Sometimes all we see is numbers. And those, for Andy Dalton, were off through the first half of the 2012 season. For a quarterback who makes his money on being heady and aware, a 14:11 TD-to-INT ratio just isn't good enough. Nor was turning over the ball at least once in each game during a middling 3-5 start.
For now, it's a start. And that goes not just for Dalton, but for everyone involved in Cincinnati's young offense, second-year coordinator Jay Gruden included.
"Every game is its own entity; you only get one crack at this a week," Gruden said from his office earlier this week. "We're young offensively, and it's not always Andy. Sometimes, it's the tight end not getting off the line, or the receiver running the wrong route. You wanna talk about a sophomore slump, it's not just the quarterback. We all have our hands in the struggles, not just Andy. But Sunday was a breakthrough. He made big-time throws on third down and did a lot of stuff at the line that helped us."
It's probably more a result of the way the sport is covered than anything else, but as the 2012 class of rookie quarterbacks has flashed, last year's group has become yesterday's news. In the face of losing, Cam Newton has sulked. After a quick start, Christian Ponder has slumped. Without much help around him, Blaine Gabbert has stunk.
But a hard look at the numbers shows that maybe, just maybe, the sophomore slump that many chalk all that up to -- and Gruden scoffs at -- might indeed be more perception than reality.
Take the four aforementioned quarterbacks, leaving out Jake Locker, since he didn't start as a rookie. Collectively, they started 46 games in 2011, completed 56.3 percent of their passes, threw 66 touchdowns against 54 picks and compiled a 76.4 QB rating. This year, in 37 starts, those four have completed 61.5 percent of their passes for 47 touchdowns, with 35 picks and an 83.0 rating.
Part of this is obvious. Most people expect rookie quarterbacks to look lost, and when they don't, they're exhaustively credited for that. In Year 2, the bar is raised, and so anything short of major progress can seem disappointing. Add that to the fact that there's more put on their plate internally, and that defenses have a "book" on them, and some of the hand-wringing can look, well, a little silly.
"I don't believe in that," Dalton told me, in responding to the mere idea of the sophomore slump. "A lot of people think that in your second year you might struggle because you're gonna try to do a lot more, and you can struggle because you might be forcing things. But as long as you play within yourself, I feel like you should grow as a player, and you should be getting better."
Interestingly enough, for Dalton, growing has meant expanding the definition of "playing within yourself."
Gruden explains that some of the quarterback's mistakes come because he's what the Cincinnati offensive coordinator calls a "rhythmatic passer", a player who anticipates what he's going to see before the play develops. That's gotten him in trouble when, Gruden continues, "he sees things the receivers don't."
One difference of late is that Dalton's holding the ball longer, and exhibiting more patience.
"We all have a high bar for him, we know how smart he is," Gruden said. "So when he throws a bad ball, it's like, 'What the hell just happened?' The fact is, it's a tough position. And if you go on stats, you look at the great quarterbacks, and go back to Year 2, they weren't overwhelmingly good. They might have had team success, but you don't get blown away by the stats. Usually, it's the fifth or sixth year when you start to see the 5,000-yard seasons."
And Gruden still believes Dalton is on that path.
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So what constitutes last Sunday's "breakthrough" the OC referenced earlier? Gruden says it showed up most in Dalton's third-down production. The team was good, not great overall in those spots (6-for-13 in the game), but the quarterback threw touchdown passes on third-and-10, third-and-8 and third-and-4, which was a sign of his growth for a couple of reasons.
First, in these situations, the quarterback's added responsibility at the line becomes even more important. Second, defenses are going to throw more at him, using the "book" to do so at those critical junctures. So Dalton's ability to diagnose how the opponent was attacking and counterpunch was key.
"Teams know what we can do now," Dalton said. "Whether it be trying to disguise things a little more or give different looks, I think that might be where defenses have tried to change up. It's all how you handle it. I feel like you should progress, too, have a better understanding of your offense, and know where to go with the ball. For me, I feel like I've taken more control of the offense, which helps."
Dalton then said, on a more global level, "There's gonna be ups and downs throughout the season. And what defenses do to try and attack different quarterbacks, I mean, you can definitely see it. It's how you respond to it. It's how you get over that next step. I think it shows, how quickly you can do that."
And this quarterback is still adjusting, just like the other second-year guys.
For each guy, the adjustment is different. For Dalton, according to his coach, it's a matter of continuing to stay ahead of the curve mentally.
"He doesn't have the arm talent that some of the great ones have, he doesn't have the speed that other great ones might, but he has enough ability and leadership, and a strong enough arm, to be a very successful quarterback," Gruden said. "He might have to work a little harder to get there, but if he keeps outworking and out-preparing everyone, he's got a chance to be a great one. He'll keep getting better. And it's our job to keep getting better around him."
When it comes to the development of young quarterbacks, there's much more involved than public perception might hold.
Players on the spot
Houston Texans WRs Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey: Since the defense is fine without Brian Cushing (ask the Chicago Bears), I figured I'd see if there's another flaw in Houston. "The only real issue," an AFC scout texted, "is WR production outside (Andre) Johnson." He then said Kevin Walter "isn't really a 2." Which leaves the rookies. Martin had a great camp. Posey has tools. Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars seems like a good time to break out.
San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers: Emotions ran high last week in Tampa, and the current regime might be facing its Waterloo in Denver on Sunday. Rivers' job isn't on the line -- it's his coach and general manager who are fighting for their employment -- but his, and the team's, mistake-riddled collapse against the Broncos in October has become the enduring image for these Bolts. Sunday brings a shot to start rewriting the script.
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Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh: It's been one year since the Turkey Day Stomp, and all eyes will be on Suh's behavior at Ford Field. But the truth is, the Lions will need a lot more than an avoidance of personal fouls against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Coming off a game that Jim Schwartz said might have been Suh's best as a Lion, the hulking defensive tackle must affect Aaron Rodgers if the Lions want to keep their shaky playoff hopes alive.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace: He held out and his numbers are a little down, but his play isn't: "He's as big a threat as he's been," said one AFC scout. With Ben Roethlisberger out, Pittsburgh needs even more. Hitting Wallace over the top would help keep the Ravens' pass rush off lead-footed QB Byron Leftwich, and keep Baltimore from crowding the line on Steelers running backs.
Coaches in the spotlight
Philadelphia Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd: It seems like every Eagles assistant has been here. It's Mudd's turn. Injuries have been hard on his group, but Mudd has to find a combination that doesn't simply look like another rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Particularly if Nick Foles, who isn't exactly fleet of foot, is starting against the Washington Redskins. This week, the team benched Demetress Bell and moved King Dunlap to left tackle.
St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: My sense is that Schotty didn't much like being scapegoated for the New York Jets' issues last year. Motivation won't be lacking against Gang Green this Sunday. That said, the Rams aren't exactly setting the world on fire, either. But Schottenheimer's offense played pretty well against a nasty Niner defense, and this is another chance for Sam Bradford to take another step. And if a score is settled along the day, well ...
Something to spot on Thursday night
Miami Dolphins' toughness: Here's where we learn a little bit about Joe Philbin's ability to lead his team out of the woods. Miami has lost two straight, the first one a heartbreaker, the second one a blowout. And now, they have to come back on a short week and go into the freezing cold of Orchard Park. We'll see what kind of counterpunch Philbin and this reworked team has.
Chicago Bears' offensive line: We already mentioned the Eagles' line. And the Steelers were referenced, too. If you look at the four teams that had quarterbacks injured last weekend, the Niners, pretty clearly, are best equipped to withstand the hit, because their backup (Colin Kaepernick) has the best chance of staying out of harm's way. Speaking of the Niners, their fearsome front seven figures to seriously challenge the Bears' leaky offensive front. And if it's Jason Campbell back there -- not Jay Cutler -- that means trouble.