When Andy Dalton arrives at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday for the first day of offseason workouts, he'll be stepping into a third season that has become a watershed for the three that are already on the Mount Rushmore of Bengals franchise quarterbacks.
Whether Dalton's back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two NFL seasons merit him the fourth spot at such a young age may be up for debate. But what isn't is that Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese plans to greet Dalton with six sheets of notes, ideas and thoughts on how to put him there for sure with a playoff victory.
Even without that postseason win, Dalton has already accomplished in two years what Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer did in their breakout third seasons.
After going 7-10 in his first two seasons, Anderson led the 1973 Bengals to a division title with a 10-4 record. In 1986, Boomer Esiason made his first Pro Bowl while leading the Bengals to their first 10-win season since the 1981 AFC championship, but it wasn't good enough for the playoffs. Two decades later in his third season Carson Palmer made it to his first Pro Bowl while leading the Bengals to the 2005 AFC North title with an 11-5 record with the one caveat that he didn't take one snap his rookie season.
Dalton has done all that in his first two seasons (the playoffs, a 10-win season, a Pro Bowl) except secure a division title. And he did it by improving his touchdown passes (20-27), completion percentage (58 to 62), yards per attempt (6.6 to 6.95) and passer rating (80.4-87.4).
But two brutal offensive Decembers and two ugly playoff losses have, as offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says, left a bad taste in the mouth even though there have been a lot of smiles for a kid with just 32 NFL starts who is only 25 years old.
So if Dalton has already broken out, winning a playoff game would be breaking into the realm of Rushmore. Zampese knows he already has a bright, savvy and well-credentialed NFL starter. Now he's looking to help him finish off the rest of the résumé.
"We need to break out in ways that aren't the normal breakout ways. We need to break out in interception reduction and sack reduction and leadership increase," Zampese says. "We don't need to break out in the normal numbers because what is going to get us over the hump is command of the group, fewer interceptions and taking fewer sacks."
Dalton is clearly on Zampese's six pages because he brought up the leadership himself during a conference call Monday, saying he wants to exert more of it. And Zampese says now that Dalton has command of the offense, the protections and the other nagging details of Xs and Os, they've had more time to discuss the big picture.
And they've e-mailed and chatted about all sorts of topics since end of the season, with Dalton bringing up a lot of the topics Zampese has put to pen and paper.
Zampese, a 16-year NFL veteran, has also spent the offseason calling his league contacts to flesh out a quarterback's role. How does Drew Brees handle watching game film? What does he do during the spring? Does he run the post-practice film meeting? What was the difference with Joe Flacco when the Ravens changed coordinators late in the season?
Dalton may not have the presence of an Esiason (who does?) or the Heisman Trophy charisma of Palmer, but he also looks like Namath compared to the flat line Flacco. All kinds of people can lead in varying ways. Zampese says quarterbacks can lead in any number of ways without pom-poms.
"Where can (Dalton) assert himself within the framework of his personality to allow an obvious, 'I'm running this look,' " Zampese says. "We'll see. That was part of the homework. 'Think of places with your personality.' Film sessions. Practice. It might be taking one receiver after practice and work this one route against all the different looks. 'And we're going to do a different route tomorrow.' Just a constant with guys."
As for cutting down the interceptions, Zampese is excited about what Dalton accomplished the last half of last season. After throwing 11 in the 3-5 start, Dalton was picked just five times the rest of the way and Zampese says that correlates directly to the club's 7-1 finish.
He also says having a more consistent receiving corps that includes the steel-belted reliable Mohamed Sanu bouncing back from injury is going to aid a Dalton break-in year.
"His game is anticipation; completely. And you can only anticipate if you trust. Or he's throwing late, flat and hard. It's a two-way deal," Zampese says of the wide receivers. "The longer he's with these guys, the better that's going to get. Having a guy you trust like Mo, who's very dependable, and then to take that component out and you saw our numbers go (down)."
Zampese says the sack issue is also a two-way street. Dalton got dumped nearly twice as many times last season (46) as he did his rookie season (24), and on the list is better out-of-pocket production and better decisions. Dalton alluded to that on Monday.
"After watching a lot of tape and watching some other guys, things aren't always going to happen exactly the way you want them to happen," Dalton said. "So when the play breaks down, you find a way to make the play. The good teams make them and the teams that struggle don't."
But Zampese says Dalton also needs more space to make those better decisions.
"Instead of having it right in his face," he says, "he needs it back a little more. It's a team game."
But Zampese is excited about the trends and he knows firsthand. When he coached Palmer in 2005, Palmer's interceptions dropped from 18 to 12 and he was sacked once every 26.8 throws instead of 17.3. A smaller but significant jump could be seen with Esiason in 1986, when he got sacked once every 18 throws compared to 14.4 in 1985.
"If we can decrease interceptions and sacks over the course of the year, that would be more important than increasing touchdown passes or completion percentage or any of those other things," Zampese says.
And, of course, downfield accuracy is also high on Zampese's list. He's got a spring mapped out on that.
"It's part footwork and part trajectory. Give (the receiver) more of a chance," Zampese says. "The flatter it is, it drops in at a flatter angle and goes away from a guy. If you get that arc early and drop it in a straighter angle and it's in in the air longer, they have more time to track it, find it, and when they do find it, it's coming to them instead of away from them."
But if there are things to be polished and improved, they also like the trajectory of Dalton's career. Anderson made it to Rushmore despite going 11 seasons before a playoff win. Esiason needed five seasons and Palmer is still looking on his third team and 11th season for his first one.
"It's also the people around him and the team's success is going to define his success," Zampese says of Dalton.
In the end, Zampese says, it comes down to experience and seasoning, and Dalton is on that page, too.
"You want to get better every year. That's what it comes down to," Dalton said this week. "I expect myself to be better in year three than I was in year two and I expect myself to be better in year three than I was in year one. I've got to keep improving and keep getting better and the more I play, the better I'm going to be."
Which is exactly what is at the top of Zampese's list.
KEN ANDERSON's FIRST THREE YEARS
1971-72: 7-10 record; 12 TDs, 11 INTs, 56.2 percentage, 41 sacks (one per 14 passes)
1973: 10-4; 18 TDs, 12 INTs, 54.4 percentage, 24 sacks (one per 13.7 passes)
BOOMER ESIASON's FIRST THREE YEARS
1984-85: 10-8 record, 30 TDs, 15 INTs, 56.7 percentage, 37 sacks (one per 14.4 passes)
1986: 10-6, 24 TDs, 17 INTs, 58.2 percentage, 26 sacks (one per 18 passes)
CARSON PALMER'S FIRST THREE YEARS
2003-04: 6-7, 18 TDs, 18 INTs, 60.9 percentage, 25 sacks (one per 17.3 throws)
2005: 11-5, 32 TDs, 12 INTs, 67.8 percentage, 19 sacks (one per 26.8 throws)
ANDY DALTON's FIRST TWO YEARS
2011-12: 19-13, 47 TDs, 29 INTs, 60.2 percentage, 70 sacks (one per 15 throws)