The Cincinnati Bengals have their first real chance to get the taste of their colossal meltdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers out of their mouths this Sunday in their opener against the New York Jets. One man with plenty to prove in the Bengalsâ€™ opener is their quarterback, Andy Dalton.
Dalton, fairly or not, receives a lot of criticism for being a player who comes up big in small moments and small in big ones. To many, Daltonâ€™s regular season record of 49-26-1 (fifth-best win percentage among active quarterbacks whoâ€™ve started at least 10 games), compared with his playoff record of 0-4 is proof of that.
However, Dalton appeared to have turned a corner last season. Heâ€™s always been a solid statistical quarterback, but last season was far and away the best of his career. In fact, through 12 games and change Dalton posted 3,250 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Strange though it may sound, those numbers had some talking about Dalton as a potential MVP candidate.
Unfortunately for Dalton, he suffered a season-ending hand injury in Week 14. That injury cost him a shot at reversing the narrative surrounding the man known as â€śthe red rifle.â€ť He didnâ€™t get the chance to wrap up a statistically elite season and contend for postseason awards.
More importantly, he didnâ€™t get a chance to go after the first postseason victory of his career.
Dalton canâ€™t exorcise all those demons just by winning in Week 1. Some of his critics wonâ€™t be silenced until he wins a playoff game. That said, he could prove that the progression he showed in â€™15 wasnâ€™t an aberration. That heâ€™s made significant strides and is ready to lead Cincinnati to playoff glory.
Awaiting him is a stingy Jetsâ€™ defense. New York returns the leagueâ€™s fourth overall defense and its second-ranked run defense. With the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams suiting up for Week 1, the Bengals wonâ€™t likely have an easy time of running the ball. Which means the onus will fall on Andy Dalton to put points on the board.
The sledding doesnâ€™t figure to be much easier there. New York had just a middle-of-the-pack passing defense last season (of course, being so strong against the run gave opponents no other choice), but still return Darrelle Revis to keep A.J. Green from exploding. After that, Cincinnatiâ€™s currently at a dearth of threatening pass-catchers.
The Bengals head into their opener without Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu, their second-, third- and fifth-leading pass-catchers from a season ago. In fact, Giovani Bernard is the only returner aside from Green who caught more than 15 passes in a Cincinnati uniform last year.
So this means that, aside from Green and Bernard, Dalton will be relying upon an unproven rookie in Tyler Boyd, an underwhelming veteran in Brandon LaFell and, in place of the injured Eifert, a second-year tight end in Tyler Kroft with all of 11 career catches in his pro career.
Dalton doesnâ€™t need to be Tom Brady and turn these guys into stars. But he does need to take command of the offense and put his pass-catchers in position to make plays and help the Bengals win. This group will get better when Eifert returns and as Boyd develops, but as things stand, itâ€™s maybe the weakest Daltonâ€™s had in his pro career.
Again, no Week 1 victory can change perception of the Bengals. Theyâ€™ll have to wait until January to try and do that. But a win against one of the AFCâ€™s stronger teams early in the season would certainly be a good start towards that goal.