Every time Andy Dalton turned on the television last summer, he heard about the possibility of sophomore slumps for him and Cam Newton. Dalton told me that he didn't believe in the notion of failing to live up to the standards of your rookie season. Or so he thought.
Seven games into the season, Dalton is playing more like a rookie this season than last year, when he really was a rookie. He's throwing costly interceptions. He's failing to convert on third downs. He's struggling under pressure. He can't lead a fourth-quarter comeback.
A good part of the blame for the Bengals' disappointing 3-4 start is being put on their franchise quarterback. And there are some concerns now whether Dalton is even a franchise quarterback. He certainly hasn't performed like one in the Bengals' three-game losing streak. But the Bengals don't need to draft a quarterback next year. They need to do a better job at assembling a supporting cast around the one they have.
Dalton, a second-round pick from a year ago, is a smart passer who can run an efficient offense when he gets into a rhythm. He showed that during the Bengals' three-game winning streak, when the offense averaged 33 points per game. Dalton just isn't Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. He isn't a quarterback who is going to carry a team to wins.
That's why this sophomore slump isn't all Dalton's fault. This is an organizational second-year swoon. Many of the Bengals' decisions on offense haven't panned out, and Dalton is left feeling he needs to make plays on his own.
The addition of free-agent running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3.4 yards per carry, two touchdowns and three fumbles) hasn't upgraded the ground game from a year ago. The failure to pick up a No. 2 receiver in free agency or in the first couple rounds of the draft has allowed defenses to roll coverages to A.J. Green. And tight end Jermaine Gresham has been productive but isn't a playmaker like Rob Gronkowski, who was selected one round after Gresham in 2010, or Jimmy Graham, who was taken two rounds after Gresham.
“Andy has continued to progress," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We need to continue to play well around Andy. We have to make sure we get to the right spots for him so he can deliver the football. The breakdown in protection at times threw him off and he had to move and adjust.”
Dalton is putting more pressure on himself than the pass-rushers from the Ravens and Steelers ever could. And he has flinched under duress this season.
He has thrown an interception in each of his seven games this year, the first Bengals quarterback to do so since Carson Palmer in 2004. Last season, Dalton was picked off in only seven games. His 10 interceptions are tied with Browns rookie Brandon Weeden for the league lead. He has watched three of his interceptions returned for touchdowns, and opponents have converted those picks into a total of 46 points, which is one-quarter of the points that the team has allowed. The biggest criticism of Dalton entering the season was his arm strength. Now the questions are about his decision-making.
His latest interception -- against the Steelers on Sunday night -- turned the game around. The Bengals had a first down with 90 seconds remaining in the first half and a 14-6 lead. But they went into halftime tied at 14. Dalton's pass bounced off the back of right guard Kevin Zeitler's helmet and right to Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley deep in Cincinnati territory, and Pittsburgh converted the turnover into a touchdown. The ball popped out of Dalton's hand when he tried to pull it back after he saw a defender jump a route.
Known for his great anticipation, Dalton can sometimes be too quick, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said.
"We are not asking Andy to be Ben [Roethlisberger], but we do need to ask him to take third down very seriously and if something is not there initially to run, make something happen with your legs, sometimes he couldn't," Gruden said, via the Bengals' official website. "Sometimes the pressure was there and he scrambled out and they were right on him just like that and he had to throw it away. Other times I think he could have bought a little bit more time. You don't have to be Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III. But Drew Brees and a lot of these great quarterbacks buy time in the pocket. He's just got to do a better job of that. Comes with time. He's still in his second year. He's programmed in to being such a great rhythm, timing quarterback, but sometimes defenses here they can take away initial reads. He's going to have to wait for somebody else."
Teams are able to get to Dalton more frequently against an offensive line dealing with injuries. Dalton has had trouble stepping up in the pocket because left guard Travelle Wharton is out for the season with a knee injury, and two centers, Kyle Cook and Jeff Faine, are sidelined with injuries. It's been seven weeks and Dalton is taking snaps from his third center.
That could explain why Dalton has regressed against added pressure this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He threw two interceptions last season against five or more rushers on 162 attempts. This year, he has five on 72 attempts.
Where the sophomore slump has really taken its toll is at the end of games. Last season, Dalton led four fourth-quarter comebacks. This year, he has none despite many opportunities during this three-game losing streak.
With the Bengals down four points in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, Dalton's last pass of the game was intercepted. In the fourth quarter against Cleveland, he had an interception returned for a touchdown before ending the final two drives with a fumble and an interception. In the fourth quarter Sunday night, he never even threatened to make a comeback, failing to move the ball past the Cincinnati 39 on three drives. This was against a Steelers defense that led the league in blown fourth-quarter leads.
Dalton, a Pro Bowl quarterback last season, set high standards when 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. He still might not believe in a sophomore slump; he does believe in his ability to lead the Bengals out of this rut.
"We have to be mentally tough to handle this," Dalton said. "It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost three in a row. We have to be mentally strong enough to handle it and turn things around -- and we have the team to do that.”