When the Cowboys signed Andy Dalton to their team in the offseason, it was notable for two reasons. The first was that Dalton, a nine-year starter for the Bengals, gave the Cowboys their most experienced backup quarterback in a long time. The second was that Dalton, hailing from Katy, Texas and starring at TCU, was making a homecoming to play for Dallas.
Now, Dalton will be making another homecoming of sorts as the Cowboys travel to Cincinnati in search of their fourth win on the year. After being drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft to replace a disgruntled Carson Palmer, Dalton set many franchise records for Cincinnati in his nine years there, including a stretch of unprecedented success during his first five years where the team went 50-26-1. But as the Bengals roster aged and lost key players in free agency, both Dalton and the team declined drastically.
That led to the Bengals finishing last season with the NFL’s worst record and selecting LSU star Joe Burrow first overall. After shopping Dalton and getting no takers, the Bengals released the Red Rifle, whereupon he secured a deal to become Dak Prescott’s backup for a year in hopes of gaining a starting job elsewhere the following season. Little did Dalton know he would end up becoming the starter in Dallas by Week 6 after a horrible injury to Prescott. Of course, things haven’t gone very well for Dalton who was concussed in his second start and then contracted COVID-19 while recovering, or the Cowboys, who just clinched their first losing season since 2015, coincidentally when the Cowboys lost Tony Romo for the year.
Dalton has been growing more confident in Kellen Moore’s offense as of late, even if the wins haven’t followed. Over his last three games, Dalton is hitting on nearly 68% of his passes and averaging over 234 passing yards a game while throwing six touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which came by way of tipped passes. All of this sets up for a rather entertaining return to Paul Brown Stadium.
That’ll have to be the top storyline heading into this game, as the matchup will be without some of the bigger stars associated with these two teams. Burrow’s season was ended nearly a month ago by a nasty knee injury, pushing Brandon Allen into starting duties. Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who was on pace to be one of the league’s top rushers this year before getting injured Week 6, has already been ruled out for this game.
On the Cowboys’ end, Ezekiel Elliott has yet to practice fully with a calf injury he suffered against the Ravens on Tuesday, and his status is uncertain for Sunday’s game in Cincinnati. That could potentially result in Tony Pollard making his first career start, but even if Elliott does make it to the game he’ll likely be limited. That means even more pressure on Dalton, who likely wants to show up his former team anyway.
After all, it’s not like the Bengals have suddenly become good without him. While Burrow looked every bit the budding star before he went down, Cincinnati had just two wins and a tie against the Eagles. Since Burrow went down, the offense has become even more dormant than it already was, and the Bengals could be on their way to a second consecutive two-win season. Of course, that could change against the Cowboys, who have also suffered some dire offensive showings since losing their star quarterback.
Both of these teams are still openly trying to compete and win games, but both fan bases have more or less resigned themselves to monitoring their draft position after each game. To that point, this game carries significant weight. If the season ended today, the Bengals would pick third overall and the Cowboys would pick fourth overall. Should Cincinnati win on Sunday, Dallas would jump up to that third spot, while a win for Dallas could potentially push them down as far as the seventh overall pick, depending on what the Chargers and Eagles do on Sunday.
This definitely isn’t the way Dalton would have hoped his return to Cincinnati would go, for many reasons, but it is the situation that’s been presented. While many will focus on that potential revenge game for the Red Rifle, others will be watching this Dallas defense. After giving up nearly 300 rushing yards to the Ravens, how will they rebound against an inept offense that’s tallied just 368 total yards of offense and scored just two touchdowns in the two and a half games since losing Burrow?
The stage is certainly set for a bounce-back game defensively, and with Dalton’s extra motivation coming after three encouraging performances from him it seems as if the Cowboys should be favored in this one, even as this matchup carries significant draft implications for both teams.