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Dalton passing screen test

Andy Dalton

In 40 days and 40 nights Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has drawn the praises of former MVPs and long-time general managers and anyone else that makes a living with the pointer used to dissect the NFL chess game.

"The Red Baron" has coolly piloted the Bengals into the early playoff picture by winning four of his first six starts while shooting down virtually every stereotype of the rookie quarterback in the process. No one knows his ceiling, but the consensus is the Bengals have found a quarterback that can win the big one with a frosty brew of brains and touch.

"He's so far ahead of me when I was a rookie it's not even funny," says former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, the CBS studio pundit and radio analyst. "After my rookie year Paul Brown and Sam Wyche were going into the offseason looking at each other crosseyed."

But Dalton has played well enough to allow the Bengals to put their future into focus with the Carson Palmer trade and to step back into time, too. Long before Norman Julius Esiason.

In the 30th anniversary season of the 1981 AFC championship quarterback Ken Anderson complemented the NFL's 12th-ranked defense with such efficient execution in the West Coast offense, the current No. 14's entry into the league has been made easier by the No. 2 defense.

"He can't carry a team on his back, but there aren't many guys that can. I've seen enough to know that I think he's got a legit chance to be a very good quarterback in this league for a long time," says Steve Beuerlein, the CBS analyst who quarterbacked 147 NFL games and worked the Denver game in the booth last month.

"An NFL quarterback has to do three things: He has to throw it to the right guy on time and on the money. Andy Dalton does all three of those things. His footwork is fantastic and his arm is strong enough."

Indeed, if the analysts are raving about Dalton, they also can't help notice new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, another NFL rookie who had called pro plays indoors and in the minors before getting his first NFL gig at age 44. He hasn't disappointed by shepherding Dalton to the best start by a Bengals quarterback ever despite a lockout that prevented Gruden from working with Dalton less than 50 days before the opener.

"One of the first things that jump off the film at you is how few of his throws go beyond 10 yards," says Greg Cosell, the producer for ESPN's riveting NFL Matchup show. "But that's not meant as a knock. I see that as good coaching. He's a good short-to-intermediate passer. He's got a good sense of timing and rhythm He's savvy in the pocket and he's very good off the play-action boot, which is important because that's their run game. He throws accurately on the run. Jay Gruden has done a great job managing the limitations of a young player."

Cosell had just emerged from watching last week's film of the win over the Colts and came out of it extremely impressed with Dalton's 18-yard skinny post to wide receiver Jerome Simpson as he got leveled. And Dalton is getting high marks for that pocket presence as well as his intangibles.

"He's very poised and composed and a big thing that he has shown is that he hangs in the pocket and completes throws with people around him and his legs," Cosell says. "He operates very well in what we call 'a muddy pocket,' and that's an essential trait for a successful NFL quarterback."

Pete Prisco of CBS has just finished film study of Dalton and Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy, a year more experienced than Dalton and coming off a disappointing road game against the Raiders.

"I like McCoy, but I think Dalton is ahead of him," Prisco says. "Andy doesn't see the field like a rookie. He sees the whole field like a veteran. If you have a great arm and can't see the field, you won't make it. Akili Smith. If you have a lousy arm and can see the field, you won't make it. Danny Wuerffel. But if you can see the field and have a good enough arm, you can make it. I'm not saying Dalton is going to be a Brady, Manning or Brees, but I think he'll be a top six, seven, eight guy."

Esiason loves Dalton's makeup and how could he not? Esiason was all about makeup.

"Here's what I like about him," Esiason said. "He had that bad game against San Francisco with the bad fourth quarter, and then the next game against Buffalo he came out and struggled right away in the first half. But he got it together in time to win the game in the fourth quarter."

If the analysts have any hesitation, it is about Dalton's arm strength, although even that is lukewarm because most suggest it's strong enough.

"He's thrown poor, inaccurate deep balls but gotten the yardage off it with great catches from A.J. Green," Cosell says of the rookie wide receiver. "He's not an elite arm talent. But everyone knew that. That's not a scoop. Don't get me wrong. He's been more than functional, and you don't have to have a great arm to be an accurate deep thrower. Timing routes and rhythm have a lot to do with that and he's that kind of thrower. I think the bottom line is he's in the perfect system and Gruden knows what to do with him."

Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager who now resides at NFL Network, doesn't put arm strength very high on the scouting checklist.

"Dalton is one of these guys that doesn't impress you physically like a Cam Newton," Casserly says. "The Redskins had a guy all those years ago, Billy Kilmer, who wouldn't have passed any of the physical tests but he was a winning quarterback. And this kid has a stronger arm than Kilmer.

"I like him. The guy is efficient. He knows where to go with the ball. They do a good job protecting him with the running game and get him those throws between the numbers."

The other thing out there is that the Bengals haven't exactly faced a murderer's row of defenses, which is coming up soon when they play the No. 1 defense twice and Baltimore's No. 3 in a span of 21 days starting Nov. 13. But Dalton has beaten top 10 defenses on the road in Cleveland and Jacksonville.

"I don't care where defenses are ranked. A win is a win. It's so hard to win in this league and so easy to lose," Beuerlein says. "You look at Cam Newton. He's been spectacular at times, but he's also the reason they're 1-5. Andy has made plays that have won games."

For those that wonder if Dalton is simply a solid starting quarterback or one that can take a team all the way, that may be just a matter of semantics. Solid starting quarterbacks are the rarest breeds in the NFL. Most quarterbacks, Beuerlein says, can't do it on their own and "we'll find out, won't we? But so far so good" on Dalton.

"You can't compare him to Carson Palmer," Casserly says. "Palmer was the first pick in the draft. This guy is a second-rounder. But he's got a lot of positives with his leadership skills and demeanor. He's got the qualities of being a consistent winner."

"It's not always going to look pretty," Prisco says. "But this guy knows how to win games. He's a football player, not just a quarterback." 

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