The Bengals organization is where the fault should lie for the Andy Dalton controversy. It’s been overblown regarding what the team should do with the “face of the franchise” going forward. In reality, both sides are partially correct. It wouldn’t have been such an issue had the organization handled it’s message to the public in a more pensive fashion.
The Bengals have relentlessly aggravated and fractured its fan base by delivering an unclear message. In response to Dalton critics, they often have made comments supporting their quarterback, expressing a belief in his development, yet regard Dalton as strong-minded and possessing the ability to ignore these critics. If this is so, then why even make these statements so often? Why not simply deflect these questions as inflammatory rather than as pertinent or respond to them in jest? It just comes across as hypocritical. Dalton does seem to possess these attributes and being a seasoned veteran, he should be able to handle the criticism without the constant reaffirmations from the franchise. The organization must realize that words won’t change the critics. These types of statements, along with Dalton’s inconsistent performance, only serve to encourage them while leading fans to question if Dalton truly has this necessary mindset.
The organization has often spoke about the records Dalton has set and his place in NFL history regarding a player’s first three years. This sounds more like a team trying to justify it’s choice to stick with him rather than a true, unequivocal belief in him. The team clearly does believe in Dalton, and for good reason, but the message it has sent is, yet again, wrong. This goes right along with calling Dalton the “face of the franchise.” With all due respect to Dalton, this is clearly false. When fans think of a “face” of their franchise, they go to a player who exudes success and leadership. The offense has been on the upswing, but clearly the defense, led by Vontaze Butfict, is the reason for its success. Placing this title on Dalton is not only wrong, but lends itself to misconceptions and frustration amongst fans as they debate why a franchise would sacrifice so much for a guy who clearly isn’t the leader nor the focal point for its success. This especially takes place in light of Mike Brown’s comments implying that Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins were “lost” to be ready for Dalton’s extension. I understand the game of chess going on here, but that is an inappropriate and misplaced comment. That’s the kind of stuff that should be kept “in-house.” Brown was wrong to make this statement as the team was never going to sign a third defensive lineman to a mega-deal (after Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins), evidenced by their drafting of Margus Hunt. Anthony Collins played himself into starter’s money and signed for six million/year. If the Bengals chose not to pay him this money, that shouldn’t be applied to Dalton. This “quarterback money” would be spent on a long-term quarterback at some point regardless of the team’s choices with other players. Though the comment can be construed as true, it was really just another example of hypocrisy. The Bengals can’t call Dalton the “face of the franchise” and then not pay him “franchise” money. It may even have given Dalton’s representatives the idea that they should be chasing this type of contract. It has lent itself to false beliefs regarding the team’s stance on Dalton, along with continued vexation amongst the fan base.
Still, this PR mishandling doesn’t change what the team should do with Dalton. This is where both sides of the debate are partially correct. Marvin Lewis stated recently that Jay Cutler’s contract is the benchmark being used by Dalton’s representatives while seeking a new contract. This could actually be helpful when resigning Dalton. When looking at Cutler’s deal you immediately see the 7 years and 18+ million/year. Because of Mike Brown’s “losing players” comment, fans can’t help but engage in a debate over how much money Dalton should demand and how it will impact the retention of other players. A closer look reveals crucial information for the Bengals; Cutler could be cut following the 2016 season with no further penalty to the Bears. The Bengals could structure Dalton’s contract in a similar way, though he shouldn’t demand exactly this amount of money nor guaranteed money. These years would provide AJ McCarron with the necessary time to learn the system and potentially develop into a starting-caliber quarterback if Dalton continues to falter. This would happen near the end of McCarron’s current deal and resigning him at that point would probably be inexpensive, certainly no more than the Bengals would be paying Dalton in his new deal. If McCarron falters, these few “guaranteed” years on Dalton’s contract would also enable the team to draft another quarterback and develop him for a year or two. Whatever happens, the team would have the necessary time and a plan for the future.
The truth is Dalton has done pretty much everything that is expected of a young quarterback. He developed each year, but has struggled in the big moments. This isn’t unheard of. It took Peyton Manning six years to win his first playoff game and nine years to win his first Super Bowl. Drew Brees needed the same amount of time to win his first playoff game and Super Bowl. And Eli Manning needed four years for both of his wins. Dalton was put into the starting role from day one. His NFL development has taken place in a system that was foreign to him coming out of college and wasn’t built for his skill set. This is a difficult situation for any quarterback. During his tenure at TCU, Dalton played in a run-heavy system and the discrepancy in play-calling only increased during Dalton’s tenure. Simultaneously his completion percentage and the team’s record improved. Dalton’s career with the Bengals has emphasized the pass and the play-calling discrepancy has also increased over his three years. Although Dalton’s numbers have improved, his overall effectiveness has seemingly wavered; most telling is his interceptions and interception percentage, amongst the league’s worst. The Bengals knew this when drafting Dalton in 2011 and only now are they creating a game plan that befits Dalton. This all leads back to the “face of the franchise” comments. When your strong point is defense, you’re moving towards emphasizing the run, and your quarterback hasn’t reached a “franchise” level, why call your quarterback the “face of the franchise?”
The organization has taken the necessary steps towards success to this point. In this way they’ve stood behind their quarterback, but have sent incorrect and hypocritical messages causing misconceptions about the organization’s direction and Dalton. Going forward the team shouldn’t comment on a player’s contract situation but rather what the player needs to do in order to become better. And, when speaking, they should be willing to be honest about a player’s performance rather than provide unbefitting accolades to players in order to justify their decisions as it only and exasperates unnecessary debates. This would give the fan base confidence in the franchise’s management and vision while uniting the fans in support of the team.