It takes a very good quarterback to be the average NFL quarterback.
That's the paradox of the average quarterback, the paradox of Andy Dalton and the Bengals. "Average" should be a compliment for an NFL quarterback. It's more often used and interpreted as a grievous insult. You can't win with an average quarterback, or so we're told, over and over again.
Unfortunately, someone has to be average. Even if all quarterbacks were outstanding -- and in fact, all NFL quarterbacks are outstanding, compared to you, me, and 99.9 percent of Earth's population -- the outstanding one in the middle is stuck being average. You cannot win with him, supposedly.
The average NFL quarterback is 16th best in the world at his profession. The 16th most beautiful woman in the world -- Olivia Wilde, according to Maxim -- could dispel logical thought from your brain with a glance. The 16th best guitarist in the world -- Derek Trucks, according to Rolling Stone -- can shred your face. The 16th best quarterback in the NFL, according to me, is Andy Dalton. You wonder if he is good enough.
The Bengals are trying to win with the excitingly average Dalton. They have a chance to do it. The trick is to make the average quarterback as good as possible.
The New Stripes
Tyler Eifert is not the average NFL rookie. He was the best tight end in this year's draft class, a converted wide receiver with the versatility to line up all over the field and the athleticism to make leaping receptions over defenders.
At Bengals rookie camp last week, Eifert lined up all over the field -- wide receiver, slot receiver, tight end -- and made at least one leaping one-handed catch. Dalton watched from the sideline as his new target proved a quick study in the Bengals' system. "A lot of the things I'm learning are a lot of the same plays we had in [at Notre Dame] with two tight ends -- move me around in different positions," Eifert said. "Today I was out in the slot quite a bit. I think I'm picking it up pretty fast."
The Bengals will run a two-tight end offense this year. They used two tight ends on 27 percent of offensive snaps last season, according to Football Outsiders. This year, with Eifert and Jermaine Gresham (64 catches in 2012) at the position, they may aim for 100 percent. The personality of the Bengals receiving corps in Dalton's first two seasons was defined by A.J. Green, an acrobatic deep threat with a knack for leaping catches and frustrating drops. Eifert is part of a movement to change that personality: Instead of all Green bombs, all the time, the Bengals will become the Queen City Patriots.
Dalton-to-Green bombs are still a big part of the equation, of course. Green spent the winter working out with Calvin Johnson and other NFL receivers in Atlanta. He has vowed to cut down on his drops. Dalton studied film of his deep passes to Green, including an infamous near miss that would have tied the wild-card game against the Texans. "We missed some stuff on the deep ball so we both have to work on that," Green told the Cincinnati Enquirer in April. Dalton and Green were 0-for-10 on passes that traveled more than 25 yards in the air from Week 13 on, a mix of overthrows, drops and defended passes. Both Dalton and Green have room for improvement.
But offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and the rest of the Bengals had even more room. Opponents knew that Dalton had nowhere to turn when Green was double-covered. Gresham is certainly capable, but the Bengals went through a revolving door of No. 2 wide receivers. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis proved to be an awful receiver. The slot guy, Andrew Hawkins, was a 5-foot-7 practice squad and CFL veteran who faded after some early highlights. Tom Brady could make a one-dimensional receiving corps like the Bengals had work. The average quarterback could expect only average results.
That's where Eifert and some other newcomers come in. Once Green takes a cornerback and safety on a tour of the stadium parking lot, Eifert and Gresham can roam the open spaces in the middle of the field. Second-round pick Giovanni Bernard adds another dimension to the Bengals offense: He spent much of rookie camp catching screen passes. Mohamed Sanu, last year's third-round pick, has recovered from a foot injury and is ready to compete for the second receiver spot. The Bengals receiving corps is suddenly multi-faceted and deep.
But what good is a great receiving corps for an average quarterback? That's the thing: A great receiving corps can make an average quarterback better.
Don't Mean to be Mean
When we say "average NFL quarterback" we mean "average NFL starter." No one thinks in terms of the 96 players who fill out all 32 three-deep depth charts, which are actually five or six deep this time of year. We don't care about the 48th best quarterback in the NFL, a fringe starter like Chad Henne or camp counselor of a backup like David Carr or somebody.
By "average NFL quarterback," we usually mean the 16th best quarterback, or more broadly someone who falls squarely between 12th and 20th, someone outside the top 10 but safe from unemployment. Someone like Andy Dalton.
Dalton ranked 20th in DYAR, a Football Outsiders' high-tech metric, which compares every single pass a quarterback throws to league averages for that type of pass. Another statistic, DVOA, compares the quarterback to the league average. Dalton came in at -5.9 percent, just a blip below league average, in 2012. He came out at 5.6 percent, or a blip above average, in 2011. Average those averages, and you get a quarterback resting squarely on the axis of average.
Do you prefer other organizations' custom stats? Dalton ranked 19th in Pro Football Reference's Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. He ranked 20th in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating. The consensus seems to place Dalton just below average, but if you allow benefit of the doubt for anything, from the receiving corps to Dalton's relative youth, then Dalton inches closer to 16th.
Like traditional stats better? Dalton was 13th in quarterback rating, 16th in yards, 18th in yards per attempt, 12th in completion percentage. He was seventh in touchdowns but eighth in interceptions, so those balance out. Dalton was 30th in sack percentage, one of the few stats which rank him squarely below average, though a handful of part-time starters like Matt Hasselbeck rank ahead of him. (Sack rates depend as much on the quarterback as on his offensive line.)
Do you hate stats completely and prefer to go with your gut? OK. Start with the unassailably (ugh) Elite: Peyton, Brady, Brees, Rodgers. Add recent Super Bowl winners: Eli, Flacco, Big Ben. Now rattle off the youngsters with buzz and sizzle: RG3, Luck, Russell, Kaepernick and (let's say) Cam. We are at 12 quarterbacks, into the zone of the average starter. List some names: Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Phillip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder and, of course, Andy Dalton.
Interesting list, isn't it? Young guys, old guys, second-tier prospects, fading prospects. You may have others on your list (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Michael Vick, Brandon Weeden … heck, Mark Sanchez). The precise list doesn't matter. Sift through it in search of "average."
Romo and Cutler are average in the way that a person with one hand on the gas grill and the other in the freezer is comfortable. Freeman and Stafford are the same way, but with more freezer. Tannehill is visiting average on the way up, Palmer and Rivers on the way down. Ryan feels a little too good to be on the list, Ponder a little too weak. You can get buried in equivocations. Bradford appears to be held back by his teammates. But then, Ryan may be elevated by his. One of the signs that a quarterback is average is that we fret about the receivers: Great quarterbacks make their receivers good, lousy ones make their receivers irrelevant.
Andy Dalton and Matt Schaub: Can you get more "average" than those two? They face each other every year in the playoffs. Schaub's Texans win. Then the Texans lose in the next round. They have been racing in slots for the same two years. Both quarterbacks take their team to the playoffs, which is a distinctly above-average accomplishment. But their teams peak below the conference championships and Super Bowl, and they appear to be among the "limiting" factors, so we return to where we started. The quarterbacks appear to be "average," used is a euphemism for "not good enough," or as a coded word for "stinks."
Such is the paradox of the average quarterback.
Here's another part of the paradox. There was a quarterback even more average than Andy Dalton in 2011. According to DVOA, he came out at -1.4 percent in 2012, a baby-step below dead center. In 2011, he was exactly dead-center, at 0.0 percent, the definition of a league average quarterback. This character, with a legendarily nondescript personality, is older than Dalton, who still has some room to develop, and he was on the hot seat as recently as last December, when his offensive coordinator was fired in what looked like a desperate move. This guy is so average that his name is "Joe," but you figured it out by now anyway.
A team can win with an average quarterback who produces average stats and has an average demeanor, because the Ravens did it last year. Of course, once that quarterback wins, he is no longer "average" in our minds. Joe Flacco may have taken a major step forward in the final weeks of 2012 and in the playoffs. More likely, he took a tiny step forward, a step Dalton or any other quarterback in his prime could take, and his receivers started catching the passes they dropped in the 2012 playoffs. The average quarterback becomes great when his team becomes great. That's what the Bengals are trying to do.
Flacco famously got "elited" this time last year: Some out-of-context responses to loaded "are you elite" questions prompted one of those silly blog-storms that rolls through the NFL whenever there is no real news. Eli Manning, who has flirted with averageness many times in his career, had the same thing happen in 2011: He fell into an "are you elite" spike-trap, histrionics ensued, a championship followed.
Perhaps someone should ask Dalton if he thinks he is (ugh) elite. No doubt he does: He is very confident and competitive. How confident and competitive? More so than most of the human population, but not quite on the level of Manning-Brady, and probably Eli, Russell Wilson and others. He probably ranks between 10th and 20th among NFL quarterbacks in terms of intangibles. Making him average.
We are yet again back where we started.
Moving the Middle
So how does the average quarterback become good enough to win? It's not a matter of trying harder: Everyone does that, every year. It's a matter of focusing on some specifics:
Solve the deep passing problem. Dalton was 11-of-48 on passes of 25+ yards, for 496 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions, one of them on a Hail Mary. Dalton is just below league average as a deep passer, but with one of the league's top deep threats on the roster, he should be better. Dalton overthrew 25 of his deep passes: Better accuracy and timing can yield significant results. So can the redesigned receiving corps: All but eight of those passes targeted Green or Gresham. A third option can make Dalton more efficient.
Solve the third-down problem. Dalton completed just 47.5 percent of his third-down passes. Even worse, he suffered 19 sacks in 158 third-down drop backs. This is another example of a problem that the revamped receiving corps can solve. Just as opponents knew Green would go deep, they knew Gresham was the primary/only target on third-and-manageable: He caught 22 of 39 third down passes thrown his way, for 14 first downs or touchdowns. Others had varying degrees of success or non-success. Green netted nine first downs on 33 passes, Hawkins was 12-of 32, but Armon Binns, Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones and Ryan Whalen, who split time as the second-through-fourth receivers, were an abysmal 3-for-28, with Dalton throwing three interceptions. The Bengals did not even bother with Green-Ellis: He was not targeted once on third down, not even on some third-and-two sprint to the sideline.
Eifert will help. So will Sanu: He produced six first downs/touchdowns on nine third-down passes during the month when he was healthy.
Solve the sack problem: These problems are all related, of course. If Dalton and the Bengals cut down on their sacks, they will be better on third downs. If Dalton is a better deep passer, with more open targets, it will cut down on the sacks.
The Bengals have not made major changes to their offensive line. Travelle Wharton returns from an ACL tear to compete at left guard with Clint Boling, who was responsible for seven sacks. Right guard Kevin Zeitler, responsible for five sacks, was a rookie who gave up two of them in the first game -- he was much better by season's end. Right tackle Andre Smith (five sacks), a former first-round pick who always needs to mind the bathroom scale, was re-signed.
The line should improve slightly, but the line was not the only problem, and never is. Thirteen of the Bengals sacks were "coverage sacks," according to Football Outsiders. We're back to the receivers. They will be open more often this year. Even if Dalton's skills do not get better, Eifert and friends will make him look better.
Don't get worse: That's the final part of the paradox of the average NFL quarterback. He is one of the best people in the world at his job, yet he has zero margin for error. There is no rung below "average" in the NFL, just a precipice of camp battles, quarterback controversies and endless questions. There are already articles debating whether Dalton will become the "next Sanchez," but the difference between Next Flacco and Next Sanchez is a matter of inches. It could be two more completed bombs to Green (one in the fourth quarter of a playoff game), or two less; five more sacks, or five fewer; a dozen third-down conversions spread among Eifert, Gresham and Sanu that take the Bengals from 10-6 to 12-4, or the missed opportunities that make a franchise wonder if it needs to "push" its quarterback a little.
The worst time for a quarterback to slip is when the team teed everything up for him, the way the Bengals have this year. It's also the best time for him to prompt all of the great sports-talk clichés: elevate his game, reach the next level, become (ugh) elite. Dalton is now in a position to do all of those things. And he really does not have to personally improve all that much to achieve them. That is the final paradox of the average NFL quarterback.