The numbers aren’t pretty for Andy Dalton. Two games into the season and Dalton is completing just over 54% of his passes with 0 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He’s on pace to be sacked over 60 times. The Bengals offense has scored a grand total of 9 points in two games. The question is starting to be asked is it time to move on from Dalton and instead give backup AJ McCarron an opportunity to turn the season around.
Watching some of the game last night the name that kept popping into my head watching Dalton was Matt Schaub. Dalton wasn’t throwing the mind numbingly bad interceptions Schaub had but watching him play was just like watching his confidence disappear before your eyes similar to what happened to Schaub at the end in Houston.
I always looked at Dalton similar to the way I looked at Schaub. While Schaub put up better numbers in his highlight seasons the consensus feeling was that he’s an ok player to have but not the kind of player that will win you any games. That’s pretty much been the knock on Dalton as well. His a capable guy when things are good but when games get tight or the chips are down, he probably isn’t going to rise to the occasion.
Eventually the pressure of not winning got to Schaub. After multiple years of either failing to make the playoffs or failing to advance the questions started coming about whether or not Schaub should be the Texans starting QB. As that pressure mounted his season and career as a starter fell apart. Despite being a Pro Bowl alternate the year before, Schaub was benched midway thru 2013 for Case Keenum and was never really heard from again as a starter.
Dalton’s looked like he was pressing last night just like Schaub was. It was awful. He had a receiver open with nobody within 7 yards of him and he floated a pass over his head. On another play he threw the ball about 10 yards out of bounds on what looked like a simple pattern outside. I think at one point he had some imaginary teammates playing out of bounds that he was throwing the ball in the direction of. Cris Collinsworth was pretty much at a loss for words on some of these plays.
Dalton’s best drive came late in the first half as he drove the team near the goal line but had to settle for a field goal. The announcers were trying to make it seem like some lightbulb went off in his head, hoping that they could get a game to call, but nothing really changed. They opened the second half with a nice drive for a field goal and that was it. The Bengals basically looked like they were being quarterbacked by a journeyman like a Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Bengals are more or less in a tear it down phase. After four straight years of double digit wins and five straight playoff seasons, the Bengals started to look slower and older last year. If you look at the changes on offense maybe its no surprise he is struggling.
When you have a player like a Dalton that is more of a manager than a gunslinger you have to keep him surrounded with good talent. Last year they allowed Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, his second and third wide receivers, to depart in free agency. This year they removed the faces up front when they let starting tackle Andrew Whitworth and starting guard Kevin Zeitler to sign elsewhere. The losses on an offensive line I don’t think can be overstated.
Dalton’s contract is cheap and easy to walk away from either in a trade or just an outright release. The Bengals would take on just $2.4 million in dead money next year if they moved on, which is basically peanuts in todays NFL. Given the shortage of quarterbacks in the NFL I am sure that they could get a low draft pick for Dalton if he got benched provided that Dalton lowered his salary from $13.7 million to somewhere closer to $7 million with a chance to earn back the difference via performance. Considering Dalton’s contract was the last true mid level NFL contract given at the position I would imagine he would be open to that type of contract tinkering.
That said the Bengals rarely walk away from players. One of the reasons the Bengals have one of the oldest, but lower cost, rosters in the NFL is because they don’t jettison players. They, more than any team in the league, don’t look at that signing bonus as a sunk cost and instead just play it out. The team has just $1.3M in dead money this year, lowest in the NFL. The year before they were second to last with about $3.3 million and the year before that had the least amount in the NFL around $4 million. They don’t walk from players like Dalton, they play them until they hit free agency. It’s pretty rare for a “bad team” to incur no dead money and in this case it’s because they don’t make changes. That should not be surprising when you look at the way they have treated their head coaching position.
The other thing I think they would consider here is contracts. Dalton is in fact cheap. At $13.7 million next year, $16.2 in 2019, and $17.7 million in 2020 he is one of the lowest cost, non-rookie starters in the NFL. McCarron is cheap too since he should be a restricted free agent next year, but he will be looking at a much bigger payday if he plays this year and looks good.
Only the Bengals know how good they think McCarron can be based on what they see in practice. Everyone else- fans, other teams, media, and so on- is just speculating. If McCarron does stick to the bench this year the Bengals may have option to sign him to a low cost two or three year extension that would be representative of a high level backup/journeyman. That would be around $7 million a season with a chance to nearly double that money if he plays well.
If McCarron is good enough to turn the season around money should not play a role, but if McCarron is simply a younger, less experienced version of Dalton it’s better to get him on the cheap. If you put him in and he does decent enough, say he puts up big numbers on a 7-9 team, he is going to get a big payday at some point and the team will lose that option of extending at a reasonable salary. If you get him on the cheap it’s pretty easy to go with the “let the best man win” situation next summer and then dump Dalton if he losses and still have a cheap QB for the two years after that. In hindsight, the Bengals best course of action may have been to try to extend McCarron this year. The Bengals may also just see it worthwhile to play out the string, let the chips fall, and hope they can draft a quarterback.
It’s a tough spot for the Bengals and really its one that they have gotten themselves into with the way they manage their roster, where they treat almost all their players as having close to guaranteed contracts. The pressure is really going to mount on them to make a change if things continue to go badly, but given their history I’m not sure if they will make such a move.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.