Few NFL quarterbacks have as much pressure on their shoulders heading into 2013 as Andy Dalton. Never mind his first two record-breaking NFL seasons or two playoff berths, most pundits are quick to point out his subpar performances in two Bengals playoff losses.
And this is nothing new, of course. Many of the game's top quarterbacks have faced, or still face, similar criticisms. It comes with the territory of being the chosen maestro of an NFL team.
Whether it's emerging from a predecessor's shadow, winning a big playoff game, winning a single playoff game, making the playoffs, cracking .500 or just flat out staying healthy, almost every face-of-the-franchise quarterback—save Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger—has faced similar impatient, tired criticisms.
Most often, the water reaches a boiling point entering a quarterback's third season. No more are they a wide-eyed newcomer, learning the ropes. The NFL learning curve for quarterbacks, according to fans and pundits, has most often been precisely two seasons. Fail to overcome, and they'll hear all about it.
In Part II of a Bengals.com series, we'll again set aside speculation—of which there has been plenty—and look at the third seasons of some prior case studies who, at the time, faced similar questions to those currently facing Dalton.
Each of the four quarterbacks we'll dissect were their team's primary starter as rookies (like Dalton) and have since managed to overcome the particular obstacles that challenged them. Three of the four now have at least one Super Bowl ring, and another came within a few plays of making last season's Super Bowl.
How did they do it? How long did it take? "The Jump" to their third seasons is a good place to start.
BEN ROETHLISBERGER, Pittsburgh Steelers (2006)
Fresh off a Super Bowl title the previous season, the Steelers disappointed in 2006, lumbering to a 2-6 start before finishing at 8-8 in head coach Bill Cowher's final season. Record, expectations and statistics considered, it was arguably Roethlisberger's worst season as a pro.
The Steelers offense wasn't too short on options. Wide receiver Hines Ward continued his Hall of Fame career, leading the team in receptions (74), receiving yards (975), and receiving touchdowns (six). Gone to Washington was receiver Antwaan Randle El, but in was rookie Santonio Holmes (49 catches for 824 yards and two TDs), while the team got 30-plus receptions from receivers Cedrick Wilson (37) and Nate Washington (35), tight end Heath Miller (34) and running back Willie Parker (31).
Parker led the team in rushing, gaining 1494 yards on 337 carries (4.4-yard average), with a team-leading 13 TDs.
While long considered one of the NFL's toughest quarterbacks, Roethlisberger isn't exactly known for his durability. Only once in his nine NFL seasons has he played in all 16 games (2007). In '06, he played in 15, which topped his rookie (14) and second (12) seasons. The missed game was the season opener vs. Miami, due to an emergency appendectomy.
In his third season, with a Super Bowl ring on his finger and longtime running back Jerome Bettis lost to retirement, the Steelers shifted a majority of the offensive load onto Roethlisberger's shoulders. His passing attempts jumped from 22.3 per game in 2005 to 31.3 per game in '06, and as a result, his passing yardage per game average skyrocketed (198.8 to 234.2).
But in comparison to his second season, Roethlisberger struggled in many categories. Down was his passer rating, from 99.1 in 2005 to a career-low 75.4 in '06. Also taking a dip were his yards per attempt average (8.9 to 7.5) and completion percentage (62.7 to 59.7). Big Ben also took a major step back in interceptions, jumping from nine to a career-high 23. In no other season has he thrown more than 15 INTs.
Though he had 112 more passing attempts in 2006, Roethlisberger managed only one more TD pass (17-18). And of course, more passing attempts meant more chances for defenses to apply pressure. Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times in 2006, compared to just 23 the previous season.
PEYTON MANNING, Indianapolis Colts (2000)
The high-powered Colts of the pre-Reggie Wayne days finished 10-6, as Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James formed arguably the NFL's most explosive trio. Their season ended with a disappointing Wild Card loss at Miami, but Manning and Co. left little doubt that they were a force to be reckoned with for years to come. The only blemish to Manning's impressive career to this point was that he had failed to win a playoff game.
Indianapolis simply dominated on offense in 2000. Harrison, the team's leading receiver, finished with 102 receptions for 1413 yards and 14 TDs. Even more impressive was James, who in his second season posted 1709 yards rushing and 13 TDs, along with 63 receptions for 594 yards and five more TDs.
Additionally, Manning got three TDs and at least 30 receptions from four other players: receivers Jerome Pathon (50) and Terrence Wilkins (43), and tight ends Ken Dilger (47) and Marcus Pollard (30).
As for Manning, he improved in almost every statistical category from his second to third season. Up were his attempts (533-571), completions (331-357), completion percentage (62.1 to 62.5), passing yardage (4135-4413), touchdowns (26-33) and passer rating (90.7 to 94.7). Down slightly was his yards per attempt average (7.8-7.7), and he held even at 15 INTs.
MATT RYAN, Atlanta Falcons (2010)
The high-flying 2010 Atlanta Falcons finished at an impressive 13-3, but they ended their season with a thud, losing soundly at home to eventual NFL champion Green Bay, 48-21. Despite several solid regular seasons, nearly the only critique of Ryan was his lack of a playoff win.
The Falcons were a four-man show in 2010, as Ryan teamed with running back Michael Turner (334 rushes for 1371 yards and 12 TDs), wide receiver Roddy White (115 catches for 1389 yards and 10 TDs) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (70 catches for 656 yards and six TDs).
But as impressive as those numbers may seem, the elephant in the room for the Falcons was the lack of a consistent second option at wide receiver. Michael Jenkins (41-for-505) was solid, but unspectacular; Harry Douglas (22-for-294) was clearly talented, but not quite a No. 2 receiver.
The problem was magnified in the playoff loss, as a pedestrian (at best) performance by Ryan (20-for-29, 186 yards, one TD and two INTs, for a 69.0 passer rating) seemed to solidify Atlanta's determination to land a playmaking receiver to line up opposite White. That plan was executed in the offseason, as Atlanta traded up in the draft to select wide receiver Julio Jones of Alabama with the sixth overall pick.
Ryan played in all 16 games in 2010, after missing two in 2009. He improved from his 2009 campaign in nearly every statistical category: attempts per game (32.2 to 35.7), completions per game (18.8 to 22.3), completion percentage (58.3 to 62.5), passing yardage per game (208.3 to 231.6), touchdowns (22-28), interceptions (14-9) and passer rating (80.9 to 91.0).
Most of those numbers would grow again in 2011 with the addition of Jones, but Atlanta's first playoff win would not come until 2012, Ryan's fifth season.
JOE FLACCO, Baltimore Ravens (2010)
While Flacco may not yet have been "elite," one thing was certain: he was the Ravens leader, and they weren't going to back away from him. By the end of the season—remember, only his third—he became the franchise's career leader in every major passing category: yardage (10,206), TD passes (60), completions (78) and attempts (1416).
Like it or not, the Ravens were hanging their hat on Joe Flacco.
Flacco's Ravens finished the regular season 12-4 and advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to Pittsburgh, 31-24. The Steelers were the one obstacle Flacco could not seem to overcome, as he was knocked out of the playoffs by the Men of Steel in two of his first three NFL seasons. In the three games in which the Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs during his first three seasons, Flacco's passer ratings were 18.2, 48.4 and 61.1.
To the naked eye, it didn't appear that Flacco had a shortage of help on offense, though. The Ravens added veteran wideout Anquan Boldin prior to the 2010 season to help the passing game, and running back Ray Rice—also in his third season—was hitting his stride as one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers.
Critics in 2010, though, would be quick to point out that the Ravens needed another consistent receiving option to complement Boldin, citing the team's lack of a 1000-yard receiver. However, the offense did boast three players with 60-plus receptions – Boldin (64), Rice (63) and wide receiver Derrick Mason (61). Add to the mix the solid veteran presence of Todd Heap (40 receptions), and the Ravens passing attack didn't appear half bad.
(The Ravens would ultimately address the issue anyway, taking speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith out of Maryland with the 58th pick in the 2011 Draft. To look at it now, there's little doubt that adding Smith has provided a sufficient complement to Boldin and a dangerous weapon for Flacco. Mission accomplished.)
On the ground, Rice and Willis McGahee combined for 407 carries, 1600 yards (3.9-yard average) and 10 TDs.
But back to "Joe Cool." Aligning perfectly with his even-keeled demeanor, Flacco's second- to third-year jump didn't exactly yield many ups or downs.
Down ever so slightly were his attempts (499-489), completions (315-306) and completion percentage (63.1 to 62.6). He improved slightly in touchdown passes (21-25), receiving yardage (3613-3622) and interceptions (12-10). The most significant difference was a small jump in passer rating, from 88.9 to 93.6.
While his regular season numbers in 2012 weren't astronomically better than those from 2010, the clear difference came in his performance in the playoffs. His playoff passer rating last season: 117.2. Better numbers, and an even better result.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
In general, every quarterback entering their third full season—save Roethlisberger, who won a Super Bowl in his second season—has faced a hurdle that critics felt they must overcome to prove they belong. Those critics have always had the same plan for helping to clear those hurdles: acquire more reliable offensive options.
Manning and Ryan could not win a playoff game, until the arrivals of receivers Wayne and Jones. Flacco couldn't win the big playoff game, until the arrival of Smith.
And generally, it took a few seasons for teams to recognize the problem and put a plan into action. But once each team realized its quarterback needed that extra bit of help to get over the hump, they made it their No. 1 priority. And in all cases, success followed.
Wayne was added in Manning's fourth season. Manning finally won a playoff game two years later.
Jones was added in Ryan's fourth season. Ryan finally won a playoff game one year later.
Boldin was added in Flacco's third season, and Smith in his fourth season. Flacco finally won a few big playoff games—the Super Bowl, in fact—in his fifth season.
The Bengals no doubt have adopted the same plan of surrounding Dalton with reliable options, only they seem to have thrown the kitchen sink at the problem while putting it into action a year or two earlier than the above examples. Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were all added before Dalton's second year, and Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Cobi Hamilton before his third.
Of course Green entered the NFL with Dalton, much like Rice and Flacco entered the same year.
The Bengals have gotten the wheels turning on their plan at an early stage in Dalton's career, prior to his "prime." The only issue that remains to be seen is if that plan can be properly executed.
Dalton's Jump is scheduled for takeoff in late July at Paul Brown Stadium. And he seems to have quite the flight crew.