Film Room: Andy Dalton

Film Room: Andy Dalton
Film Room: Andy Dalton
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

"What is the most common way to become a millionaire?"

That was the very first thing one of my professors in college asked. We were given the whole lifespan of the lecture to find the right answer after being adequately goaded by his wry smile and declaration that nobody had ever answered correctly. The class worked individually and debated each other, offering up answers from "building a website" to "selling houses" to "working for the government." For a group of journalism students, this was a frustrating exercise that was ultimately topped off by an even more frustrating answer: The most common and easiest way to become a millionaire is to be born one.

Yeah, I know, right?

Whenever a team hires a head coach from an offense led by a great quarterback, I think of that professor. The easiest way to land a head coaching job in the NFL is to work with an Aaron Rodgers- or Tom Brady-level quarterback. Rodgers has watched two coaches who worked directly with him become head coaches over recent years -- Joe Philbin and Ben McAdoo. Brady has been around longer, so he has pushed three coaches into promotions with other teams -- Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, and Bill O'Brien. Neither Rodgers nor Brady have ever truly suffered without those coaches, but those coaches have struggled without their quarterbacks.

Evaluating coaches in the NFL is difficult because not every coach gets the same level of talent or the same level of execution with which to work. When you hire someone who has become accustomed to working with a great quarterback, you are hiring someone who has become accustomed to working with a greater margin for error, a margin for error that generally isn't afforded to coaches who are taking on new roles elsewhere. Often those coaches can't function in this new environment because they no longer have that dash of greatness on which to rely. That's not to say that a great coach can't come from a team that had a great quarterback, but rather that it's hard to identify who is and isn't a great coach because of that one great variable. Ideally you want a coach who had to work around a significant flaw, a coach who proved he could develop or scheme his team towards success in a scenario that wasn't ideal.

That's why Hue Jackson was the top head coach candidate this offseason. Jackson wasn't coming from a privileged position. He had worked with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but he didn't have a great quarterback. Jackson had to craft an offense around Andy Dalton, making the adjustments that heightened the impact of Dalton's strengths and hid his weaknesses from view. It was the second time in Jackson's career that he had proven his ability to adjust his offense around limited talent; the first time he did it in an un-winnable situation with the Oakland Raiders.

Andy Dalton Accuracy by Pass Location, 2016
Yardage To 5 6-15 16-25 26-plus
Outside Numbers Left 85.2% 27 65.0% 20 61.5% 13 41.7% 12
Outside Hashes Left 88.9% 36 87.0% 23 77.8% 9 0.0% 1
Between Hashes 100.0% 19 75.0% 12 100.0% 2 100.0% 2
Outside Hashes Right 90.6% 32 92.0% 25 66.7% 9 50.0% 2
Outside Numbers Right 92.5% 53 58.6% 29 56.3% 16 33.3% 15

Andy Dalton has been a somewhat controversial figure over the course of his career. Because quarterbacks are still measured by wins and losses more than anything else, Dalton's regular-season success has never fit well with his postseason failures. That contradiction, along with Dalton's statistical output, has forever left Dalton in purgatory somewhere between the below-average and above-average quarterback tiers. It's that range where quarterbacks are most impacted by schemes and supporting casts because the top-tier talents will elevate their teammates more significantly, while the bottom-tier players will anchor their teammates more significantly.

Jackson understood who Dalton was. He recognized that the quarterback thrived on pre-snap reads but struggled to break down the defense and maintain mechanical discipline the longer he had to hold the ball. Furthermore, Jackson recognized that Dalton's strengths were throwing the ball to short and intermediate routes on clearly defined reads (throws where he didn't need to throw with anticipation), but his ability to throw with precision downfield was all but non-existent. Jackson built an offense around Dalton that allowed him to make pre-snap reads or simplified post-snap reads while primarily throwing the ball fewer than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. By my charting, as can be seen in the pass chart above, 167 of Dalton's throws last year traveled 5 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage. That's 43.3 percent of his qualifying throws. Football Outsiders' charting, with slightly different criteria, marked Dalton with 49.0 percent of his throws landing in the same range. A significant number of quarterbacks were at 50 percent or more, but the majority of those players were forced into making those types of throws because of pressure. The very design of Dalton's offense, though, was to make these throws. It wasn't a reactive measure.

Last season, 21 percent of the Bengals' pass attempts were thrown to targets behind the line of scrimmage. Only six teams had higher rates than that. Screens were a huge part of the Cincinnati offense, with Dalton seeing offensive linemen line up outside with some regularity. In the above play, the Bengals have two receiving tight ends on the field along with two receivers and one running back. Jackson relied on this balanced formation to dictate matchups to the defense. With two tight ends on the field who could also act as receivers, he had bigger bodies to block on screens as well as receivers who could run routes downfield. This specific play can't be considered a staple of the offense because Jackson has moved both of his tackles so that they are lined up in the position of receivers, but it does highlight the concepts around which he built his scheme.

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No matter what the defense does on this play, Dalton knows that he won't have to hold the ball in the pocket. He only has to solve a simple math problem to figure out where to throw the ball. To the wide side of the field, at the top of the screen, Dalton has two receivers stacked on top of each other. The Texans move a safety and linebacker over to their cornerback on that side of the field, creating a three-on-two matchup that favors the defense. Dalton knows he's not throwing the ball right. Because Dalton is in shotgun with a running back alongside him, he has the option of running the ball with a read-option play. The Texans have kept five defenders in the box, matching one for one on any potential run from Dalton and Jeremy Hill. That leaves the narrow side of the field to the left where the Bengals have four players, two eligible receivers and two offensive linemen.

Because the Texans can't cover everything and the Bengals only have two receiving options to that side of the field, the defense decided to keep two immediate defenders on the line of scrimmage and one safety off the line. This gives Dalton an obvious option.

Marvin Jones is in position to catch the screen. Jones is a very athletic, consistent receiver with the vision to create after the catch. His lead blockers are left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the best tackles in the NFL in this situation, and tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert can advance downfield to pick up the safety because of how the defense aligned at the snap. With Whitworth sustaining his block, Jones can comfortably advance onto the second level before cutting back inside. The recovering pursuit stops him, but not until he has gained 16 yards. Dalton gained 16 yards on this play, turning a first-and-20 into a second-and-4, without having to mitigate pressure in the pocket or make a precision throw.

To convert that second-and-4, Dalton relied on a similar play.

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Lining up against these formations is difficult, especially since Jackson sprinkles them into his offense sporadically so you can't anticipate when they're going to be used. To accentuate that difficulty, Jackson also uses shifts to give the defense even less time to communicate. The play below is the same play as the first-and-20 play against Houston. The Browns actually do a good job of lining up, but the cornerback to the top of the screen is just a few steps too deep off the line of scrimmage. That allows Dalton to throw the bubble screen to A.J. Green while Ryan Hewitt advances to act as a lead blocker. Dalton's release is quick and his pass is fast enough so that Green can comfortably beat the linebacker working his way across the field. The play gains an easy 6 yards, setting up a manageable second down.

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Screens are the alert for the defense against this alignment. Dalton can't hold onto the ball because he doesn't have his offensive tackles in pass protection to give him time. What those tackles can do, though, is help Dalton get rid of the ball quickly while still throwing it downfield. Because the defensive backs are reading screen from the start of the play, the offensive tackles pull defensive backs out of coverage just with their presences. So long as they don't cross the line of scrimmage, the linemen don't need to be eligible receivers to have an impact on the play. By drawing those defenders, the eligible receivers outside are given more space in which to work against single coverage. Dalton can catch and release without holding the ball for more than a split second, throwing to wide-open space, so anticipating routes is a lot easier here than in your typical play designs.

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This evolution of the play design and concepts could be seen against the Pittsburgh Steelers (above graphic). The Steelers were familiar with the Bengals, having already faced them once before at this point of the season, and adjusted to the Bengals' shift on offense better than most teams. All 10 defenders on the screen push up so they are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and evening up the numbers across the field before the 11th defender, Mike Mitchell, drops down from his deep safety alignment. Mitchell makes Dalton's pre-snap read for him. Dalton knows he is throwing away from the safety, to the side of the field where Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones are. Jones and Eifert are releasing parallel downfield, therefore Dalton can keep both receivers in his line of sight, reading the one defensive back off the line of scrimmage to that side of the field.

Eifert's value could be seen at the catch point on this play. He doesn't beat a defender to the ball, but he does make a finger-tip catch at full extension while falling to the ground. Eifert is 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. A.J. Green is 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds. There isn't a combination of receivers in the league on the same team as good as Green and Eifert. Both players possess natural ball skills that erase their quarterback's need to be precise. Whether it's Andy Dalton or A.J. McCarron, playing with Eifert and Green makes your job much, much easier than it should be. With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu last year, Dalton had four receivers who could win at the catch point and create after the catch, making it relatively easy for him to put up big numbers. Now that Jones and Sanu have moved on and been replaced by less gifted receivers, Dalton will need to rely more on Eifert than he did in 2015.

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Eifert is uncoverable in the red zone. So long as Dalton keeps the timing of the play and throws a somewhat catchable pass, the tight end will go and get it. It doesn't matter if it's a high pass, a low pass, or a slightly errant pass, Eifert has the size, flexibility, and ball skills to adjust whether open or covered. The 25-year-old caught 13 touchdowns in 2015, all of them coming within 22 yards of the goal line, 11 of them coming in the red zone. Even though his total numbers were modest outside of his scoring (though he did lead all tight ends in DYAR last year), Eifert is a versatile and very effective receiving option all over the field. In Hue Jackson's offense, he regularly worked the seam, plucking the ball out of the air between defenders or working over the middle of the field.

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On the play shown above, Eifert lines up as an in-line tight end before running straight down the middle of the field. The Kansas City Chiefs defense is playing Cover-2 man, so Eifert is picked up in space by an inside linebacker. Eifert shows off his strength and athleticism to fend off the attention of the defender as he advances downfield. Once he is on the other side of his marker, Eifert uses his inside hand to separate from his body while bringing his eyes back to his quarterback. Eifert comfortably tracks the ball through the air and shows off natural ball skills and body control to pull in the high pass. Dalton only needed to loft the ball into the air and push it far enough downfield for Eifert to keep moving forward.

This is another example of a play where the quarterback didn't need to throw with precision. The play still gained 22 yards to convert a second-and-20.

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It's not that hard to find a tight end in the NFL who can box defenders out and pull the ball in from high above his head. It's very difficult to find a tight end who can do that and run precise routes with quick feet. On this play, Eifert lines up wide of the numbers and faces cornerback Brandon Flowers. Flowers isn't pressing him at the line of scrimmage, but he is in close proximity. Eifert has a size advantage against Flowers, but that's not how he beats him. Instead he deceives him by shifting his weight, dropping his shoulder and accelerating downfield. Once the ball arrives, Eifert shows off very quick feet to just stay in bounds after securing the catch. Those kind of traits translate through Eifert's whole game, helping him to create and find space from different spots in the offense to different levels of the field.

Last season was Dalton's best year, and Hue Jackson's work with him was a big reason for it. Jackson is one of the few coaches in the NFL who understands that he has to work to the players he has available. He isn't married to a specific scheme or philosophy that he has to follow in order to chase success.

Jackson could try and recreate the same type of offense that he ran with Dalton last year if rookie Cody Kessler starts for Cleveland. Kessler's main selling point is his ability to read the defense before the snap and execute read/pass options. Kessler's overall quality is questionable at best though, meaning that Robert Griffin III should remain the favorite to start. Neither player is going to have the same quality of supporting cast that the Bengals had in 2015 though, so expectations in Cleveland should stay low for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, back in Cincinnati, 2016 is going to be an important year for Andy Dalton. He is all but secured as the Bengals' long-term starter, but he will likely be put in a position where he needs to elevate his teammates more often. Dalton's supporting cast was the best in the league in 2015. He had the best offensive line, best group of receivers, and an above-average combination in the backfield. That supporting cast should remain strong if Jackson can be adequately replaced by new offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and the focus in the passing game shifts more onto Giovani Bernard and Eifert, but it won't be great like last year's unit was. The harsh reality is that Dalton's fractured thumb stole this version of the Bengals' best chance to win a Super Bowl.


36 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2017, 9:53am

#1 by theslothook // Jun 16, 2016 - 8:31pm

I have to admit, every year for at least the last 5 I've picked the bengals to miss the playoffs and all five I turned out to be wrong. Its sort of sad that the playoff losses have overshadowed what a great job the front office has done in terms of talent building and smart usage of free agency.

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#2 by kckolbe // Jun 16, 2016 - 8:54pm

I wouldn't say that O'Brien is struggling without a good QB. His ability to game plan around a QB's weaknesses have given him an unprecedented level of success with backup level play.

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#6 by theslothook // Jun 17, 2016 - 12:56pm

Being in the woeful afc south w deandre hopkins explains a lot of that. Its really hard to overstate how lousy the division is.

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#3 by eagle97a // Jun 16, 2016 - 9:01pm

A quick check in PFR shows that besides his rookie year, Dalton has been above 60% in his completion percentage. Now this might be a function of the good supporting cast that he has and throwing short but it appears he has the necessary accuracy to be a viable franchise qb. I have only watched him this past 2 seasons and I see a qb with a good command of his offense and good accuracy. I haven't done a lot of film study but I predict that the next 2 years will define Daltons' career and if he continues to progress I like the Bengals chances in the coming years.

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#5 by garion333 // Jun 17, 2016 - 10:13am

Most everyone throws above 60% these days. I don't see how that alone qualifies Dalton as a franchise QB.

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#8 by eagle97a // Jun 17, 2016 - 6:27pm

Most franchise qbs throw 60% and he has shown he can lead the team to multiple playoff appearances. That alone qualifies him as a franchise qb.

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#9 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 17, 2016 - 6:41pm

Last year 26 QBs threw at least 60% including Brian Hoyer and Blaine Gabbert.

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#10 by theslothook // Jun 17, 2016 - 6:56pm

I am also ignorant to the current definition of "Franchise qb" and what that means.

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#11 by jacklaughing // Jun 17, 2016 - 6:59pm

Would be better to consider Dalton's QB Rating. In 2015 he posted a 106.2 for the regular season, which was 2nd in the league for QBs with 200 or more passes. In all of his prior seasons he rated below 90 (2013 was his second best with 88.8).

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#12 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 17, 2016 - 7:08pm

QB rating is much better than just raw comp% yes. As far as simple stats go, I'm partial to ANY/A. He was a phenomenal 8.17 last year, but that's the only year in his career he's been significantly above average.

As an aside, PFR's advanced passing+ stats are pretty cool

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#13 by eagle97a // Jun 17, 2016 - 8:13pm

And its usually the 5th to 7th year starting that qbs show if they have HOF chops or at least become a long time viable starter and Dalton definitely has shown that.

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#14 by eagle97a // Jun 17, 2016 - 8:21pm

And both Hoyer and Gabbert led their respective teams to multiple playoff spots. Point is you need at the absolute minimum 60% completion rate to start as an NFL qb and obviously lead your team to playoffs regularly to entrench yourself as a franchise qb. Now there might be some exceptions to this rule of thumb but this generally is the case.

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#15 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 18, 2016 - 3:17am

Gabbert has never been to the playoffs, and it's hard to say Hoyer lead anything when he was benched in the middle of the year.

I think to entrench yourself as a franchise QB, you should probably pass the ball really well.

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#16 by eagle97a // Jun 18, 2016 - 9:52am

I know thats why I was clarifying my earlier comment about qbs needing at least 60% completion should also need to lead their teams to e playoffs regularly to become franchise qbs. I thought you mentioned those guys as a rebuttal to my observation and I of course made a cheeky remark nevertheless I think I have cleared up my position.

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#18 by Thomas_beardown // Jun 18, 2016 - 1:40pm

A qb who is on a playoff team did not necessarily lead them there. So you'd have to define what that means, and by the time you do that, you'll have a better definition of franchise QB than anything else.

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#19 by theslothook // Jun 18, 2016 - 2:35pm

Even whatever number you come up with will be subject to debate because those don't happen in a vacuum either. There also seems to be no definition to what qualifies a franchise qb, especially when we get away from the extremes. Is alex smith a franchise qb? Is matt Stafford? Is Jay Cutler?

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#20 by eagle97a // Jun 18, 2016 - 7:30pm

If you are the starter then you led the offense which is roughly around 60% of total team performance and if you meet those 2 criteria you are well on your way to being a franchise qb. You don't see an NFL team running a qb platoon nowadays and for the most part of its history. Even the Texans mainly subscribe to a single starter model regardless of their qb situation (they have Brock now which will stabilize that situation IMO).

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#21 by theslothook // Jun 18, 2016 - 8:10pm

Mark Sanchez will now be entering as the full time starter for his 5th season. He has been to the afc title game twice including "beating" Manning and Brady. Does he qualify as a franchise qb?

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#23 by eagle97a // Jun 18, 2016 - 10:46pm

Really? He wasn't benched or traded? Thats stretching it and just ridiculous and you know it.

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#24 by theslothook // Jun 19, 2016 - 4:22am

I'm pointing out the nebulous definition of "franchise" qb

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#25 by eagle97a // Jun 19, 2016 - 4:40am

Then think of it like how a judge defines porn "We know it when we see it". You don't need an exacting definition in football the ultimate team game in which a lot of stats are just really mathematical masturbation. We still are fascinated with the numbers since we need to satiate our craving for ranking things and people. But in this case we don't need a rigorous definition of "franchise" qb.

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#26 by theslothook // Jun 19, 2016 - 2:54pm

I disagree. We use stats like dvoa to uncover the complex sport that is football. And franchise qb seems to be as much in the eye of the beholder than anything else.

I'm not going to object if you think Dalton is a franchise qb. I just find it interesting how quickly our opinions of qbs change, especially on the margin. Cutler, Stafford, Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill - there seems to be a million opinions on the value of these particular players.

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#27 by eagle97a // Jun 19, 2016 - 5:57pm

Disagree to your hearts' content stats have their uses but they are far from comprehensive and definitive like baseball stats. There is a lot that cannot be quantified specially in qb play like decision making etc. We might go with perception but the fact that the Bengals FO and coaches went with Dalton as a starter for 5 straight years and rewarded him with a pay as you go contract means he is a franchise qb and his play which improved thru the years justifies the faith placed on him besides repaying the franchise with wins via his competent play.

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#28 by theslothook // Jun 19, 2016 - 11:11pm

Sam bradford got an extension too. So did Mark Sanchez.

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#29 by eagle97a // Jun 20, 2016 - 12:50am

Yeah and both dumped by the team that drafted them. And before you say it Drew Brees was also traded.

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#30 by LionInAZ // Jun 26, 2016 - 8:46pm

All you've demonstrated is that your definition of 'franchise QB' is inconsistent and unstable.

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#4 by Roo Mal // Jun 17, 2016 - 8:57am

Cian; I'm really impressed with your work lately; your writer pages were always bookmarked, along with Mike Tanier and all the other FO Alumni like Barnwell and Benoit. Because I primarily read Film Analysis articles year round because I watch year round and am always trying to learn. I think There's a growing number of guys like me with NFLGameRewind always after a deeper appreciation of talent and scheme. You got into .gifs in a big way, which makes me very happy. The BR stuff was only screenshots; no .gifs so I have been reading other sites since the Superbowl. Now I'm reading all your work; didn't notice the Film Room work you've done here the last 2 months until now. Your Presnapreads stuff is also top notch; great stuff! Hey guys check out Cian's site, its honestly the first place I saw ANY criticism of Carson Wentz that used on field action instead of the same old "He's FCS".
- Roo

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#7 by Vincent Verhei // Jun 17, 2016 - 3:00pm

Glad you enjoyed this piece. Anyone else interested in viewing more of Cian's excellent work can also go through the Film Room archive:

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#17 by panthersnbraves // Jun 18, 2016 - 10:21am

This game planning is so different from the Panthers' that is seems like a different game.

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#31 by Tera MacBain // Sep 21, 2016 - 4:43am

Coaches are given handsome salary to train players.

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#32 by Olivia Grossi // Oct 17, 2016 - 1:32am

Andy Dalton is the great person and I love his style of talking as well.

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#33 by Deann Flatt // Oct 17, 2016 - 11:21pm

Andy Dalton is the great player and he has great future.

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#34 by Elsa Vanbrunt // Nov 24, 2016 - 6:31am

I have lot of trust on Andy Dalton

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