Signs point to Bengals’ Dalton shedding his ‘average’ reputation
Through three weeks of the 2015 NFL season, it’s easy to dismiss the great numbers that Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has produced as the product of a small sample size. On 94 dropbacks, he’s thrown for 866 yards and eight touchdowns with just two sacks and one interception. That translates to a 10.32 adjusted net yards per attempt average, the best in football. But can Dalton maintain this level of play?
Dalton’s strong numbers are driven by three factors: a large increase in yards per completion, a big spike in touchdown rate and a decrease in interception rate. It is not unusual for a quarterback to have stellar numbers over a short sample size in each of these three metrics, but there are also promising reasons to think Dalton can at least remain an above-average quarterback.
In each of Dalton’s first four seasons, he averaged between 11 and 12 yards per completion, right around the league average. But in 2015, Dalton’s receivers are averaging 14.2 yards per completion, the third-best mark in the league.
It isn’t a fluke that Dalton’s yards per completion average has increased. Last year, his average completion came 5.44 yards downfield, according to information collected by the NFL’s Game Statistics and Information System, while Cincinnati’s receivers averaged 5.56 yards after the catch on each completion.
This year, Dalton’s average pass has come 7.52 yards downfield, representing a much more vertical style. Bengals players are gaining 6.67 yards after the catch per completion, and while that is likely unsustainable, the increased emphasis on downfield passing is likely to stay. Dalton’s top deep threat, Marvin Jones, missed the entire 2014 season because of an injury, while superstar wide receiver A. J. Green was limited or out for stretches with a toe injury. This year, Dalton has attempted 15 passes to Green or Jones that were 15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage; he’s completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns.
Dalton is averaging a touchdown pass every 11.5 throws, a significant improvement over his 2014 number (25.3). Improved health among Dalton’s targets has also helped his red-zone efficiency. Tight end Tyler Eifert, a first-round pick in 2013, played well as a rookie before missing nearly all of 2014 with a dislocated elbow. But the former Notre Dame tight end has looked outstanding so far in 2015, with three touchdowns in three games (and a fourth overturned on a questionable call after a review).
Perhaps the least sustainable aspect of Dalton’s strong play this year is his interception rate (1.1 percent). In general, interception rate is one of the least consistent statistics in football, and Dalton has been the beneficiary of a positive game script: He has thrown only six passes while trailing this year, compared to 75 while playing with the lead.
Dalton’s history suggests he won’t continue to avoid throwing interceptions, particularly in games when the Bengals are trailing.
It is easy to assume that with Dalton, at age 27, what you see is what you get. But he made steady strides during his first three seasons, improving his yards per attempt averages and touchdown totals. Last year, Dalton took a step back statistically, but that was likely because of the injuries to his top weapons. As he enters his physical prime, and with one of the best supporting casts in the NFL, the stars are aligned for Dalton to no longer be synonymous with average.