Dalton, Bengals Have A Moment As Future Looms

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) is sacked by Miami Dolphins defensive end Zach Sieler (92), during the first half at an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Andy Dalton found a way Sunday to get the game to overtime.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - Just before the Bengals cut the thing to eight points with 29 seconds left, Shawn Williams turned to fellow safety Clayton Fejedelem on the Cincinnati sidelines and asked him if he ever heard of Reggie Miller.

Fejedelem thought he played for the Packers, but Williams was thinking of the NBA Reggie Miller that microwaved three-point baskets at will for the Pacers of the '90s and that's what Andy Dalton was doing in what looked to be his final 6:11 road stand as the Bengals quarterback.

Hard Rock Stadium sunk into the Twilight Zone for the last 16 minutes or so of Sunday's riveting-like-a-car-wreck overtime. Imagine the do-do…do-do…do-do musical score and Rod Serling invoking the words of the Elias Sports Bureau: "The Bengals became the first team in the Super Bowl era to score at least 16 points in the final 29 seconds of a game."

There was angst, there was pathos, there was nervous laughter in the stands and in front of TVs and nasty Twitter trash and flat-out, cramp-defying commitment to winning on the goal line.

Here the one-win Bengals were staging a comeback of the ages against a three-win Dolphins team for a win that might alter the course of the franchise for just as long. A loss would secure the Bengals the No. 1 pick in the draft, a spot seemingly bequeathed to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, just like it was to fellow Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer 16 years ago and the last time the Bengals went number one. A win could mean letting the first pick and possibly a decade slip away for in exchange for holiday week glow.

Dalton could care less if he was playing in the shadow of Burrow. This is a proud guy and his teammates have his back. They know or watched or did both as he became just the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era to reach the postseason in his first five seasons. Even when the 38-35 overtime loss to the Dolphins dropped the Bengals to 1-14, Dalton remained a percentage point ahead of Ken Anderson (.530-.529) as the Bengals' winningest quarterback ever.

Which shows you how good it used to be. And his teammates know that.

"I knew it. Andy has done that for a while," Shawn Williams said. "Last year at Atlanta. He's good at that. It probably would have been in Buffalo (on Sept. 22) if that ball didn't get tipped and picked. I like Andy in these situations. I think he's one of the best."

The loss reinforced what needs to be attacked in the offseason.

The Bengals' seventh different starting offensive line this season was badly outplayed by a much-maligned defensive front for the team giving up the most points in the NFL this season. They gave up four sacks to a team that had just 18 of them all year.

And in a meeting between the NFL's two worst run defenses, the Bengals could only rush for 2.4 yards per carry and the Dolphins for only 2.8. The Bengals may not be looking for Burrow, but they are looking to next year. Rookie Fred Johnson split about half the snaps with left tackle Cordy Glenn and Billy Price split his first NFL start at right guard with John Jerry.

The defense relapsed back to early season. They had several blown coverages, a slew of missed tackles and just two sacks against one of the worst pass-protectors in the league. It all allowed Miami quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to have the 14th biggest day by a quarterback this season with 419 yards as the Bengals gave up 500 yards (502) for the third time this season.

"Certainly the whole range of emotions there," said head coach Zac Taylor. " You're frustrated that we come out flat. We lose a ton of one-on-ones in the first half. We're not making any plays on defense. We're giving up the one-on-ones, missing tackles, getting late hits on the quarterback, all the things that frustrate you and all of a sudden this thing comes to life and these guys kind of prove what we see in the locker room every single day that there's no quit in these guys and that they're playing for each other, they're still connected."

And a lot of it runs through Dalton, who is leaving underrated shoes if they choose to move on. Just look at wide receiver Tyler Boyd, immense on Sunday with his ninth catch coming on fourth-and-three with 29 seconds left. It was a brutally tough catch on the goal line, a slant out of the slot that Boyd grabbed for his 128th yard. Ever since these guys hooked up on fourth-and-12 to beat the Ravens on the last play of the 2017 season, they've had a unique chemistry and Boyd is now 13 yards away from becoming a back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver.

"It was an outside release fade," Boyd said. "They didn't think I was going to get the ball, I just bleed. I see Andy's eyes and I see he's ready to throw it, so I just continued to play through it. I continued to run the route, but I started kind of oozing. Until I see him ready to throw it, so I start going."

Translation: Boyd knows when he's going to zig, Dalton knows when he'll zag.

His biggest catch was the 29-yarder to set up the tying points with no time left. Boyd made a leaping catch in the middle of a zone and came down with cramps. But his biggest play was crawling off the field after the ball was spiked with four seconds left, or else that would have been the game's last play if he couldn't get off the field.

"For him to go up and make that catch and get a big chunk there, that gave us an opportunity to be down there," Dalton said. "That was huge. 'T.B.' played really well."

The feeling is mutual. No, Virginia. In this locker room, there was no talk of Santa Claus or Joe Burrow or the No. 1 pick. Just guys taking the lead from Dalton.

"I think Andy played a great game," Boyd said. "I think he made great decisions with the ball. He threw it to the right people when he needed to and it showed. He was the bright spot and he ran in the two-point conversion for us. We just know that the guy is playing, the guy is around and will never quit."

He was at his best with four seconds left. Bouncing in the pocket. Giving his five receivers time and, as if to underscore his season, there were only two wide receivers available with Boyd sucking Gatorade and Stanley Morgan, Jr., getting hurt after making the successful on-side kick possible. So Dalton split his tight ends, Tyler Eifert and C.J. Uzomah, running back Giovani Bernard and his remaining receivers, John Ross III and Alex Erickson.

Talk about that offensive line, but they made sure Dalton was clean down the stretch after an ugly first 45 minutes or so. Remember, Miami got their last score off a sack strip when rookie left guard Michael Jordan and left tackle Cordy Glenn couldn't sift through an overload.

"Just calm down. Just calm down. Settle in," said center Trey Hopkins of how they turned it around. "Just go back to using your fundamentals and techniques. They're not doing anything crazy that we haven't seen. Don't let them get in frenzy and don't put yourself at a disadvantage by being all over the place mentally."

So here was Dalton bouncing and bouncing. Head coach Zac Taylor could only shake his head and laugh after the game, recalling how the analytics got a little thin there with his play call because it's that gray area between a Hail Mary and a fourth down on the 25.

"You don't have great play calls there. It's just let's get five guys in the end zone, be ready to throw it on the line, go make a play." Taylor said. "Eifert, if I remember it correctly, caught it above his head. That's great chemistry between those two being on the same page over the course of the years. You could have called that play, just run five guys in the end zone and go get it. I'm not trying to sell you short there. I know you've got great play calls. That was a good play by them."

 Eifert caught a high liner as he leaped.

"In my head, I was thinking, 'All right, I'm just going to buy as much time as I can and try to give Tyler a chance,'" Dalton said. "The way they played it, I mean, they left a lane for him. As soon as I let it out of my hand, I was like, 'get it there as quick as it can.' Tyler made a great play. Those are fun moments in games. You need to make a play like that."

Then he was looking for Eifert again, like the previous two-pointer. But when he got flushed to his right, all he needed was Erickson to seal off the guy covering him with a Darlington High School box-out straight out of a Wisconsin state hoop tourney game as Dalton ran through brushing the right pylon.

"That's stuff that you can build on, for sure," Dalton said.

Such are the vagaries of the NFL. Dalton and Eifert just may not be around when they walk into the Burrow Building next year. But Uzomah said it best. Players just don't think about that stuff.

"I'm here to win and we're here to win and we want to win for these coaches," said Uzomah, who scored his first touchdown of the season to start the comeback way back there with 6: 11 left. "We want to win for the brothers that have put their blood, sweat and tears into being in this position and we're given God-given abilities for a reason and we have to use them. We're not just going to go out there and lay an egg or lay down or any of that."  

Certainly, Dalton isn't giving up without reminding them what it was like. Even on that last play. Even in what could be his last season in stripes. No A.J. Green. No Boyd, although he was back for the two-pointer. It was 16 points in 29 seconds. No one had ever done it in the last 50 years. Maybe ever.

"It was incredible," Hopkins said. "Big shout out to Andy. He never stopped believing and he told us that. He told us we had a shot and he gave it to us. And he definitely was the spark and the heart of what we needed on offense today."

But it was weird. They were playing today, but tomorrow had already dawned.

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