After the tragic injury Dak Prescott suffered on Sunday against the New York Giants ended his season, the Cowboys have to come to terms with the fact that they will be playing a game without their franchise quarterback under center for the first time since Prescott was entered the NFL. Andy Dalton is now the guy, and if the final few minutes of Sunday’s game were any indicator, he’s at least going to give Dallas a shot at winning games.
Of course, that’s the expectation for Dalton, who is in the first year of his career where he hasn’t been his team’s top passer. Dalton spent nine seasons as the starting quarterback for the Bengals before leaving for Dallas in free agency this past offseason. It was big news when the Cowboys signed him because it gave them the best backup quarterback in the NFL and ensured that, if catastrophe did strike this season, they’d have a great insurance plan. But exactly what kind of player is Dalton?
For starters, he’s a Texas boy. Born and raised in Katy, Texas, Dalton only had one season as the full-time starting quarterback in high school before committing to the TCU Horned Frogs ahead of the 2006 season. After redshirting his first season on campus, Dalton earned the starting job in 2007. He ended up taking the program to unprecedented heights during his four years as the starter.
Dalton finished his college career with 10,314 passing yards on a 61.7% completion rate, 71 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions. He also led TCU to a 44-8 record during that time, which included bowl games against Kellen Moore’s Boise State Broncos in back-to-back seasons (each quarterback got one win head-to-head) and a perfect 13-0 record in Dalton’s senior year, where he posted career highs in completion percentage, touchdowns, and passing yards.
As a result, Cincinnati drafted Dalton with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He was the fifth quarterback selected, with Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder being taken ahead of him and Colin Kaepernick selected with the very next pick. Dalton came into a very unusual situation. The Bengals’ star quarterback, Carson Palmer, had demanded a trade at the start of the offseason. Palmer was fed up with the losing ways in Cincinnati, but Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown refused to trade him. In retaliation, Palmer intended to retire, prompting the Bengals to draft Dalton.
So Dalton entered the locker room as the de facto starter, asked to take up the mantle from a former first overall pick who hated the team so much he’d rather not play at all than play for them. It wasn’t exactly an ideal situation, but Dalton didn’t complain. Instead, he led the team to a 6-2 start and was challenging Newton for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The award ultimately went to Newton, as the Bengals faded down the stretch. Still, Dalton led the team to a 9-7 record with 3,398 passing yards on a 58.1% completion rate with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, all while becoming the first rookie quarterback not drafted in the first round to start all 16 games of their rookie season.
This kicked off a very successful stretch for Dalton and the Bengals, as they would make the playoffs each of his first five seasons in the NFL. During that time, Dalton held a career record of 50-26-1 with 18,008 passing yards on a 62.3% completion rate with 124 touchdowns and 73 interceptions.
But if you remember anything about those Bengals teams, you know that the biggest knock on Dalton, as was the biggest knock on head coach Marvin Lewis, was an inability to win once they got to the playoffs. And Dalton was truly awful in the playoffs. In four games, Dalton averaged 218 passing yards with a dismal 55.7% completion rate with six picks and only one touchdown. In 2015, which was the Bengals’ fifth straight postseason appearance and last such appearance in franchise history, Dalton broke his finger in Week 13 and never played again that year as he missed the playoffs. Cincinnati lost anyway.
Over the next few years, the Bengals as a whole regressed sharply. Dalton’s play remained consistent by completing 61.5% of his passes for 13,586 passing yards with 80 touchdowns against 45 interceptions. But Cincinnati posted a 21-42 record as players aged and some of the team’s more underrated contributors, primarily along the offensive line, left in free agency for better contracts.
Dalton, too, suffered from injuries as things went on. His injury in 2015 that kept him from suiting up for the playoffs was the first time in Dalton’s career he had missed a start. He later missed the final five games of 2018 due to torn ligaments in his hand. Under a new coaching staff in 2019, Dalton played through an 0-8 start that led to his benching, only to come back after three games to lead the Bengals to their only two wins of the season.
Despite last year being the only time Dalton had played for a head coach other than Lewis, he’s had his fair share of different offenses he’s played in. While Dalton spent his college years operating out of a spread offense, where he earned his Red Rifle nickname, he played for five different offensive play-callers in his nine seasons in Cincinnati.
His first three years with the Bengals came under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. During that time he ran Gruden’s aggressive West Coast offense that he had devised from his brother, Jon. Notably, Jon Gruden developed much of his offensive repertoire from the year he spent on the Pitt Panthers coaching staff in 1991 under head coach Paul Hackett, trusted confidant of Bill Walsh; also on the Panthers staff that year was linebackers coach Marvin Lewis and offensive graduate assistant Mike McCarthy.
In Jay Gruden’s offense, Dalton was given the greenlight to air it out, and it helped greatly in his transition from a college offense to the pro’s. Dalton’s attempts increased significantly each year as Gruden wanted the Red Rifle to fire at will. When Gruden left for the head coaching job in Washington, Hue Jackson was promoted from running backs coach to offensive coordinator. Jackson’s offense was a hybrid of the West Coast and the Air Coryell and thus focused more on the running game and vertical shots. As such, Dalton’s attempts decreased but his yards/attempt shot up in the two years Jackson ran the offense.
After the 2015 season, which ended early for Dalton, Jackson was hired by the Browns and the Bengals once again promoted from within. Ken Zampese, the quarterbacks coach at the time, took over the offense. As the son of Ernie Zampese, former Cowboys offensive coordinator and disciple of Don Coryell himself, he completely transitioned to the Air Coryell. It did not go well, as Zampese was fired a year and a half into the job.
Zampese was replaced midseason by Bill Lazor, the new quarterbacks coach. Lazor had a wide range of experience, working under Mike Holmgen’s West Coast offense, Joe Gibbs’ Air Coryell offense, and even Chip Kelly’s offense when he ran the Eagles. As such, Lazor tried to introduce a multiple hybrid scheme in 2018 when he was retained as the full-time offensive coordinator. Interestingly enough, Dalton’s new quarterbacks coach that year was Alex Van Pelt, who had been the starting quarterback for those Pitt Panthers back when McCarthy was a budding coach and had spent the previous six seasons as an assistant coach with McCarthy’s Packers.
Finally, last season saw the Bengals offense called by Zac Taylor, their rookie head coach who had been working under Sean McVay in Los Angeles the previous two seasons. It marked a return to the West Coast for Dalton, where he operated an offense that heavily featured play-action, pre-snap motion, and lots of 11 personnel. Dalton didn’t perform too well, but odds are good it was more so due to the loss of A.J. Green for the whole season and a poor offensive line that saw Dalton take the seventh most sacks in the NFL despite missing three games.
So what does all of this mean for Dalton? He’s well-traveled in different offensive schemes despite Dallas being the second franchise he’s ever played for. Dalton was at his peak when he had a good supporting his cast: the five straight postseason appearances featured a wide receiver trio of Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu alongside a reliable running game with the likes of Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Dalton’s downward trend in production also coincided with the loss of talented offensive linemen like Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith, Clint Boling, and Kevin Zeitler.
In Dallas, Dalton has a familiar scheme with West Coast elements and a play-caller who he not only knows from his college days, but whose play-calling tendencies are quite similar to the offense Dalton ran last year. He has a great receiver corps and an offensive line that, despite season-ending injuries to both offensive tackles, has managed to hold up decently.
In short, this Cowboys offense looks very similar in talent and philosophy to the very best of the Dalton-era Bengals, which was also inarguably the best years in Bengals history (though it’s admittedly not saying much). It’s a big reason why Dalton chose Dallas in free agency; on the off chance he had to play, he’d be set up for success. The question, as it was before Dak’s injury, is can the defense can hold up their end of the bargain.