CINCINNATI (AP) — Andy Dalton got accustomed to hearing boos as he led the Bengals to the playoffs each of his first four seasons. Every interception brought another torrent. Every playoff loss seemed to seal his reputation.
Can't win the big one. Not cool under pressure. He'll never be one of the elites.
At the start of training camp last year, he was greeted by a fan banner calling for his backup to start. When he was introduced before the All-Star celebrity softball game at Great American Ball Park last July, he was booed.
He was blamed for the Bengals' inability to get past the first round of the playoffs.
Not anymore. The new Andy Dalton has let the Bengals to a 5-0 start and into the early Super Bowl discussion.
"He's in what I call that constant pursuit of greatness, and that's what he wants," tackle and team leader Andrew Whitworth said. "He wants to be great. He'll never say that because that's the kind of person he is, but that's what he wants. Every week I see him trying to do something to achieve that."
Dalton is changing everyone's perception with his torrid start. The fifth-year quarterback has been spectacular during the Bengals' unbeaten run, ranking among the NFL's top passers in every category.
Heading into Buffalo (3-2) on Sunday, Dalton's passer rating of 115.6 ranks third behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. He leads the NFL with a passer rating of 154.7 in the fourth quarter — Carson Palmer is next at 137.8.
The conversation has changed.
"When you hear people talking about you, you don't want them talking negatively about you," Dalton said. "Obviously I've had to bear a lot of it. But we're 5-0 right now. Hopefully at the end of the year they're still talking the same way."
Dalton has provided hints that this start might have staying power.
He worked on his throwing in the offseason and has been much more accurate on his long passes. He has a full complement of targets with tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver Marvin Jones recovered from significant injuries. And he has a better understanding of what opposing defenses are doing, allowing him to react quickly.
Through five games, he has been sacked only six times and thrown two interceptions. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson described Dalton as "a different cat. He doesn't blink, he doesn't flinch.
"I think it's confidence," Jackson said. "I keep hearing the term 'swag.' He's swagged out. He is playing his tail off."
Dalton also has taken more of a leadership role in correcting mistakes during practice and leading team meetings. He's been more vocal about what players need to do in order for the offense to succeed.
"It's part of what's been asked of me and what I feel is necessary, so the receivers are seeing what I'm seeing and we're all on the same page," Dalton said. "I think guys understand what I'm seeing and what I expect from them and vice versa. I think it's definitely helped us."
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