Bengals' Dalton closes gap in rookie award race as wins pile up

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For the first two months of the season, Cam Newton seemed to be a slam dunk for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Now? I'm not as sure. Especially after I heard what Ben Roethlisberger, who knows a thing or two about winning right away (13-0 as a rookie starter in 2004), told the Cincinnati media on Wednesday about the Bengals' own rookie QB, Andy Dalton. "Right now I think -- and I don't know how the talk is -- but he's rookie of the year," Roethlisberger said.

That's not to denigrate what Newton's done, which is show everyone what kind of transcendent, mold-changing player he can be. It's more a testament to Dalton. Three quarterbacks drafted in front of him are now starting (Newton, Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert and Minnesota's Christian Ponder), and they've combined to win six of their 25 starts. The Bengals rookie has won seven of his 11, and done it compiling a slightly higher quarterback rating than Newton (81.8 to 81.1) and significantly better TD-INT ratio (16-12 to 12-14).

Cincinnati can double its 2010 win total by beating Pittsburgh on Sunday, and while it's not solely because of Dalton, it's not in spite of him either.

"I'm definitely surprised that this early, we can have the vets counting on him, to get them in the right play, to make the right decision. It really is amazing what he's done," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told me Monday night. "I know that both he and Cam have been outstanding. I know both teams are happy with what they've gotten, and I know neither team would trade the guy they got for anything."

Gruden then paused, and you could almost hear the smirk through the phone as he continued, "Well, except for maybe A.J." He was, of course, referring to A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick in April who is leading the Bengals in catches (44), receiving yards (745) and touchdown receptions (6).

But the breadth of Dalton's achievements, in his fourth NFL month, is pretty astounding. As Gruden puts it, with Carson Palmer striking for a trade all offseason and into the summer, "all eyes were on him." Dalton has responded. Even with a first-year coordinator. Even with the lockout cutting his offseason work with coaches from four-and-a-half months to roughly six weeks.

Welcome to NFL, kid.

"He came in Day 1 as the starter, and this whole situation was upside down," Gruden said. "There was no veteran quarterback, we lost our two starting receivers. The bulk of our offensive production, between Carson and T.O. and Chad, was done. You have two rookies (Dalton and Green), Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham in his second year. It could've gone any which way. We badly needed a leader in that position, whether he was 22 or 42, and Andy's been that guy."

It hasn't been perfect, of course. Just as Dalton's gone without an interception in five games, he's throw at least two picks in five games, as well.

But those failures have shown Gruden as much as the successes have. Gruden points to a bad six-quarter stretch -- Dalton threw four picks between the loss to San Francisco in Week 2, and the first half of the game against Buffalo in Week 3 -- and how the rookie responded by rallying the Bengals from a 17-3 halftime deficit against the Bills. And how Dalton rebounded from three picks and a 17-point deficit two weeks ago to get the Bengals to the doorstep of overtime in the waning moments in Baltimore.

"Interceptions are gonna happen," Dalton explained. "You can't worry about that. 'I made a mistake? OK, I have to make up for it.' That's my attitude about it. If I worry about it, I've got no chance."

That's led to growth, not just in play, but also responsibility.

Dalton came in with a good base from TCU, where he explained he was "calling the protections, changing the protections, changing the route combinations, checking off if I'd see the blitz, and sometimes they'd just send in the formation and let me call the play." As a result, Gruden has been able to pile more on Dalton, which has allowed the Bengals to run a more fully functional offense than normally would be feasible with a rookie at the helm.

"It changes every week -- the concepts, the protections, playing against 3-4 pressure, 4-3 pressure, dime blitzes, double-A and nickel blitzes -- everyone has their own fastball," said Gruden. "With coverages and blitzes, he has something to learn every week and we're throwing a lot at him. … But the guys are comfortable with him, confident he'll get them in the right play in the stretch run of games on important plays, and so they block a little better, run routes a little better, because of their confidence in him."

Outside of those complexities, there's this simple fact too: Dalton just wins. He was 36-3 in his final three years at TCU, won 27 of his final 28 starts, and took the Horned Frogs to 13-0 and a Rose Bowl title as a senior.

The quarterback is always going to get too much credit, and too much blame, of course. So it's not fair to TCU coach Gary Patterson's smothering defenses to say the success in Fort Worth was all due to Dalton, just not like it's not fair or accurate to discount the impact Mike Zimmer's defense has had on the Bengals' turnaround.

But it's also probably not a coincidence winning follows this particular quarterback around. He says he's "not surprised" that the Bengals have gotten it done, and he also believes there is something to players simply being "winners."

"It's an attitude," Dalton says. "I'm not the only one who believes it. Guys in our locker room do, too. Pushing guys to be the best, that's part of the role I've always taken being a quarterback. … Everyone's made it easier for me to do that. It's hard to be a leader right away, but playing quarterback, you have to. That's the way I've been, trying to win guys over by putting them in the right situations. It just increases from there."

Dalton's also not blind, and concedes there were "a lot of negative thoughts about Cincinnati when I got here, but I didn't know anything different than the way I've done it. With Carson's situation, I wasn't sure what would happen. I couldn't worry about that. I only worry about what I can control."

As it turns out, for a young quarterback, Dalton was capable of controlling plenty. And yes, like he said, he's doing what he's always done -- win.

All of which makes you wonder, with Newton's Panthers at 3-8, if Roethlisberger is on to something.

Suh's reputation is changing

By the time Ndamukong Suh's foot hit the ground on Thanksgiving, just grazing Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith, the football community was hardly shocked by that kind of action from the big Lions defensive lineman. That's part of being fined $42,500 in less than two years, Suh's cumulative penalty for hits on Jake Delhomme, Jay Cutler and Dalton.

But if you'd told NFL folks this was coming two Aprils ago when Suh left Nebraska for the draft? That's a different story.

"I'm shocked, it's beyond surprise," said one AFC scout who works the Big 12. "He was a physical, tenacious, nasty football player who was serious about being the best. But he never crossed that line on the field, and now you're not only seeing him cross that line, but to go there? I didn't think he was an after-the-whistle guy. He wasn't like that in college."

Suh's reputation in Lincoln remains sterling. The strength-and-conditioning center bears his name, and he donated $2.6 million to the school just before he was drafted. He graduated with a degree in construction engineering -- $600,000 of the aforementioned money went to the engineering school -- and told NFL teams of his plan to go into business with his dad after football.

Hardly the profile of a thug.

"[The Packers incident] seems completely out of character," said one GM who did his homework on Suh. "The stuff that came back, 99 percent of it was positive. The only thing that showed up was, now and then, he'd take plays off, and that he had interests outside of football, so the question was, 'Does he really love it?' But this stuff never came up. Thuggish stuff? It's really surprising, the way he's acting."

The next logical question: Do scouts get the truth at Nebraska? Bo Pelini and Co. get high marks in that area, too. "They're great," said the GM. "They're gonna protect kids to a point, like everyone. But with scouts, as far as being fair, they're tremendous."

As for what Jets guard Matt Slauson told the New York Post, that his ex-Nebraska teammate "wasn't well-liked" among the Cornhuskers, I'm told that people in Lincoln were disappointed in the offensive lineman speaking for folks throughout the program. Yes, he had a hard edge about football, and yes that could rub people the wrong way. But it was never considered too much.

"He was an aggressive football player that would play to that edge, and you didn't see anything chippy cross into games," said the AFC scout. "He had some documented fights in practice where he was asked to leave. But on the field, all the things were competitive. He was a very business-like, intense person who took it serious. He's not joking, not cutting it up out there. He's intense and serious."

There were two things of note on his record, according to sources: There was a car accident in 2009 before which Suh said he drank a glass of wine, but was well under the legal limit; and there was an anger issue when he was younger. But both those elements were seen as minor in the face of overwhelming evidence that the kid was clean as a whistle, character-wise.

The GM said, "We had no flags at all on him, no alerts, not one symbol to be aware of. I think everybody was clean on him. Makes me wonder, 'What's created this?'" And the scout added, "This is a shock to that whole university. The support group at Nebraska, they had nothing but good things to say. This kid was a slam dunk. There weren't any flags on him. Low risk. All football. And he's been a great player."

All of which is to say: Suh needs to get it together, before this reputation he's built overshadows everything else.

Jags face uphill battle

The sale of the Jaguars this week, from Wayne Weaver to Shahid Khan, again raised the question that's been lingering over that franchise -- can the NFL work going forward in Jacksonville?

All but three of the league's 32 teams play in Top 35 television markets. The outliers are the Packers (Green Bay-Appleton is 70th), Bills (Buffalo is 51st) and the Jags (Jacksonville is 47th). The difference between the three is that the Bills and Packers are considered regional franchises, with much of Green Bay's base in Milwaukee, and Buffalo also drawing from Syracuse, Rochester and Southern Ontario.

The idea with Jacksonville, on the other hand, had been that it would grow the way Atlanta did decades ago, and the NFL would have an advantage in having been first to a burgeoning market. In the 17 seasons since the league went there, that hasn't happened. And the hurdles remain.

"Jacksonville is a very challenging market for an NFL team," said SportsCorp president Marc Ganis, who's worked with the NFL and its teams for years. "It's small. There are few corporate headquarters there. There's not great wealth, and it's not a destination location. It has many deficiencies. But it does have the team. No one would move there now, but no one has to. The team exists, and the fans have generally stepped up. But yes, it's one of the NFL's least attractive markets, if not the least attractive."

Ganis emphasized that the fans, because of the club's lease, will determine how difficult it will be to move the team.

That lease, which runs through 2030, won't be easy to break. For the Jaguars to do that, the franchise would have to lose money for three consecutive years, something that will be pretty hard to do after the new TV deals are done in 2014, and prove that the losses were directly attributable to ticket sales. Even then, the city could challenge that in court, which would likely lead to a lengthy legal battle.

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The second element in breaking the lease would be a requirement that the owners defease the bonds -- paying back what the city still owes on renovation bonds used to upgrade the old Gator Bowl back in the mid-1990s -- but that's not seen as a major problem. Those bonds started at $100 million, and are likely down to around half that, which would be a small number when considering a franchise relocation.

Ganis said the Jaguars are "the Sacramento Kings of the NFL" and said the team needs someone who's passionate about the NFL. He believes Khan is, and suspects the new owner will try and make a splash coaching hire to prove it. But Ganis also said he thinks the real juice will have to come from that coach's boss.

"(Khan) needs to find a Bill Polian," said Ganis, referencing the Colts president. "He needs a great personnel man and team manager. The Colts have been one of the best for more than a decade, and it's in large part because Jimmy Irsay attracted Bill Polian, who did a similar job in Buffalo, there. In the NFL, with the competitive-balance rules, it's more challenging for some than others, but it's possible for anyone if you have the right football operations guy."

For now, the Jaguars have to hope GM Gene Smith, who's done a good job and just signed a three-year extension, is that guy. Moreover, they have to be praying that Smith has found in Blaine Gabbert what Polian had in Jim Kelly and Peyton Manning. The future of football in Jacksonville could be riding on it.

Tough love? Tough Luck

I've heard the nitpicking on Andrew Luck, so I made some calls this week to see what the folks paid to evaluate college players think. And what's come back is the same kind of unanimous result that you've gotten when asking about Luck all along. As one NFC personnel executive put it, "I'd bet they're just bored of hearing how great he is."

Another NFC personnel executive said that in the past two decades, "He's one of five guys that I've done where I can say, 'Yes, no doubt about it, he's gonna be damn good.' "

The first executive took it a step further, saying, "With Luck, I'd bet my life on it. With (Matt) Barkley and (Landry) Jones, you'd like to give them more time. They need to be phased in. With Luck, you give him the keys to the franchise Day 1, and he'll be fine."

Strong words? Yup. But if you want hard facts, those are readily available. He took a previously middling Stanford program to a 23-2 mark the past two years (the Cardinal scored 30 and 31 points in the losses), and in those 25 games, he's gone 524 of 745 (70.3 percent) for 6,508 yards, 67 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

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There's little question about the mental part. As another evaluator told me, "Is he Tom Brady? Is he Peyton Manning? From an instinctive and cerebral standpoint, he's in that category." That has allowed him to lift the talent around him, against more talented Pac-12 teams at Oregon and USC, to compete.

"He's going to be a franchise quarterback, without a doubt, and a big part of it is that he's an anticipatory quarterback," said the first NFC exec. "His skill guys are worse than the skill guys on the other side in a lot of cases, so he needs to know what the defense is going to do, and be able to go there quick. He needs to throw guys open and he does. And when it breaks down, he's a big, strong kid who can be one of the Top 5-7 running quarterbacks in the NFL right away."

That brings us to Luck's arm strength, which has been scrutinized. You hear on both Luck and Barkley that accuracy further downfield can be a concern, particularly with Barkley, whose ball flutters a bit. But both those guys can make up for it, again, with their heads. Both are considered special in that regard, and Luck's physical attributes put him over the top.

"It's strong enough," the second NFC exec said. "It's as strong as Peyton's was. It's not Carson Palmer coming out of USC, but it won't be an issue with the way he anticipates things. It's plenty strong. Look, it's a risk to take anyone high. But it's more of a risk to value the athlete over the person. Happens all the time -- guy can run fast, jump high, but he's a (expletive)-head. This guy is A-plus all the way across. The only thing that's going to stop him is injury."

The nitpicking will, of course, only ramp up. Just remember that things have been pretty unanimous on this kid all along. He's Matt Ryan from the jump and could be Peyton Manning. Whichever team drafts him -- whether it's the Colts with the first pick or a team dealing up ("It'll have to be outrageous, a Herschel Walker trade," said the second executive) -- will have very little doubt in what they're getting.

Four things I'll be looking for this weekend

1) How the Ravens come off their emotional win against the 49ers. A pattern has emerged with Baltimore -- following big, chest-pounding wins with stinkers. The losses in Tennessee and Seattle were after the team's wins over Pittsburgh, and the Jacksonville defeat on Monday Night Football was after the Ravens bludgeoned a very good Texans team. John Harbaugh's crew, at its best, is the AFC's premier team, in my opinion. A big part of that has been the emphasis to get younger and more athletic at key positions. And a part of getting younger is having to grow up some. The Ravens can show they've done that this week, with a beatdown of the Browns in Cleveland. If Baltimore can suffocate an outmanned team quickly Sunday, it'll tell you a lot about a group that Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh figured would ascend over the course of the season.

2) How the Texans handle their quarterbacks. This one is obvious, but it's something I think we'll all have to see for ourselves. What if T.J. Yates throws two interceptions in the first half against Atlanta? Hard to see Jake Delhomme coming in, having just arrived, but could Gary Kubiak go to Kellen Clemens in that spot? If Kubiak rides out bumps with Yates, it'll say that he's committed to giving the rookie fifth-round pick a real shot. A quick hook would send a different message, of course. Through 11 games, the Texans have proven themselves to have a championship-caliber defense and running game, and so it's a tricky spot for a coach to be in. But if Kubiak truly believes Yates will give the team the best shot in January, his management of the rookie will be critical early on. If he thinks Clemens or Delhomme give the Texans the best shot, we're talking about something else entirely.

3) The Giants' mental state. I was in Green Bay last Dec. 26, as the Giants melted down in the face of a Packers team hitting its stride and a hostile environment. So New York's got that demon coming into this one -- Eli Manning threw four picks in the 45-17 beatdown -- and another one with its recent history of late-season collapses. On the flip side, the fact that the Giants are a team with the horses to get to the passer with a conventional four-man rush gives them a chance against Aaron Rodgers. I don't see the Giants winning this one. But being competitive is a must. Even with a loss, New York will retain control over its destiny, with showdowns with the first-place Cowboys looming in Week 14 and Week 17. And building to the first of those with a good showing this week will be important.

4) Matthew Stafford's right hand. The Sunday nighter between the Lions and Saints has a chance to be an absolute shootout. But there's a variable there, and it revolves around the condition of Matthew Stafford's fractured index finger. While Stafford's completion percentage has been fine since he was injured, he's thrown nine picks in his past three games. And those watching closely have noted how he's being more careful with the ball. The Lions have lost four of six, and with no run game to speak of, and Suh out for now, they badly need Stafford at his best. He'll have had 10 days off going into Sunday's game, and it'll have been three full weeks since he broke the finger. One thing's for sure: Drew Brees and Co. will put plenty of pressure on Detroit to score, and so we'll likely get a real good look at where Stafford is physically.

Three conclusions

1) There are three good reasons for in-season firings.In the wake of Jack Del Rio's ouster, I was on San Diego radio -- where the Norv Turner Watch is on -- and they asked me about the subject. My feeling is that such a move can be justified to either save a season, audition an assistant, or look after the development of young players. Of course, in most cases, when a coach is fired in-season, things are going so poorly that the playoffs are out of the question, so the first of the three scenarios is rare. The second, of course, worked for Dallas last year with Jason Garrett getting a good long look, something some thought Dirk Koetter would get in Jacksonville, before interim duties went to Mel Tucker. And the third is an underrated one -- if a team has tuned out its coach, a poisonous environment can develop, and preventing promising young players from becoming submerged in those kinds of situations can be important.

2) If Von Miller matures, he'll have a chance to be a close facsimile to DeMarcus Ware. And those are strong words from me, since I believe Ware is the closest thing the league has seen to Lawrence Taylor since the real thing roamed the NFL (a sentiment Bill Belichick once told me he agreed with). The important thing now is growth, since we've seen how far Miller's athletic ability can get him. Good as he's been, Miller was benched at one point earlier in the season, and I'm told he rubbed some veteran defensive players the wrong way, in having the air about him that he had it all figured out as a rookie. He's still not complete as a player, but he has great resources around him. Coach John Fox was important in the development of Michael Strahan and Julius Peppers, and vets like Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey and D.J. Williams are in the locker room, as well. And Miller has a good head on his shoulders. So with time, there's a good chance he does get it all figured out.

3) Michael Vick is plenty tough. I've heard whispers comparing Vick's broken ribs to what Tony Romo dealt with earlier in the year. A few things are important to remember on that. First, Vick stayed in the Arizona game, despite being hurt in the first quarter, and hesitated to tell anyone about the pain he was in until the next day. Second, his availability the past three weeks hasn't been up to him. The club used Romo's play as an example of how being shot up, and playing with a vest, could hamper a quarterback's effectiveness and recovery. Romo played with a vest and a shot for six games, going 3-3. He went 2-3 in the first five, with a 7-6 TD-INT ratio. And in playing through it, it took nearly two months for the ribs to heal to where he was playing pain-free -- that landmark was hit on Nov. 13, the injury happened Sept. 18. Romo certainly was plenty tough, and the Cowboys' decision-making is vindicated by their first-place standing. But there was thought that went into the Eagles going a different way and, ultimately, there should be no referendum on their quarterback's grittiness as a result.

Two pieces of business

1) Caleb Hanie's playing for plenty. A fourth-year pro, Hanie is an interesting spot to compete for the eyes of clubs that might try and bargain shop for quarterbacks in the offseason, and get into a group that could include fellow young veterans Matt Flynn (Packers) and Brian Hoyer (Patriots). Hanie's story is an interesting one, too, that relates back to Romo. In 2003, Romo was considering offers as an undrafted free agent, and took less to go to Dallas, rather than Denver (Mike Shanahan was an Eastern Illinois QB just like Romo) where the quarterback situation was more settled. Five years later, Hanie came into the NFL, and made a similar decision, that tied him to Romo, as the Cowboys came after him as an undrafted free agent. Because Romo had just signed a six-year deal with Dallas, he saw more opportunity in Chicago, and took less money to go there. Now, the decision could well pay off, not to the degree it did for Romo, but for similar reasons.

2) Los Angeles is a serious subject for the league. And so in addition to the above hurdles that we mentioned the Jaguars would have, if they intended to flee Jacksonville, there would be others waiting if the intended destination was Los Angeles. The league is determined to get L.A. right, and that means having the right team for the country's second largest metropolitan area. The Lakers work in L.A. The Dodgers work in L.A. And one reason the NFL believes why is because those two are iconic brands. That's why the Raiders continue to make a lot of sense for the league's eventual foray back into L.A., and it's why the Vikings would be palatable too. This much is for sure: If it did wind up being a team like the Jags, you can bet there would be a massive effort to re-brand the franchise specifically to fit Southern California better.

One prediction

Playoff caliber teams will be left out of the NFC postseason. And those teams will be the Giants and Lions. I think the Falcons have turned a corner, and the Bears' schedule softens up just enough for them to survive the Jay Cutler injury.

But above all else, what the above tells you is that the swing in power that seems to happen between the conferences every decade or so is now complete. The NFC has won three of the past four Super Bowls, and with the Packers and Saints and 49ers, it is stronger at the top, and also deeper than the AFC.

It's kind of interesting how it's worked historically -- the AFC was stronger in the 1970s, with a shift coming in the mid-1980s, and the NFC remaining the tougher circuit into the late 1990s, when it went back to the AFC. We'll see if the changing of the guard sticks for longer period of time now the way it has in the past.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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Earl "Curly" Lambeau, 37, coach of Green Bay Packers of National Football League, poses in 1931, location unknown. (AP Photo)

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