CINCINNATI – What do the Bengals do with Andy Dalton?
The second-round pick has done exceptional things by getting Cincinnati to the playoffs each of his first three seasons, something only four other quarterbacks have done in NFL history. Unlike those other four, Dalton has yet to win in the postseason.
Not only has he lost, he’s been horrid.
Dalton has played his worst games in the biggest moments, including a three-turnover second half on Sunday that helped San Diego pull away to a 27-10 victory that extended Cincinnati’s record-tying playoff misery.
It’s now 23 years since Cincinnati has won a playoff game, tied for sixth-longest streak in league history. And the Bengals have tied the league record by losing their first playoff game in three straight seasons.
In those three games, Dalton has thrown for one touchdown and four interceptions. He has missed open receivers and forced passes that were picked off.
So, what now?
Marvin Lewis – who is 0-5 in the playoffs as a head coach, one loss shy of the record – is reassuring his quarterback that he’s still the team leader.
“I believe in his abilities, I believe in his makeup, I believe in his maturity and I believe in his ability to let the last play go and move on to the next play,” Lewis said.
That could change during an offseason that will be all about Andy.
The AFC North champions have enough returning talent on offense and defense to reach the playoffs again. The only big questions surround the quarterback.
Dalton and receiver A.J. Green are entering the final years on their contracts, the time for teams to reward players it wants to keep. Green most likely will get a hefty extension this offseason based upon his three Pro Bowl seasons.
What about Dalton? Do they believe in him enough to give him a lot more years and a lot of money? Or is it time to start hedging their bets and looking at the alternatives?
The Bengals could hold off on an extension, let Dalton play his final season and bring in another quarterback through the draft or free agency to compete for the job. Or they could just keep the status quo and leave it all up to Dalton again.
Lewis is reassuring Dalton that it’s still his team.
“He said I am the guy he believes in, and he believes that I can get us over the next hump,” Dalton said. “It’s great to hear that from your coach, and that’s what I wanted to hear.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“I’m drafting someone regardless because this team has it ... but it seems like this guy just cannot seize the moment,” former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders said on the NFL Network.
Until Sunday, it appeared Dalton was ready to do it. He set club records for touchdown passes and yards passing while leading the Bengals to the AFC North title this season. He joined Pat Haden, Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar and Joe Flacco as the only quarterbacks to reach the playoffs in each of their first three seasons.
The other four won in the playoffs. Not Dalton, who had an impressive first half against the Chargers – 12 of 17 for 164 yards, a touchdown and a 120.7 passer rating – before imploding with a fumble and two interceptions in Cincinnati’s scoreless second half.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden saw Dalton start to press as the halftime lead slipped away.
“Once you’re in the playoffs and you get a lead and then all of a sudden you lose a lead and then all of a sudden you start pressing just a little too much, and you start trying to scramble to try and make things happen that you’re not used to making,” Gruden said. “It becomes difficult.”
Dalton’s not the first quarterback to experience such playoff failure. Actually, he’s in pretty good company.
Warren Moon lost four straight opening-round playoff games, while Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Joe Montana, Bert Jones and Randall Cunningham also lost three in a row just like Dalton, according to STATS.
Dave Krieg lost five straight playoff games overall for the NFL record since 1950, according to STATS. Tittle, Billy Kilmer and Moon lost four straight. Dalton is tied with 23 others at three consecutive playoff losses.
“I don’t think he’s ready to be the guy who wins the game by himself,” Gruden said. “I don’t know how many quarterbacks are. There’s only a select few of those in the NFL. But we need to be great around him, and we weren’t great around him.”