Timing is a wondrous thing! Today, hours after we published this article, Andy Dalton signed a six-year, $115 million extension with the Bengals. Consider this an argument against that deal.
Each week, my portion of the Grantland NFL preview secretly has a theme. Some are more exciting than others. Week 1 was Contracts Week. Not exactly the sexiest subject, unless yelling about Eli Manning happens to get you going. Last week was Contrarian Opinion Week. This week is a personal favorite: QB Crossroads1 Week! In this week’s pieces, I’ll be running through a set of quarterbacks who are at a turning point in their careers. Even better, I’ll be getting help from Grantland pals Kirk Goldsberry and Chris B. Brown.
As much as I would like to do a week of articles about missing my Uncle Charles, that’s “Tha Crossroads” Week, which is a totally different thing.
The stakes are different for each passer, but the general story is the same: 2014 will represent the most important season in determining their respective career paths over the next several seasons. Last year, we saw dramatic swings in the trajectories of passers like Josh Freeman and Philip Rivers, who headed in drastically different directions. Rivers rebuilt his career under a new coaching staff and justified his team-leading contract for years to come. Freeman, well, he drifted off aimlessly and lost a small fortune in guaranteed money in the process. The returns might not be quite as severe for the passers under the microscope this week, but the impact could come just as suddenly.
I’m starting today with one of the league’s more frustrating passers. Andy Dalton is in the final year of his rookie deal, and it’s still unclear whether the Bengals should treat him as a problem to be dismissed or a solution to be retained. More crucially, Dalton continues to receive steady support from the decision-makers in Cincinnati. Head coach Marvin Lewis backed Dalton after his third straight loss in the wild-card round in January, while star wideout A.J. Green characterized Dalton as “my guy” in July. Even new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson suggested that Dalton was “on the cusp of something really good” in April.
For what it’s worth, you can make a statistical case that Dalton is a worthwhile passer. Many of his rate statistics — yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, passer rating, and QBR — have improved during each of his three professional seasons, even as he’s thrown more frequently. He hasn’t missed a start and hasn’t even shown up on the injury report since Week 1 of the 2012 season. The Cincinnati passing attack has even ranked in the top 12 in passing DVOA twice during Dalton’s three seasons. And as I mentioned in the Trade Value Column, Dalton is a winner; during his first three seasons, Dalton has won 30 games and made the playoffs three times. The only other quarterbacks in league history to do that are Dan Marino (yay!) and Joe Flacco ( … OK?).
And all of that doesn’t seem to matter, because Dalton has been awful in the playoffs. It’s a problem that destroyed Cincinnati in last year’s loss to the Chargers and, left unsolved, will almost certainly prevent him from leading the Bengals — or any other NFL team — to a Super Bowl. Andy Dalton is not without merit, but he has one major problem that needs to be corrected: He can’t reliably handle pass pressure.
Dalton comes from the Kevin Kolb and Blaine Gabbert school, which is a school that should probably be shut down, demolished, and declared a Superfund site. Quarterbacks in this class often struggle to diagnose pressure before the snap and do a subpar job of capturing who exactly is coming at them when defenses disguise their blitzers. Even worse, when they do feel even the tiniest bit of pressure heading in their direction, passers like Kolb and Gabbert bail out of the pocket and frantically sprint toward the sideline like ants trying to escape feet. The coup de grâce is a dangerous pass, one often thrown to the first hint of a friendly uniform without resetting and reexamining the field to see where defenders have settled.
The numbers suggest that Dalton just crumbles when attacked. It’s not as simple as merely big-blitzing Dalton and having him panic; the Bengals have a very good offensive line, and when that line keeps the opposition off Dalton, he remains a league-average passer. To pick an all-inclusive stat, QBR2 pegs Dalton as the 23rd-best quarterback in football over his three years as a pro, with a cumulative QBR of 51.5. When teams rush Dalton with five men or more, his QBR falls to 47.0, but since everybody’s a little worse when they’re blitzed, that’s good enough for 21st in the league.
I will not pretend QBR is perfect, but for the purposes of what we’re talking about here, it will work fine. You can use adjusted net yards per attempt or passer rating or another white-box statistic and the findings won’t be dramatically different.
When the blitzes actually make it home? That’s when Dalton falls apart. Naturally, everybody gets worse under these circumstances. No quarterback wants to run through his reads with J.J. Watt bearing down. That’s human nature. Among the 34 quarterbacks with 500 or more dropbacks over this three-year stretch, the average passer’s QBR was cut by more than half (52.4 percent) when he was either hassled or hit by a pass-rusher. Dalton is not so lucky. Already just a league-average quarterback when nobody’s bothering him, Dalton’s QBR under duress falls to a lowly 11.1, a drop of 81.4 percent. That leaves him as the fifth-most stressed by pressure, and the four guys in front of him don’t make for a bright future:
Gabbert (17.6) actually has a higher QBR under pressure than Dalton. There are several good passers just below Dalton who suffer dramatically with pressure in their face, like Peyton Manning (86.8 QBR without pressure, 26.7 QBR under duress) and Drew Brees (80.3 QBR without pressure, 26.5 QBR under duress), but they’re so good when not bothered that they can slip by. Dalton can’t; over the past three years, when hit or hurried, Dalton’s gone 72-of-217 (33.2 percent) for 932 yards (4.3 yards per attempt) with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.3
By the way, the two quarterbacks who actually posted a better QBR under pressure over the past three years than they did without anybody bothering them: Ben Roethlisberger (a tiny increase from 59.7 without pressure to 60.5 under duress) and, more notably, Jay Cutler (56.0 without pressure, 61.4 with a man on). Practice makes perfect for those two.
What has kept Dalton afloat has been the fact that teams don’t get to him all that often. As previously mentioned, Dalton has had one of the league’s best lines during his time in Cincinnati, and former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was very aggressive about getting the ball out of Dalton’s hands quickly with screens and quick passes. Teams were also naturally afraid of blitzing because it would leave the terrifying Green one-on-one with a cornerback. As a result, Dalton rarely gets hit or hurried. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton has been under duress on just 15.9 percent of his dropbacks over the past three seasons, the fourth-lowest rate among our 34 regulars. Only Tom Brady, Hasselbeck, and Manning were under duress less frequently over that time frame. That figure falls to 12 percent on plays in which teams rush four.4 Dalton can’t handle pressure, but his saving grace is that he sees it less than just about anybody else in the league. That’s a warning for any team with a middling line that might think about acquiring him next offseason, by the way.
When teams have rushed four against Manning over the past two seasons (technically the past three, but he wasn’t around in 2011), they’ve gotten pressure just 9.1 percent of the time. To contrast, when teams rush four against Russell Wilson, they’ve gotten pressure 26.2 percent of the time.
In a way, Dalton’s fatal flaw helps explain why he’s been so disappointing in the playoffs. Observers have been distracted by the wrong problem. It’s not that Dalton can’t handle the big game or the bright lights of January; it’s that he’s drawn a series of teams in the playoffs that were awful matchups for his weakness, notably the Houston Texans. Under Wade Phillips, the Texans blitzed five or more players more often than just about anybody else in football; according to Football Outsiders, they were one of the six teams most likely to send both five and six-plus rushers at the opposing quarterback in 2011 and in 2012.
As frequently as the Texans rushed Dalton with blitzes during their pair of playoff wins against the Bengals,5 the Chargers really turned things around during last season’s wild-card round by bringing heavy pressure. Dalton got off to a hot start in that game, and despite losing a likely touchdown when Gio Bernard fumbled inside the San Diego 5-yard line, he drove his team back downfield for a field goal to go up 10-7 at the stroke of halftime. Up to that point, the Chargers had sent five rushers or more on just six of Dalton’s 18 dropbacks, producing four incompletions (including a pair of missed open receivers), a checkdown for no gain, and a four-yard touchdown pass on a play in which Dalton did a good job of noticing pressure and getting the ball out at the last possible second.
Before turning the spigot off once they got ahead by multiple scores in the second half of that 2011 playoff contest.
It’s pretty clear that Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano decided he was going to go after Dalton during halftime, because the Chargers suddenly got far more aggressive. It very well might have won them the game. Dalton dropped back seven times on Cincinnati’s three ensuing possessions, and the Chargers brought a blitz of five or more or an exotic look (like a four-man zone blitz) on five of those plays. Those seven plays:
The Chargers began that stretch down 10-7; by the time Cincinnati touched the ball again afterward, San Diego was up 20-10. Here’s the final play from that series, a classic example of Dalton gone wrong:
ESPN The Magazine‘s Kevin Van Valkenburg recently relayed a quick story on Twitter about how LeBron James once stunned a reporter by detailing where everybody else was on the floor in the middle of a play from memory. It’s impossible to quantify, but good quarterbacks seem to have the ability to keep track of where defenders are on the field, even as they’re pressured or after they’ve been forced to scramble out of the pocket. Lesser quarterbacks simply don’t have that ability — I once wrote about Michael Vick regularly struggling with this exact issue. It’s the exact problem you see in that GIF with Dalton, who in an attempt to avoid the pressure throws the pass off his back foot at the first sliver of Bengals jersey he sees. It’s an unforgivably bad throw.
Let’s contrast. Here’s a GIF of Dalton’s very next pass, a good throw against pressure:
This throw came early in the fourth quarter, after Dalton’s disastrous run against the blitz at the beginning of the second half. He’s facing exactly the sort of zone blitz that gives him problems; San Diego disguises who’s coming at the snap, overloads by bringing a defensive back off the edge, and drops a lineman back into coverage on the opposite side. Whether it’s because he’d had Gruden screaming at him on the sideline or came down with a momentary lapse of pocket presence, Dalton manages this perfectly: He doesn’t abandon his dropback or falter in his footwork, stays in the shotgun pocket created for him by the line, and makes a precise, strong throw to the outside to an open Green. Pagano would blitz him on the next pass play and Dalton would check down to an open Bernard for a first down, at which point the Chargers stopped blitzing; Dalton dropped back 32 more times and the Chargers brought five or more twice.6 If you make these sorts of throws, you discourage the opposing team from blitzing. If you don’t, big-blitzing coordinators are going to eat you alive.
Some of which surely is because they were up multiple touchdowns.
It’s hard to say whether it’s even possible for Dalton to improve. Handling the pass rush could be an innate thing, or something you have to learn at the NCAA level before having any hope of doing so at NFL speed. We don’t have enough data to provide examples of guys who struggled with blitzes at the beginning of their careers before rapidly improving, and anecdotal examples aren’t coming to mind. It’s easier to think of players like David Carr and Patrick Ramsey, passers who were hit so many times at the beginning of their careers that they seemed to get contact-shy and never got back on track. Dalton will have a new offensive coordinator this offseason in Jackson, who will shift Gruden’s version of the West Coast offense into a more run-oriented scheme. That could help keep Dalton out of obvious passing situations, but the switch also makes it more likely Dalton will line up under center and take more traditional dropbacks, from which it’s harder to see the field and make the sort of quick passes that eliminate the possibility of pressure. In any case, after three seasons at the helm, there’s no Dalton excuse that will satisfy his critics. Nothing short of a playoff win will justify a big new contract for Dalton in Cincinnati. And that playoff win is going to be hard to come by unless Dalton can handle the rush.
And Now … a Word From Chris B. Brown
Even though the evidence seems to point in opposite directions — solid if unspectacular regular-season statistics and 30 wins in three seasons versus three miserable playoff flameouts — we actually know a lot about Dalton: He is, almost certainly, just a guy; good enough to win with but not nearly good enough to win because of. As Barnwell points out, the biggest issue holding Dalton back is that his fundamentals fall to pieces when under pressure, and for a guy who lacks both a big arm and pinpoint accuracy, that’s not good, and it’s also not a trait easily coached away. Barnwell picked out a good example of “bad Dalton” from Cincinnati’s playoff loss to San Diego last season, but he could’ve picked all manner of plays from that game that looked basically the same, all of which were inexcusable for an NFL starting quarterback.
In fairness to Dalton, the Bengals had issues in pass protection against San Diego, but what really worries me is that his mechanics and poise (the two are, unsurprisingly, very often related) tend to deteriorate not only in the face of successful pressure, as was the case against the Chargers, but also when he’s presented with just the threat of pressure.
There was no reason in the above play for Dalton to hurl the ball directly at Jim Leonhard, as he had plenty of time to find another receiver, move in the pocket, or even just throw it away. But in going back over his season, there were lots of plays like this, particularly against teams with varying fronts and blitzes; for example, Dalton threw a staggering seven interceptions in two games against Baltimore.
It’s a shame because when he has a comfortable pocket, Dalton is able to show everyone what his coaches clearly see in him, namely that he understands defenses, route concepts, and even how to look defenders off and throw with anticipation before his receivers make their breaks. Unfortunately for Dalton, the threat of pressure can’t be wished away in the NFL.
One question often asked about Dalton is whether his background with the spread offense in college helped or hurt him. It probably helped, but it’s hard to say. TCU — the rare college spread offense team that boasted top-five defenses while Dalton was there — ran a standard spread: multiple receiver formations, a mix of inside zone and read-option runs, coupled with quick passes and a bevy of screens, which sounds a lot like what he did in Cincinnati under Gruden, minus the emphasis on read-options.7 Dalton’s other top passing concepts at TCU are also found in NFL playbooks, and the reality is that he’s going on Year 4 as a starting quarterback — he’s had plenty of opportunities to adapt to the pro game.
Dalton will forever have a footnote in the annals of football strategy, because he — of all people — was the first quarterback at a major college to run the “inverted veer” play, which Cam Newton rode to a Heisman Trophy at Auburn and since has infiltrated the NFL and become ubiquitous in college and high school football.
In Dalton’s favor, however, is something very important: He has a great set of weapons around him, led by Green. And, at least up until this year, I thought Dalton also benefited from an offensive scheme that played to his strengths, featuring clear, straightforward throws to Green and Marvin Jones on the outside as well as a variety of screens and quick hitters underneath to Tyler Eifert and the electric Bernard. Nevertheless, with Jackson calling plays, my bet is that, unless Bernard explodes and carries the load for the offense (certainly possible), it’s likely we’ll see more bad Dalton than good in 2014.