Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat. Questions, comments, casserole ideas? Hit us up on Twitter at @ryanwilson_07.
In previous years, Coach Killers has ended with the regular season, primarily because it's the rare occasion that a playoff performance is so abysmal that it would promptly lead to discussions about the coach losing his job. But that's what happened Sunday when the Bengals, 8-0 at home during the regular season, imploded against a Chargers team that entered December with a 5-7 record (and, incidentally, a Week 13 loss to the Bengals).
So for the third time in as many seasons, the Bengals are one-and-done in the playoffs. And, yes, there is plenty of finger-pointing to go around, but much of the blame -- fair or not -- rests with quarterback Andy Dalton.
Selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Dalton has started every game of his career. And while he's flashed glimpses of franchise-QB potential, he has an uncanny knack for shrinking in big games.
It has led to the inevitable comparisons to Mark Sanchez (more on that below), the Jets' first-round pick in 2009, who was the beneficiary of a fantastic defense and a solid running game but always fell short of expectations. Though, to his credit, Sanchez helped the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearance in his first two seasons. If Dalton had managed that, there would already be a statue erected in his honor. Instead, he's oh-fer in the postseason. Hence the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth by Bengals faithful.
Back in early November, after Cincinnati lost to Miami thanks to three Dalton interceptions (including a Brent Grimes pick-six), we wrote about the quarterback's struggles in nationally televised games. Whether's it's coincidence or something more is another matter, but the numbers (which have been updated below with subsequent games against the Steelers and Chargers) are troublesome:
* Wild card loss to the Texans, 31-10. Dalton: 27-of-42 (64.3 percent) with 0 TDs, 3 INTs.
* Sunday Night Football, Week 7 loss to the Steelers, 24-17. Dalton: 14-of-28 (50 percent) for 105 yards, with 1 TD, 1 INT.
* Thursday Night Football, Week 14 win over the Eagles, 34-13. Dalton: 13-of-27 (48.2 percent) for 127 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs.
* Wild card loss to the Texans, 19-13. Dalton: 14-of-30 (46.7 percent) for 127 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT.
* Monday Night Football, Week 2 win over the Steelers, 20-10. Dalton: 25-of-45 (55.6 percent) for 1 TD, 0 INTs.
* Thursday Night Football, Week 9 overtime loss to the Dolphins, 22-20. Dalton: 32-of-53 (60.4 percent) for 0 TDs, 3 INTs.
* Sunday Night Football, Week 15 loss to the Steelers, 30-20. Dalton: 25-of-44 (56.8 percent) for 230 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs.
* Wild card loss to the Chargers, 27-10. Dalton: 29-of-51 (56.8 percent) for 334 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs and a fumble.
Dalton's inconsistency is as maddening as it is hard to explain. If nothing else, it reinforces one of the tenets of today's NFL: Championship teams all have one thing in common -- franchise quarterbacks. Dalton has two years remaining on his rookie deal, and unlike Sanchez, we can't imagine a scenario where the Bengals offer him an extension.
(Sanchez, who suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason, was paid $8.25 million in 2013, months after the Jets used a second-round pick on their next franchise quarterback, Geno Smith.)
But the differences between Dalton and Sanchez don't end with their contracts; Dalton's a more accurate passer (60.9 to 55.1), has a higher career yards-per-reception average (7.0 to 6.5), and a better TD-to-INT ratio (1.6 to 0.98). Dalton also outpaced Sanchez in Football Outsiders' QB efficiency metric in 2011 and 2012. (And in 2013, Dalton ranked 16th, ahead of Cam Newton and Jay Cutler.)
The takeaway: There are a couple. First, things could be worse for the Bengals -- they could have Sanchez. Second, Dalton may be better than the league's worst quarterback in 2012 but that's little consolation when he has one touchdown and six interceptions in three playoff games.
Which brings us to Cutler, who signed a seven-year contract days after the Bears' missed the playoffs. But the deal, worth $126.7 million -- including $54 million guaranteed -- is a no-brainer as far as we're concerned.
Is Cutler a top-tier quarterback? Nope.
Can you win with Cutler? Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery think so, and so do we.
Put another way: If the Bears let Cutler walk, not only would quarterback-needy teams line up to pay him that $126.7 million, Chicago would then be in the market for their next franchise QB. What are the chances that player would be better than Cutler, 25 percent? Forty percent, max?
We say it all the time: The NFL is an ever-evolving passing league that remains woefully short on passers. It's why Cutler would be in demand. It's also why, even when the Bengals surrounded Dalton with some of the most explosive players in the game and a tenacious defense, it hasn't been enough.
So when Dalton's contract expires after the 2014 season, there will be no such conversations of new deals. Or at least there shouldn't. He should be free to hawk his wares elsewhere. Not necessarily because of his physical limitations, but because of his inability to make good decisions when it matters most.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy knew this. It's why he relied on his running game, limiting Rivers, one of the league's best quarterbacks, to just six first-half throws. He wanted to reduce the likelihood of mistakes against the Bengals' ball-hawking defense.
“A lot of times teams lose the game rather than win it,” McCoy said Sunday. “When you make some mistakes and turn the football over and do certain things, it hurts your football team.”
Marvin Lewis now 0-5 in playoff games, expected to win 2.44 games pic.twitter.com/fC5Nnnh9i9— Chase Stuart (@fbgchase) January 5, 2014
Despite the postseason failures, Dalton said Monday that he plans to be in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future.
"I expect to be here a long time," Dalton said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I'm hoping that is the case. I've got a good relationship with [coach Marvin Lewis], he's been telling me a lot of good stuff."
Maybe. But Dalton's not getting an extension this offseason, and if the 2014 season ends like the 2011-2013 seasons did, even Mike Brown, the NFL's most patient owner, would have to give serious consideration to moving on.
Which reminds us...