Andy Dalton wasn’t just bad Thursday night. He’s historically bad.
The Bengals quarterback looked completely and utterly inept in an ugly 24-3 loss to in-state rival Cleveland under the lights at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton overthrew receivers. He underthrew receivers. He held the ball too long. He got rid of the ball too soon. He threw when he should have ran. He ran when he should have thrown. The only players he accurately hit in the numbers on a cold, windy night were wearing Browns jerseys. Wait, take that back: He probably completed a few nice passes to people wearing Bengals jerseys, too…but they were fans in the fifth or sixth row of the lower level sideline seats.
When the dust had settled, Dalton’s box score was one for the trash bin…or record books, depending on how you look at it. The fourth-year pro had attempted 33 passes, completing just 10. (To put that in perspective, there are nine different NFL starting quarterbacks who have completed more than two-thirds of their passes this year. Dalton hit on less than one third during his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad outing.
While Dalton only managed to throw 10 passes to his team over a 60-minute span (and that number should really be lower, since three of them were short dump-offs against Cleveland’s fourth-quarter prevent defense with the outcome basically decided already), he did successfully throw three passes to the opposition. Zero touchdowns against three interceptions is not the ratio that an NFL quarterback is aiming for, and Dalton’s honestly lucky he only tossed three picks. His worst pass of the night went directly to Browns DB Tashaun Gipson with no one else around, and Gipson flat-out dropped a certain interception, probably because he was so shocked the ball came to him.
Dalton amassed a total of 86 passing yards on the evening, with his longest completion only going 18 yards. His woeful offense converted just three of 17 third downs, and the TCU product put up a passer rating of…let’s see, add the 1, carry the…ah, yes, here it is: 2.0. It was that bad. To put 2 in perspective, Dalton hadn’t had a lower passer rating all season than 55, and his career rating is 84.5. According to Bengals.com, Thursday’s performance represents the worst game by any NFL quarterback in more than 30 years. (And if the team’s official website is writing that, well…)
To be fair to Dalton, the wind was whipping in Cincinnati, and the conditions were not ideal for throwing a pigskin from point A to point B. Still, that didn’t seem to affect Cleveland counterpart Brian Hoyer, who hit on 15 of 23 passes for 198 yards and led three touchdown drives without turning the ball over, despite playing in the very same weather.
The Bengals quarterback’s struggles Thursday night beg the question that will certainly dominate sports talk shows in southwest Ohio this weekend: Is it time for Cincinnati to move on from Andy Dalton? The Bengals have a lot invested in their signal-caller — to the tune of $96 million over six years — but need to figure out (and soon) if Dalton is the right man for the long term. Was Thursday’s performance a fluke? An aberration? Or is Dalton simply a decent quarterback who can’t win on the biggest stage?
Dalton deserves credit for taking Cincinnati to the postseason in each of his first three years as a starter: For a team that had only been to the playoffs twice in the previous 20 seasons, that’s no small feat. Still, he’s yet to win a playoff game, let alone prove he can take the Bengals franchise to the Super Bowl they’ve been dreaming of. So where do Marvin Lewis and company go from here? Dalton recognizes (and admitted as much Thursday night) that he deserves the blame for his poor performance. “It all starts with me,” he told reporters after the game. But does he deserve a second chance after such a horrible game?
The problem Cincinnati faces now is there’s no guarantee that any alternate option — at least in the near term — would be an upgrade under center. Backup Jason Campbell, who completed 3-of-6 passes for seven yards in mop-up duty Thursday, doesn’t seem to be a legitimate answer for saving Cincy’s fading championship hopes. There aren’t any other quarterbacks on the active roster, since 2014 draft pick A.J. McCarron has spent all year on the reserve/non-football injury list. With no preseason or really even any significant practice experience to speak of, the Bengals can’t afford to throw a rookie into the hotly contested AFC North race in the final few weeks of the season and pray for a miracle.
The guess here is that Dalton gets another start at New Orleans next time out, but with a significantly shorter leash before Lewis considers turning to Campbell for a spark. Really, there isn’t any margin for error for Cincinnati if they want to qualify for the playoffs again: Five of their final seven games are on the road, and they’re now fighting tooth and nail in the league’s toughest division (every AFC North team has a winning record as of today) for a precious postseason spot.
If anything, expect Dalton’s primetime debacle to have ramifications more for 2015 and beyond. The powers-that-be in Cincinnati can’t feel like they’re able to depend on Dalton to be the consistent long-term answer when he consistently struggles every time he plays a crucial nationally televised game. That means Cincinnati will need to first decide what it has in McCarron, and then at least look at the quarterback market this offseason, whether it be by trade, free agency, or the draft. Of course, a move to bring in another QB, whether to supplant Dalton or at least challenge him, could cause Cincinnati’s starter to struggle (at least from a confidence aspect) even more. But with the way Dalton played Thursday, everything has to be on the table. Sitting idly by and simply putting your $96 million worth of faith in a quarterback that could (or will) lay an egg when you need him most — without at least investigating the other future options — would seem to be negligent at best.