There are a number of struggling offenses around the NFL, and though the season is only two weeks old, some teams have started to do something about it. For the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, it's been a quarterback change. For the Cincinnati Bengals, it's been a coaching swap, with offensive coordinator Ken Zampese fired on Friday and quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor promoted. But it might not be the only move the winless, touchdown-less Bengals may make sooner rather than later: There are signs that starting quarterback Andy Dalton's job could be on the line.
Dalton has had a terrible two weeks, the worst of his career. Not only has he navigated his team to two losses -- both at home -- he's not thrown a touchdown pass. He has, however, thrown four interceptions, all in Week 1's 20-0 drubbing at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. He's also taken eight sacks: five against the Ravens, and another three in last Thursday night's 13-9 loss against the Houston Texans. As a result, Dalton currently has career lows in completion percentage (54.5) and passing yards per game (197), and is suffering career-highs in public humiliation.
So much blame is being placed on Dalton's shoulders that head coach Marvin Lewis had to make a public vote of confidence in the quarterback, Lazor went out of his way to provide no indication that Dalton could be benched and backup quarterback A.J. McCarron is emphatically praising the skills of the veteran starter.
This public display, though, could be hiding actual, in-house turmoil. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that, according to a league source, Lewis came close to his players being "near mutiny" had he not fired Zampese. Florio then reported on Sunday that Dalton is on a short leash and, should he continue to struggle under Lazor, could be benched. Conventional wisdom would say the next man up would be McCarron. But, according to Florio, some in the Bengals' locker room have another idea: bringing in free agent Colin Kaepernick to supplant Dalton for at least 2017.
In an interview with Shaun King, Kaepernick said on Sunday that he's "working out daily," and ready to play. But that doesn't mean the Bengals will come calling. While it is true that Kaepernick has more NFL experience than McCarron (who has played in eight total games with three starts) and has better recent- and career-long stats than those of Dalton over the past two games, the signing doesn't entirely fit with the Bengals. And it's not because of the scheme -- Cincy has the skill-position players to maximize every one of Kaepernick's strengths -- but about the team's basic familiarity with Kaepernick. Which is non-existent.
The Bengals are more likely to turn toward McCarron should they turn away from Dalton and not sign any street free agent, Kaepernick or otherwise. This is a team that prizes familiarity and loyalty, even to a fault. That's why Lewis is still the head coach, why Adam Jones has gotten second, third and fourth chances, and why the team's inner circle is so small. If the Bengals want to make a quarterback change, McCarron gets first crack at it, while Dalton would simply revert to the No. 2 role, his fate to be determined in 2018. Only if both Dalton and McCarron struggle -- or someone gets hurt -- would an outside option be on the table.
Further, a quarterback switch isn't necessarily a cure-all. The problem is the offensive line. While Dalton's longstanding issues when facing defensive pressure would remain even if the line were performing on its 2015 level (when Dalton took only 20 sacks), it has been magnified immensely after the team lost left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency. The Pro Football Focus grades for all of the Bengals' starters on the line are in the 30s and 40s; thus not only is Dalton on pace to be sacked 64 times in a 16-game season, the offense is also ranked in the 20s in rushing. Without a line that can open up the run game, Dalton -- or McCarron, or anyone -- is a sitting duck, and when that same line is tasked to protect the quarterback of a pass-heavy offense, he's going to get hit. A lot.
It takes a group effort to score zero touchdowns and nine total points at home through two games. But a wholesale revamp of the offensive line is not possible and a quarterback who cannot score a single touchdown is going to have a hot seat and a bullseye on his back. A coordinator took the blame after Week 2, but if Dalton's struggles continue, it's the quarterback who will be the next to experience a change in his job status. Just don't be surprised if the Kaepernick talk is just that -- talk -- and McCarron is the one to see a promotion.