CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton seemed poised to answer the one question that remains about him: Can he win in January?
He was having his best year in 2015, with his best surrounding cast. Then he broke his thumb making a tackle after an interception against Pittsburgh in Week 13.
You can question the logic in tackling a 303-pound lineman like Dalton did. But you can’t question what kind of year he was having.
In an instant Dalton went from MVP candidate to spectator. He missed the last three games and the playoff loss to the Steelers.
Sunday night, Dalton's drive to get that January win begins in earnest with the Bengals’ preseason game against Jacksonville. Dalton doesn’t attach any added significance because Sunday will be his first extended playing time since the injury.
“Last year’s last year,” Dalton said. “I feel like I’ve played a lot of football since being here. However much they want me to play, that’s what it’ll be. But it will be good to get out there and be with everybody.”
Dalton is entering his sixth season as the Bengals quarterback. No one can argue with his regular-season record: He has the fifth highest regular-season winning percentage of any active NFL quarterback. The four above him – Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger – have Super Bowl rings.
Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs.
Again, Dalton seemed primed to end that streak last year. The freak injury forced him to miss time for the first time in his career.
“I felt like it was the best year of my career,” he said. “I’ve never lacked confidence, but a year like that gives you more confidence and shows the other guys that you’re doing the right things, giving your team the best chance to win.”
Dalton broke the Bengal team record with a quarterback rating of 106.3. Dalton threw for 3,250 yards and completed 66.1 percent of passes. He threw for 25 touchdowns versus only seven interceptions. He cut his interception rate in half from the previous year.
“Our quarterback continues to blossom with his leadership and his personality,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
Until he blossoms in the playoffs, though, Dalton will never be considered an elite quarterback.
‘Getting better every day’
Getting to the playoffs is a challenge in itself. The Bengals bring back a nucleus from last year, but Dalton will be working with a new cast of wide receivers. His No. 1 target, A.J. Green, returns, but Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu left via free agency. Free agent Brandon LaFell, second-round pick Tyler Boyd, sixth-round pick Cody Core and holdover Brandon Tate will need to fill the void at wideout.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Dalton said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got guys who are going to help. Those guys are competing and doing really good things.
“I feel like they’re getting better every day. As the weeks go on, we’re seeing more and more out of them. That’s exactly what you want to see happen.”
Dalton has barely played in the preseason so far -- just a little over a quarter total in two games.
“We’ve done some good things,” Dalton said. “Guys are making plays. We’re seeing who the guys are that are going to help us out. For me, I haven’t spent a lot of time out there.”
That will change Sunday. The third preseason game is often called the dress rehearsal; Dalton played that down.
“This is the one we play more,” Dalton said. “I don’t think we have a different mindset going into this game than we have going into any of other preseason games. You can say it’s a dress rehearsal because we play more. For us, we’re just trying to make sure we’re sharp, got good communication and move the ball and we look good as a unit.”
For a quarterback like Dalton, the preseason doesn’t matter. The regular season opener -- Sept. 11 against the Jets in New Jersey -- is another matter.
“It’s big,” he said. “That first game obviously sets the tome for the season – shows everybody what this team is going to be. There’s a lot of importance on Week 1.
“We’re working toward Week 1. We’re not working toward Preseason 3.”
In Dalton’s case and the Bengals’ case, though, they’re really working toward January.