Should Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton be better than this?

Is Dalton really the quarterback to lead the Bengals? (US Presswire)

A.J Green was open. Running his route with 2:57 to play in the game, the Bengals star receiver had faked outside toward the sideline before veering back inside to get a couple of steps on Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph. By the time Houston safety Danieal Manning reached Green and Joseph, Green should have been cradling the game-tying touchdown catch.

Instead, a disappointed Green was sprawled on the ground, the ball having harmlessly bounced away. With the Bengals losing by six, an opportunity had been lost late in the game. Instead of the touchdown catch, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had overthrown Green by about five feet.

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On the next play, a fourth-and-11, Dalton fired an 8-yard slant to Marvin Jones. The Bengals needed to get to the Houston 25-yard line. Instead, Jones was swallowed up at the 28. The game was over with the 19-13 loss. The Bengals season was over.

Dalton’s career in Cincinnati obviously is not. But after two years in Jay Gruden’s offensive system, shouldn’t Dalton, the team’s second-round pick from 2011, be better than this? Shouldn’t Gruden?

Gruden was a hot commodity last offseason for potential head coaching jobs, but he declined to interview, saying, “I feel like we’re just scratching the surface on offense, but we have a lot of good, young players and have the potential to do even better next season."

He was right. The team does have young talent in Green, tight end Jermaine Gresham (when he’s not dropping three passes a game) and a solid offensive line. But Gruden also was wrong. The team’s offense wasn’t better this year. It was worse, and though Gruden’s name has been mentioned once or twice in the latest mass interview season, it’s hard to understand why.

Last season, the Bengals ranked 20th in total offense. This season, they ranked 22nd. Dalton, statistically, was better in 2012 than he was as a rookie, but heading into the offseason, the Bengals have to be less optimistic about their quarterback and their offensive coordinator. Pro Football Focus ranks him the 25th-best quarterback out of 38, and at this point Dalton seems like he's about average among the league quarterbacks.

While the Texans red-zone offense was sputtering along in the first half of Saturday’s game, the Bengals offense was atrocious. Cincinnati had passed for minus-six yards, and Green had received no targets from his quarterback. Let me repeat, one of the league’s best receivers didn’t have a pass tossed his way in the first 30 minutes of the game. Is that on Gruden or Dalton? Either way, that has to be rectified.

By the end of the game, the team hadn’t converted a single third down, and Dalton finished 14 of 30 for 127 yards and an interception.

"I have to do a better job of making sure A.J. get[s] his catches,” Dalton told reporters. “…"We needed to be more consistent and we weren't. The results speak for themselves."

At this point, Dalton is a step above some of his second-year quarterbacking compatriots -- like Jake Locker, probably Christian Ponder, and, obviously, Blaine Gabbert. But if you’re a Bengals fan, there are three rookie quarterbacks from 2012 you’d much rather have on your team.

Really, the question is whether Dalton can be better than the man he replaced, former Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. Although Palmer was solid in his time in Cincinnati, he didn’t win a playoff game (the Bengals, in fact, haven’t won a postseason game in 22 years). Dalton has been solid also, but he’s 0-for-2 in the playoffs. So is Gruden.

Head coach Marvin Lewis is secure in his job for now. But if they don’t truly improve next season, maybe Dalton and Gruden shouldn’t feel so comfortable in theirs.

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