The Bengals were coming off a four-win season when Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011. As a rookie he replaced Carson Palmer and helped Cincinnati back to the playoffs. In fact, Dalton played an important role in the franchise's five-year postseason run. But that all changed in 2016, when the Bengals limped to a 6-9-1 record, and continued this past season, when they finished 7-9.
As the losses increased, Dalton's numbers went south; in 13 starts in 2015, when the Bengals went 12-4, Dalton ranked No. 2 in value per play among all quarterbacks, behind only Palmer. Last season, Dalton was 25th, well below replacement level and behind names like Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown. So naturally, the conversation in recent weeks has been about the direction of Dalton's career.
Can the 30-year-old rebound from back-to-back disappointing seasons? Or are his best years behind him? According to new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL quarterback who arrives in Cincinnati after four years in Green Bay, Dalton will be fine.
"I got a chance to come in and watch all the tape from the last two years," Van Pelt told the Bengals' website this week. "I wasn't quite as in tune with Andy as I was when he came out in the draft. Obviously I evaluated him then and had a high opinion of him then. See the same exact things on tape. I think he's a very, very good quarterback and a playoff-caliber quarterback. He does a lot of really, really good things. The more tape I watched, the more excited I got. I think this guy has potential to be an elite player in the league. It's our job to challenge him to get to that next level."
In Dalton's defense, the offense ranked 22nd last season; two years prior, the unit ranked second. Part of the issue is the offensive line, which allowed 40 sacks, part of the issue was the lack of downfield playmakers (the Bengals let Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones walk after the 2016 season) and, of course, Dalton.
The team can address the offensive line and wide receivers in free agency and the draft, but it will be up to Dalton -- and Van Pelt -- to get this offense back on track.