When Andy Dalton came out out Texas Christian University (TCU) nearly three years ago, he was billed as a top tier quarterback and one of the “great decision makers in college football history.” Three years into his NFL career, he’s been anything but. The Bengal hasn’t developed as a decision maker and is struggling to find open receivers at the second and third levels of the field. He’s still operating at a college level.
In college, Dalton worked in a offense that was built upon the quick passing game. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it consists of quick one- and three-step drops that get the ball out in a hurry — hence the name. The route combinations are simple, featuring slant, stick, snag, shallow, hook, and flat routes. What this offense did was allow Dalton to rock back and throw the ball without being tested mentally. He made what many call “grass reads,” which can be summed up like this: if the defender is here, Dalton goes there. If the defender is there, Dalton goes here. As you can imagine, there’s little difficulty in making decisions this way.
But in the NFL, things are different. When 3rd-and-long settles in, the quick game is not an option. Decisions have to be made. Dalton’s not making the right ones, and if not for a dominant defense, it would be costing his team more ball-games than people think.
He’s leaving throws on the field. Every quarterback does it; let’s face it, quarterbacks aren’t as perfect as the media makes them out to be. But there’s a difference when and in what situation it’s done. Throws have to be made when it’s third down or in the red zone or late in the fourth quarter, and there’s no excuse if they’re not when there are receivers open.
Here’s an example. Fresh after Dalton was sacked by the Patriots in Week 5, it’s 3rd-and-20 on the Bengals’ own 37-yard line. Dalton’s in the shotgun set and has three potential pass-catchers in Trips set to his left. On the line is receiver Mohamed Sanu and off the line, closest to the trenches, is tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham’s going to run an arrow route into the right flat while Sanu will run vertically before bending inside to form a dig route roughly 12 yards downfield.
At the snap of the ball, Dalton takes a quick five-step drop and reads the middle of the field. This is the target point for him. He knows he’s going to have Sanu eventually crossing the team’s logo at midfield, and if he’s open, that’s a big throw that could pick up a chunk of yardage and set up a manageable fourth down. Otherwise, he’s tossing it out to Gresham and playing it safe. Nothing wrong with that — if Sanu’s not open.
But he is. When the 24-year-old Rutgers product sticks his foot in the ground and turns across the midfield, he’s going to be open in between two Patriots defenders. He’s not wide open (not yet at least) but he’s going to be open and Dalton should anticipate him. This is the kind of throw that an NFL quarterback has to make.
But Dalton doesn’t.
He checks it down instead and out comes the punting unit.
If you’re Jay Gruden in the film room on Monday morning, you say, “OK, I understand he’s playing it safe and not turning the ball over in our territory, but why is he not making this throw?” It’s surely frustrating for Gruden. So is this.
It’s 2nd-and-7 on the nine-yard line. The Bengals are in scoring position in the final seconds of the first quarter. Dalton’s in a shotgun set once again, this time with an empty backfield; all weapons are deployed. To his right, where he’ll end up looking to find a target, are two tight ends and a receiver. Both tight ends are lined up at the butt of the line of scrimmage while the receiver is between the numbers and the sideline. Together the tight ends will combine to run a route concept that creates a Hi-Lo read for Dalton just inside the numbers. The receiver runs a simple clear-out down the sideline.
When Dalton catches the snap, he takes a quick drop and scans the right. At the top of his drop, he looks to find rookie tight end Tyler Eifert at the numbers, but hesitates to pull the trigger after seeing defenders starting to close in. A hint of pressure starts to come at Dalton and he escapes the pocket, scrambling toward the right sideline. At this point, the options are dwindling. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to be open, so it’s best to get rid of the ball and avoid the turnover. There’s another down to live, as coaches say.
As Dalton gets close to the sideline, he looks to the middle of the field and sees Eifert. He pulls the trigger and launches the ball in the tight end’s direction. In front of him, linebacker Brandon Spikes steps and catches the ball as if it was intended for him. Dalton never saw him and made a Favre-ian move when he threw across his body.
Dalton’s not a bad quarterback. He’s not great either. He’s above-average, and that’s not good enough for the Bengals if they hope to win the Super Bowl. He needs to make the anticipation throws in the middle of the field and avoid disasters. In his career, he hasn’t had a significant amount of turnovers because the Bengals have been able to use the quick game that Dalton used in college and limit his responsibilities. They’ve been able to mask his inadequacies, which can only be done for so long at this level.
If the Bengals are going to win a championship, Dalton needs to improve. He needs to go to school, and I’m not talking about college.