CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton was in a leadership position the day he stepped into Paul Brown Stadium. He was the quarterback. Quarterbacks lead the offense, whether they’re rookies like Dalton was then or veterans like Dalton is now.
The difference now is this is Dalton’s team. Andrew Whitworth is gone. Domata Peko is gone. Dalton remains. And the the man who runs the franchise has complete confidence in the quarterback.
“Andy Dalton is the lead dog here,” team President Mike Brown said. “There isn’t anything he has to take over. He’s in that spot. He’s well respected by everybody in the Bengals group -- from the front office to the coaches to the players. He’s our guy. He can do the job. He can get us there. I don’t know what more I can say about Andy Dalton.”
Dalton’s seventh season starts Friday when the Bengals open training camp. He has a tough task. A two-year purge of veterans has made the Bengal a young team. They're also coming off the worst season in Dalton’s tenure -- a 6-9-1 year with no playoff berth.
It was Dalton’s first losing season ever. He won in junior high. He won in high school. He won in college. He figures his worst previous year was an 8-5 season his freshman year at Texas Christian University.
“It felt different,” Dalton said. “There’s something you can take from last year, and things to go back and look at to see what you could have done different. This was what this whole offseason has been for, to see what was done well and what we didn’t do good. We need to getting better at things we do well and really improve on things we didn’t do well on. This offseason has been good for us.”
Dalton completed 364 of 583 passes for 4,206 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions, despite playing much of the year without his two best receivers -- A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. His passer rating was 91.8, second best of career, but well short of the 106.3 mark he put up in 2015.
More like Kenny than Boomer
But Dalton measures his success by the team’s record, so by that criteria 2016 was his worst year.
“I think that’s the most important stat,” he said, “We need to get back to what we were doing and win when it matters.”
That’s a subtle reference to the thing that’s missing on Dalton’s resume. For all the success Dalton has had as a Bengal, he’s never won a playoff game. Success in January is what gets quarterbacks to the elite level.
With all the questions regarding this team, just making it to January would be a major accomplishment. And, again, because of the exodus of veterans through free agency, a lot of the burden is on Dalton.
Coach Marvin Lewis thinks Dalton is up to the task much more than he was seven years ago.
“He knows that he’s got to be the leader of the football team,” Lewis said. “He didn’t need to do that early on because we needed him to focus on being quarterback and to focus on doing his job.
“But now he’s out with the defense and the rest of the offensive team, and that’s good. Those guys want to be led, and he’s done a good job of that. They’re happy and pleased with him that way, and they continually encourage him to let him know they want to be led. He knows that.”
On the great Bengal quarterback scale, Dalton’s falls a lot closer to Ken Anderson than Boomer Esiason as far as personality and style. (By the way, Dalton’s career quarterback rating of 89.1 is best in Bengals history).
Anderson wasn’t a great interview -- well, actually he was a pretty lousy one -- and he wasn’t the prototypical big-armed quarterback. But he was accurate and mobile.
Esiason was a great interview. He loved the back and forth with the media. He'd drop funny lines on a daily basis. He was a vocal leader and he was the prototypical big-armed quarterback.
Dalton understands that to lead you have to be yourself. You can’t act like you’re Boomer when your personality is all Kenny.
“Everybody’s personality is a little different,” Dalton said. “At the end of the day, you just want to be yourself, because people can see when you’re not. But if you’re going to talk about leadership, being the quarterback and in that leadership position, when you start as a rookie, you’re in a leadership position but you haven’t done anything yet. Once you’re at the point where I am in my career, it’s easier to say things, especially with the younger guys. It’s easier for them to listen, because I’ve got the experience of doing it.”
The Bengals drafted Dalton in the second round in 2011 with the 35th pick overall. It was the lockout year. Carson Palmer was holding out, threatening to retire if not traded. Dalton was the starter from Game 1 of the preseason.
“You get in the huddle and there are guys in there who are 10 years older than you,” he said. “It’s just a different time. I honestly am not the same kind of leader now that I was then. But I felt like I did all right that first year.”
The Bengals exceeded all expectations by going 9-7 that year and making the playoffs. They did the same in the each of Dalton's first five seasons.
Leading off the field, too
The Bengals have dealt with myriad off-the-field issues in Dalton’s time here. But no one could be a better representative of a franchise than Dalton.
He and his wife, Jordan, began the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation in 2011. It aids families with seriously ill and physically challenged children in Cincinnati and Dalton’s hometown of Katy, Texas. The Foundation’s Celebrity Waiter Night in June at Hilton Netherland Plaza raised over $225,000. Teammates Cedric Ogbuehi, Giovani Bernard, AJ Green, Clint Boling, Jake Fisher, Brandon LeFell, Eric Winston, Vincent Rey and Cedric Peerman participated.
“The fact that we were able to do that in one night is pretty special,” Dalton said. “We’re trying to find ways to make it bigger because there’s so much need in this community. There’s need everywhere. But we feel passionate about this community. We’re trying to get as much money as we can and help as many people as we can."
Dalton’s work in the community has given him sense of Cincinnati.
“I feel like if you’re from Cincinnati and you grew up in Cincinnati, you stay in Cincinnati,” he said. “It’s a very loyal city. That’s been one thing that’s been cool, to see support that you not only get from a football standpoint, but off the field as well with the foundation being in the community. There are a lot of good people here.”
And those in the Bengals locker room will tell you one of them is Andy Dalton.