were: Aaron Rodgers (56.6 percent), Tony Romo (53.2 percent) and Drew Brees (51.7 percent). In comparison, Tom Brady connected on 28.8 percent of those passes.
Asked about his arm strength during training camp a couple of weeks ago, Dalton essentially rolled his eyes and for good reason. "It didn’t really affect us last year," he said. "It’s not going to affect me at all this year. It’s not going to affect me throughout my career. I think I’ve thrown enough balls and put it on tape where I don’t think arm strength is an issue."
Dalton added, "I wouldn’t be a starting quarterback if my arm strength was such an issue. People are making it seem like I can’t throw the ball 30 yards. People are getting out of hand with it."
In other words, don't mess with this red-haired Texan. Last season, he became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback.
His numbers weren't jaw-dropping. He completed 58.1 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,398 yards with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. What's impressive is that he posted these statistics without an offseason because of the NFL lockout.
Throughout the minicamps in the spring and training camp in the summer, the Bengals' defense has thrown every front, coverage and blitz at Dalton. This is a different education than last camp, when his focus was learning his own playbook and not worrying about what the defense was doing.
"We've thrown a lot at him, and he's handled everything without batting an eye," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "He has a great poise about him. I'm happy as heck the way he's progressed so far. I don't see him taking a dropoff whatsoever."
The Bengals have put Dalton in a position to succeed. His top two targets -- Green and Jermaine Gresham -- are both top-21 picks in the draft. His left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, was a second-round pick, and his right tackle, Andre Smith, is a first-round selection. Dalton hands the ball off to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was the prize of the team's free-agency period this year.
So, does Dalton make the Bengals better, or is it vice versa?
"I think Gruden has done a lot of good things to accentuate Dalton's skills and rarely asks him to drive the ball on real difficult throws," said Matt Williamson, of Scouts Inc. and ESPN.com. "But I also think that Green is an extremely special player that makes any quarterback better, and Cincy is smart to at least throw some long balls to Green to open room in the shorter quick passing game."
The next step for Dalton is overcoming the best defenses in the division. In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Silencing the critics has become a trend for Dalton this year. The Bengals, though, don't want Dalton to be consumed by answering them.
"Just be yourself," head coach Marvin Lewis said on his advice to Dalton. "Don't let anybody talk to you into doing anything different. We have no doubts in him. We have no doubts in anything he does. He is our offense. Everything we do unfolds through him. That's probably the biggest thing. He has to be able to go into his second season and play the way like he did last year, using all that experience of what he did and from watching others. He will do more just by doing it better. He doesn't have to force more. He just has to let it come to him."
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' quarterback still wears the No. 14 jersey like last season, and his locker remains the same one in that corner of Paul Brown Stadium.