For the first time in his life Andy Dalton has given his right arm to the gurus.
After 42 wins at Texas Christian and three consecutive playoffs to start his career with the Bengals and staring at one of those crossroads-in-life years looming with contract talks and a first child, the 26-year-old Dalton stepped out of his box in order to step up his game and his team last month when he ventured to the West Coast.
“That’s what I was trying to do by going out there,” says Dalton of his week at USC with Dr. Tom House. “If he can tweak a few things that make me more accurate and complete more balls, it gives us a great chance to win more games. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
While Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis talked about the urgency of getting a contract extension with Dalton before the season during the March NFL meetings, Dalton had just returned from five days in a scholarly regimen where House says, “We try to get all four legs of the health and performance table.”
Not only does that include an analytic buffet of the mechanics of his throwing motion, but a nutrition course and functional strength test. They basically wired him like a video game so they could record each movement of his feet, legs, hips, shoulders, and arm while throwing the ball. Dalton says the average observer won’t notice any big changes in his passing style. But he has emerged from the seminar with some differences. And he sounds like a grad student with an easy grasp of the throwing terminology, ranging from “swinging your hips” (bad) to “pushing off at the target” (good).
“The motion is still mine. It’s not like it’s completely changed,” Dalton says. “We tweaked a few things just to make sure all of your momentum, all your force, everything you have is going toward the target of where you’re trying to throw. We tweaked it a little bit. It happens so quickly, I don’t think the average person will notice it.
“There was stuff that was new to me. It’s science-based and applying it. But once I got used to it, it was fine.”
House has been noticing all the little things most people don’t since he was scuffling through eight major-league seasons and 29 victories as a left-hander journeying through the ‘70s.
In Boston, he’s the bright, earnest lefty the Red Sox got in exchange for Rogelio Moret (41-18) and ended up 2-3 in 44 games as a Sox. Everywhere else in baseball, he’s the Braves pitcher who caught teammate Hank Aaron’s 715th home run that beat Babe Ruth’s almost mythical home-run record. It was House who sprinted from the bullpen, fought his way through the crowd, and presented Aaron with the ball in the melee that had broken out at home plate.
“That’s the highlight of my career,” says the soft-spoken House, who was part of Tuesday night’s 40th anniversary celebration in Atlanta. “There’s a picture of that in the Hall of Fame, so when I tell my story, I say I’m in the Hall of Fame. It’s a true lie.”
That's a hard guy not to like and Dalton did. House has one more big-league complete game (4) than degrees (3), but his B.S. in marketing and master’s in business administration from USC and Ph.D. in sports psychology from what was formerly U.S. international University probably helped him more in a pitching coach career that was so highly regarded that he made Nolan Ryan’s Hall-of-Fame speech.
In those days he coached the Rangers and Padres he got some notoriety for using a football in drills. In recent years House, 66, has coached some pretty well known quarterbacks in his hands-on course, ranging from Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Carson Palmer, to
“Rotational athletes all have the same timing and, believe it or not, almost the same bio mechanics,” House says. “The only thing different is that a quarterback has to get into his foot strike faster than a pitcher does. Once the front foot gets down, throwing a football and baseball is pretty similar.”
Dalton says he heard about House from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and was open to the idea. If Dalton’s got the support, he has no problem trying new things and he has yanked this initiative and run with it. Even though he never had personal tutoring sessions like many high school, college and pro quarterbacks, the counsel of Lewis and Zampese helped. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s USC ties with House also would have been soothing. They already know Dalton is committed to the cause.
“Zammy and Marvin brought him up because he’s worked with some of the top guys in the league. For me, I just wanted to see what these guys are doing and try to take advantage of this guy, so I might as well go out and see what it’s all about. I think it’s been very beneficial for me and something I’ll continue to do throughout my career.”
Zampese, Master Mechanic, has taken good care of Dalton since he arrived so House wasn’t getting a train wreck.
“I’d like to say we did a complete overhaul or something huge and different,” House says. “It was basically refining some things. He’s already pretty good.”
HIP TO BE SQUARE
Early on as a Bengal, Dalton’s throwing motion was a little bit more three-quarters than they wanted, but they like where he is now and the fact he can throw out of all sorts of arm angles dictated by what’s in front of him. Like Dalton, they’re just looking for more consistency.
And, no, we’re not talking about arm strength, Dalton’s perceived bugaboo. The idea, particularly on the deep ball, is getting Dalton’s legs and hips in sync so that when he’s throwing he’s not cutting off his arm strength with his body and dropping his arm angle.
“Arm strength isn’t the issue,” Dalton says. “I just wanted to fine tune the accuracy and get the most out of every throw and when you’re doing it right, it just becomes effortless when the ball comes out of your hand.
“One of the big things is getting all your momentum and all your force of throwing the ball right at the target, rather than having any kind of swinging motion that can make you inaccurate,” Dalton says. “A lot of that stuff is making sure my shoulders, hips and everything else are going at the right time.”
The ability to rotate his body in all the right ways is a huge key to accuracy. A solid rotation and follow through at the target results in a higher release point. If the hips keep moving, the throwing hand keeps moving and that keeps the hand on the ball longer for maybe eight inches or even a foot. And a good finish means an accurate throw.
House calls the size of the changes to Dalton’s motion miniscule enough to be “percentage points more efficient.”
“Most of the quarterbacks that roll through are avid learners. They’re looking to get better every day and Andy is very typical of that,” House says. “What we’re trying to do is make sure Andy goes home with a tool kit so when a certain thing happens, he has a fix he can do immediately instead of having to review game film and try to fix it mid-week. The whole idea was to get as much training in where he could identify what his problem was and have a tool kit to fix it right away.”
Dalton says that comes down to asking immediately after a bad throw, “Why did I miss that one?” He feels like if he can understand what went wrong, he can go to the kit and find the answer before the next throw.
Throwing to his left was also a big topic. It’s an area that Dalton isolated and where House thought he made his most improvement.
“Throwing to the left is fairly typical across the board,” House says. “As we get further and further into the numbers of quarterbacks, that throw to the left is the toughest one for all of them, not just Andy. What we try to do is get the same dynamic, same functional movement going to the left as when they’re going straight up the field or to the right. Nothing complicated. Just repetition where you don’t have to think about it in competition.”
The rotation of the body is particularly important on the throw to the left, Dalton says.
“You have to open up (the hips) more and that’s where the swinging happens and that’s what you don’t want to happen. You want to be able to push off with momentum towards the target and not be swinging to the target. Your left side, whether it be your shoulder rotation or your left leg with your hips swinging toward that target, you don’t want that because you lose your accuracy.”
If the changes to the mechanics are minor, his warm-ups and cool-downs may not be. He came home with a lot of shoulder exercises.
“Knowing how to warm up, knowing how to recover,” Dalton says. “I think that will be helpful (because) you take so much out of your arm, you need these exercises to build it back up.”
It sounds like there is another House call in Dalton’s future and the doctor is in.
“He’s bright, he gets it, he’s motivated,” House says. “I see the same thing with elite athletes. We were work with golfers and they have the same characteristics. The way they handle failure, the way they handle adversity, they have a tendency to look at adversity in a positive way.”
Dalton has the map. Despite his many wins, he has to lug an 0-3 post-season record into this crossroads year.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back. I think everyone has that feeling. It’s time to go get it,” Dalton says. “Time to do whatever it takes to not only get back to the playoffs, but get a win. I think everybody in Cincinnati wants that and the team wants that.
“We’ve got a lot of things in place for us to continue what we established here. Making the playoffs now are the expectations and I don’t know what it was before I got here, but now that’s where we’re at.”
There are a lot of things happing. Wife Jordan is due July 4. His people are talking to Bengals people as he heads into his contract year. Debating his worth has become another Cincinnati spring street festival. In vintage Andyesque fashion, it’s all rolling off him.
“Hopefully we can get something that works out for both of us. Hopefully sooner rather than later. We’ll see how it goes,” Dalton says. “Whenever the time is right…It’s all going to happen at the right time. I’m not worried about it right now.”
Right now appears to be reserved for kids and kits.