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Right now, the quarterback and organization are in the final stages of a bad relationship. Neither gets what it needs from the other, and they tolerate each other simply out of necessity. Meanwhile, the union persists because no one is brave enough to end it.
Dalton is never going to be the type of quarterback who can carry an organization. The Bengals have reached the point where they should recognize his limitations and try to improve at the game’s most important position, especially with a promising rookie on the roster.
The 31-year-old signal-caller isn’t a bad option. But he’s not a particularly good one, either.
Dalton fits the very definition of mediocre. He has never produced more than 4,293 passing yards or 33 touchdowns in any season. Ten different quarterbacks eclipsed that yardage last season alone. Since Dalton posted his career high in touchdowns six years ago, other quarterbacks have thrown for 34 or more scores 19 times.
Last season, the three-time Pro Bowl selection—the most recent of which came in 2016—posted an adjusted completion percentage of 72.8, which ranked 26th among 29 qualifiers, per The Athletic’s Joe Goodberry, before suffering a season-ending thumb injury.
His career quarterback rating is tied for 12th among active players.
In a high-octane league, Dalton is the NFL‘s version of a Toyota Prius. He’s reliable and safe. But the position demands more juice. In a world where Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield redefine how the position is played, Dalton pales in comparison.
Granted, the Bengals quarterback deserves credit for his emergence as an immediate starter in his rookie campaign to help kickstart the organization’s turnaround. Prior to Dalton’s arrival, Cincinnati endured three losing seasons in the previous four years. The team had already worked its way up from being a laughingstock throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but the group struggled to find any consistency.
The front office cobbled together a stellar 2011 draft class with wide receiver A.J. Green in the first round and Dalton in the second. Their arrival sparked a run of five straight playoff appearances, albeit all losses in the Wild Card Round, and two AFC North division titles.
During that run, the Bengals sunk a six-year, $96 million contract into their starting quarterback, the remnants of which could still have a profound impact on the team’s future.
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Three straight losing seasons change a franchise’s perspective. Owner Mike Brown finally decided to part ways with longtime head coach Marvin Lewis. Enter the fresh-faced Zac Taylor.
“I’ve watched Andy closely for the last eight years dating back to his college days and throughout the NFL,” Taylor told PFT Live shortly after being hired. “… I’ve always thought very highly of him. I think he’s a great fit for what we’re going to do. He’s really smart. He’s accurate. He can get the ball out on time. So I think he’s gonna fit this offense to a ‘T’ and I’m excited to work with him.”
Attachments to Dalton are now tenuous, despite Taylor’s affirmation.
First, the new coaching staff isn’t invested in the incumbent quarterback. More importantly, the organization isn’t tied to Dalton for an extended period of time. Financial investment often dictates personnel decisions, but Dalton’s contract, which has two remaining years, no longer includes any guaranteed money. The Bengals could cut their starter today and not owe anything against the salary cap.
As such, the franchise continues to have a low-key quarterback problem.
So, the Bengals’ decision to pass on Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins with the 11th overall pick was nothing short of baffling. Instead, the front office chose North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley in the fourth round.
Even though he’s not a high-round selection, Finley provides a legitimate alternative because of how he’s played. Through two preseason contests, the 24-year-old rookie completed 75.0 percent of his passes for 259 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“He was very cool and calm. We’ve got a lot of confidence with him in there,” Taylor said of Finley’s performance against the Washington Redskins, per the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Tyler Dragon. “I thought he did a nice job.”
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The coach’s postgame assessment built upon last week’s encouragement.
“At no point have we ever been discouraged with [Finley],” Taylor said Wednesday, per The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. “We’ve always seen his traits as a passer and his football IQ. He’s more than capable of doing it, and he showed that in the game the other day. He’s in a good rhythm, and he’s very comfortable.”
Cool and calm? Check.
Coaching staff’s confidence in him? Check.
More than capable of doing the job? Check.
Taylor’s descriptions don’t sound like he’s talking about a rookie signal-caller after his first two preseason contests. They sound more like a young quarterback who’s ready to take the starting job.
“He’s confident in the huddle,” wide receiver Auden Tate said, per Geoff Hobson of the Bengals’ official site. “He doesn’t seem like a rookie.”
Outstanding efficiency during the preseason doesn’t always translate to success in the regular season, though the traits Finley has displayed do.
Finley shined because of a combination of poise, pocket navigation, anticipation and an understanding of what the defense gives him. He knows how to run an offense. In some ways, Finley is Matt Ryan-esque in his approach. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it’s usually effective. He worked from under center (three-, five- and seven-step drops), shotgun and play action. He completed timing passes and deep in routes into tight windows.
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Considering the offensive line is a disaster and Green isn’t expected back from an ankle injury until after the start of the regular season, all of the aforementioned traits will be crucial for whoever starts at quarterback.
Finley has been so good that previous backup Jeff Driskel asked Taylor for non-quarterback opportunities, according to Hobson.
Of course, a quarterback doesn’t fall into the third day of the draft for no reason. Finley, like Dalton, doesn’t exhibit elite arm talent. Out-breaking throws can be problematic. What the rookie showed during his collegiate career and initial NFL action is solid decision-making to put the ball exactly where it’s supposed to be. Finley can still make more difficult throws because he anticipates them so well and isn’t afraid of tight coverage.
At the very least, the Bengals must consider the possibility of an open quarterback competition.
The situation is less about Finley’s potential for growth and far more about Dalton’s inability to be anything more than a cog in the system. Finley might not be a better option, but they won’t know until he leads the first-team offense. The uncertainty coupled with the possibility of great reward is the type of risk the Bengals must take because they’ve fallen behind everyone else in the division. If the risk doesn’t pay dividends, the franchise’s direction next offseason simplifies.
As it’s currently constructed, Cincinnati’s roster can’t compete with any consistency this season, and Andy Dalton is a significant reason why.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.