Is Andy Dalton Doomed to Become NFL’s Newest ‘Choker’ Quarterback?

Anyone with a working television, Twitter account and/or Internet access has likely already read or heard plenty about the monstrosity of a quarterback that is Andy Dalton.

After suffering a first-round loss to the San Diego Chargers–the third straight season the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff hopes ended during the opening slate–Dalton became the fun whooping boy. The Red Riffle completed 29 of 51 passes for 334 yards, but coughed up three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) during Cincinnati’s 27-10 loss.

That now gives Dalton a 56.9 completion percentage and six interceptions in three playoff games, all loses. We all know how this works; this is when all the analysts call for him to quit his NFL career and join the circus as the wild red-haired quarterback who can’t win a playoff game.

Sure, Giovanni Bernard’s costly fumble just outside the end zone prevented the Bengals from taking a 14-7 lead before halftime, and A.J. Green dropped a deep ball that would have allowed them to at least decrease the deficit to one score. But they aren’t quarterbacks, so no worries. Mistakes happen. Nobody is perfect.

Quarterbacks, on the other hand, are expected to play perfectly every game, and would it hurt to cure a few major diseases in the process?

With the usual targets either watching from home (Tony Romo, Matt Ryan) or sitting on the winning side (Philip Rivers), Dalton conveniently takes their place in the never-ending “Quarterback X is a choker” narrative. ESPN Michael Kay wasted no time declaring on his radio show that “Dalton has turned into Tony Romo.”

(That should be considered a compliment as Romo is a terrific quarterback with a higher career quarterback rating than Tom Brady, but it was meant to mean Dalton unravels when the pressure mounts.)

Human troll and destroyer of intelligent discussions about sports Skip Bayless (the same man who once questioned if Andrew Luck possessed the same “it factor” as Tim Tebow… and I swear that wasn’t from The Onion) took the bait and attacked Dalton.

While head coach Marvin Lewis gave his quarterback a vote of confidence, the fact that Dalton’s status as the team’s starting signal-caller came into question is silly in its own right. Dalton has gradually improved in every season, compiling career highs with 4,296 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns and 7.33 yards per attempt.

Of course, every talking head is now wondering whether Dalton “can win the big one.” Because he has not succeeded in the past, it becomes a foregone conclusion that his sullied fate is set in stone for eternity. Can Dalton play excellent football over a three- or four-year string? Of course he can. The question should be “Will Dalton ever win the big one?”

Or better yet, will the Cincinnati Bengals collect a Super Bowl championship with Dalton operating as the starting quarterback? Remember, football, team sport.

But I’ll take the bait and focus the conversation on the scrutinized quarterback.

How Does Dalton Compare to Other QBs?

The Dan Patrick Show’s Andrew “McLovin” Perloff was one of few people not willing to bury Dalton the Monday after the Bengals’ unceremonious playoff exit. 

It’s easy to succumb to the moment and lock yourself in a cell of shortsightedness, but one poor game should not define Dalton.

Instead, let’s delve into the big picture. This season, Dalton ranked seventh in passing yards, 12th in yards per attempt, third in passing touchdowns and 15th with a 88.8 quarterback rating. While his QB rating finished in the middle of the pack, it ranked higher than Brady, Cam Newton and Luck, the last of whom is now being celebrated as a hero for overcoming a 28-point deficit to keep the Indianapolis Colts alive.

To be fair, Dalton certainly has his flaws. Inconsistency plagued him throughout the year, and the turnover issues are nothing new after surrendering 20 picks during the season. Four of those came during the final game of the regular season, so he picked the worst possible time to endure a rough patch.

While he’s underwhelmed in all three postseason tries, we only know he has struggled in the postseason because he has played well enough to guide Cincinnati into extracurricular football. Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks to play in each of the last three postseasons.

Nobody is making Dalton’s case for stardom, but the Bengals better be careful not to let the noise talk them into manufacturing a nonexistent problem at quarterback. Were Cincinnati to place him on the trading block, there’s around a dozen teams that should leap to the phone.

Dalton is no Rodgers or Brady, or even a Romo or Ryan, but he sits comfortably in the underappreciated tier of above-average players. One is Jay Cutler, who just received a massive contract extension.

Dalton’s Career Stats: 60.9 completion percentage, 6.97 YPA, 26 TDs (per season), 16 INTs (per season), 85.7 QB rating

Cutler:  61.0 completion percentage, 7.23 YPA, 23 TDs (per season), 17 INTs (per season), 84.6 QB rating

Then again, Dalton’s critics likely are not Cutler fans either. Cutler also has never won the big one, due mostly to his audacity to not play through an MCL sprain during the NFC Championship Game in 2011. The nerve on that guy. But would we hate a quarterback with those numbers if their team clawed through the playoff bracket and escaped with the Vince Lombardi trophy?

That guy exists. His name is Joe Flacco, and most pundits like him just fine.

Joe Flacco’s Career Stats: 60.2 completion percentage, 6.94 YPA, 20 TDs (per season), 13 INTs (per season), 83.7 QB rating

If not for Flacco going scorched earth on the NFL last January, Dalton compares favorable to his AFC North cohort. But we can’t just ignore that career-defining stretch, so Flacco is a playoff warrior! Nobody will deny his excellence during last season’s playoff run, but he faced none of the same backlash as Dalton even before last year because the Ravens won five playoff games in the four previous years under his watch.

By the way, he completed 44 percent of his passes for 437 passing yards and three interceptions during his first three playoff games. The following year, he stood on the winning side despite completing four passes for 34 yards against the New England Patriots? The only difference between his poor play and Dalton’s blunders? The Ravens saved his behind.

Were I to rank every quarterback, Dalton would find himself in the company of Cutler and Flacco outside the top 10 but firmly inside the top 20. They’re not All-Pros who can mitigate all other weaknesses, but Flacco showed in Baltimore that a guy of that caliber can win it all if surrounded by the right talent.

Although Dalton and Flacco are linked together by division, Dalton resembles another quarterback with championship much more closely. Can anybody think of an inconsistent, turnover-prone quarterback who completely flipped that reputation by heating up at the perfect time, twice?

Can Dalton Follow Eli Manning’s Path to Redemption?

Did you figure it out yet? Dammit, the subhead gave it away. Dalton has a lot of Eli Manning in him.

Remember when reading Kay’s comment above and immediately deciphering that he meant the Romo comparison as an insult. Well the Manning comp, while containing a positive point, actually is construed as a negative sentiment.

Like Manning, Dalton shares the ugly tendency to fall apart at the seams and throw away interceptions in bunches. Manning also exited his third year answering questions about his inability to win a playoff game. He torpedoed the New York Giants’ season during a disastrous rookie campaign before faltering in the first round during Years 2 and 3.

Manning’s First Two Playoff Games (2005-06): 26-45 (57.8 completion %), 274 passing yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs (0-2)

During his fourth season, he re-wrote his legacy behind the protective blanket of a stout offensive line, a fierce rushing attack and a rabid pass rush. When Manning escaped a bear-hug that somehow did not end in a sack, closed his eyes and darted a ball that David Tyree trapped on the tip of his helmet, he promptly went from being an unpolished loose cannon to a calculated winner with ice in his veins.

He wasn’t that great during his first Super Bowl run, but Manning prevailed by avoiding interceptions after throwing 20 during the regular season. Even the most reckless quarterbacks can glue together three or four games without a pick, and even the most precise passers occasionally turn the ball over three times in a nightmare affair.

Take away the titles, and Dalton is a superior thrower on paper. Even after finishing 33rd in ESPN’s QBR behind the likes of Jason Campbell, Kellen Clemens and Matt Schaub, Manning is a made man due to eight playoff games where everything came together.

For a more extreme example of a quarterback who struggled early in his career to win a postseason game, Eli’s brother–you may know him as arguably the greatest quarterback of all time–lost his first three playoff contests. Peyton’s Colts did not crack the postseason win column until his sixth season in 2003.

If you still think Peyton’s imperfect playoff resume tarnishes his track record, you’re a lost cause beyond repair. Yet sadly, hoards of old men in suits labeled Peyton a choker who wasn’t good enough when it counted. Did I mention he threw 55 passing touchdowns this season?

If Flacco and Eli can catch fire and cement their legitimacy as franchise quarterbacks (whether warranted or not), who is to say Dalton cannot accomplish the same?

As evidenced by a dazzling three-game stretch during the season, Dalton is capable of rattling off that type of hot streak. From Weeks 6-8, Dalton combined for 1,034 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Adding on a subdued, but effective 20-27, 212-yard performance to defeat the Patriots the previous week, Dalton propelled his squad to four straight victories.

If that happened during January, legends are woven over Dalton’s greatness. Granted, tougher competition than the Bills, Lions and Jets beckons during the postseason, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Good Andy Dalton to show up one of these winters.


Should New York Jets Still Start Mark Sanchez at Quarterback?

The New York Jets face a conundrum over which quarterback to play as they wind down the NFL season.

Fighting for their postseason lives at 5-7, the Jets will likely need to win every remaining game on their schedule to keep their playoff aspirations alive.

In a matchup displaying abysmal quarterback play, Jets signal-caller Mark Sanchez defied the odds and found a way to produce fewer points than Arizona Cardinals third-stringer Ryan Lindley. Sanchez tossed three interceptions before head coach Rex Ryan yanked him for his third-stringer, Greg McElroy.

Although McElroy saved the team’s season by leading them to a 7-6 win, Ryan announced on Wednesday that Sanchez will keep his starting role today against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Mark Sanchez is in danger of losing his job as the New York Jets' starting quarterback. PHOTO/Juan Gonzalez, Flickr Creative Commons

Mark Sanchez is in danger of losing his job as the New York Jets’ starting quarterback. PHOTO/Juan Gonzalez, Flickr Creative Commons

While many fans will grumble over Sanchez maintaining his job,’s James Walker defended Sanchez before Ryan made the call.

“Let’s start with a disclaimer: This will not be a popular column with New York Jets fans,” Walker wrote. “But the Jets are making a terrible mistake if they do not go back to starting quarterback Mark Sanchez as soon as possible.”

Even a New York Giants fan can quickly grow sour to Walker’s opinion.

Sizing Up Sanchez

To be fair, Walker presents some valid points, mainly regarding the Jets’ depleted wide receiving corps that has stymied Sanchez’s progression. Their top threat, Santonio Holmes, went down for the season with a Lisfranc injury and trusted tight end Dustin Keller missed significant time.

Is Greg McElroy better? Unfortunately, last week’s sample size proves insufficient in evaluating his merit. He rejuvenated a dejected fan base by throwing a game-winning 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland, but a middle schooler could have completed that throw to the wide-open tight end. Despite completing five of seven passes, he only tallied 29 passing yards making short, simple passes. The seventh-rounder’s playmaking ability still remains in question.

However, almost four years of evidence exists to support that Sanchez is not a worthwhile starting quarterback. His 71.4 quarterback rating in 2012 ranks 32nd, lower than the recently benched Blaine Gabbert. A 55.0 completion percentage rates him 33rd, which is especially discouraging since the NFL contains 32 teams.

These numbers are not an aberration either. Sanchez has posted a 72.9 quarterback rating and 55.2 completion percentage throughout his career. Neither is indicative of a capable franchise quarterback, or even a passable starter for that matter.

Since entering the league, Sanchez has registered 79 total touchdowns alongside a staggering 81 turnovers. If not for the Jets success during 2009 and 2010, management would have shown Sanchez the door a while ago.

Football is a Team Sport

The most egregious line from Walker is one commonly cited by those who adamantly stand by Sanchez. As the fourth-year quarterback continues to struggle and show no signs of maturation, his supporters point to the team’s success early in the passer’s career.

“Sanchez provides the Jets with the best chance to win next season,” Walker wrote. “He’s the only quarterback who has led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games.”

When evaluating quarterbacks, it seems easy to forget that football is a team sport. Players at other positions are judged based on their individual performance, but quarterbacks are praised and condemned based on the team’s record. Although the Jets thrived during Sanchez’s initial two seasons in the NFL, the young quarterback does not deserve the credit.

Sanchez has not stepped up his game the way that everyone in the Jets organization hoped, but he also not taken the nosedive fans clamor about because of the Jets’ losing record. Worse production around Sanchez explains the team’s spiraling decline to mediocrity.

When Sanchez arrived in New York, he played behind a powerhouse offensive line that led the way for a premium rushing attack. Thomas Jones headed the Jets’ league-best rushing attack in 2009 with 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Even after Jones departed that offseason, they rated the fourth highest with 148.4 rushing yards per game in 2010.

This season, the Jets have averaged 115.2 rushing yards per game on 3.8 yards per carry. As much as they try to enforce a prolific ground-and-pound offense, their running backs cannot match New York’s productivity during their AFC Championship years.

Defense Makes the AFC Championship Game

Their defense also reigned supreme during that two-year stretch. In 2009, they allowed a league-best 14.8 points and 252.3 yards per game to mitigate Sanchez’s poor rookie effort. Continuing to impose their dominance the following season, Gang Green’s defense ranked third in the NFL with 291.5 yards allowed per contest. Their play, along with a strong running game, carried the Jets to a playoff bid despite Sanchez completing just 54.8 percent of his passes.

This season, however, they have failed to stop anyone without star cornerback Darrelle Revis. They have allowed a pedestrian 24.7 points per game, placing 29th in the NFL with 137.7 rushing yards allowed per game.

During his first two seasons, Sanchez had an exceptional supporting cast that masked his flaws. This year, an average team has drawn scrutiny to Sanchez’s limitations as a game-manager who can’t play the role of savior like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.

Pay to Not Play?

Walker used Sanchez’s bulky contract as a clutch to keep him atop of the depth chart. He feels the Jets are compelled to stay loyal to Sanchez because he will earn a guaranteed $8.25 million next season.

“Sanchez will be a Jet next year, whether New York fans like it or not, and that kind of money has ‘starter’ written all over it.”

So since the Jets misjudged his worth years ago, they are now forced to stick with their mistake?

Ryan could take a page from Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s playbook and put sunk costs aside to make the move most beneficial to his club. After signing quarterback Matt Flynn to a $26 million deal over the offseason, Carroll still named rookie Russell Wilson his starter. Wilson, a third-round draft pick, has completed 63.4 percent of his passes and earned a 95.2 quarterback rating to propel the Seahawks to legit playoff-contender status, especially after defeating the Chicago Bears on the road last week.

What’s done in the past cannot be changed. Sanchez is going to make $8.25 million whether he takes the field or carries the clipboard, but the only thing that should matter is which player provides the team with better production that sets them up more favorably to win football games. If a reserve earning a minimum salary can outplay a multi-millionaire, then so be it.

FINAL VERDICT: The jury is still out on McElroy, so it’s possible that Sanchez currently remains the team’s best option at quarterback. However, since Sanchez should not play a pivotal role in their future, they might be better served giving McElroy an extended tryout to close the season.