Updated: 4:10 p.m.
In the middle of last season his head coach asked him to be more of a leader. This year, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton won't wait for him to ask. He comes into next week's opening of the offseason program prepared to take even more of a captain's role.
"The biggest thing I can do is take more control. Whether it be on the practice field or during a game, whatever it is, I need to step up and really show my leadership. That will be big," Dalton said Monday. "The more you play, especially being a quarterback, the more you're going to become a leader on the team."
With the Bengals scheduled to begin weight-room workouts next Monday at Paul Brown Stadium, Dalton talked about how 2013 is a critical year for him during a conference call from Dallas with Bengals.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Even though he's the first NFL quarterback in history to make the playoffs his first two seasons in the league while throwing at least 20 touchdown passes in each season. But he knows that first playoff victory is missing from the résumé. Hence Dalton agrees his third season is critical.
"The expectation is to get to the playoffs; that's how it's been since I got here," Dalton said. "Once you get to the playoffs is when you have to be at your best. These past two years we haven't been at our best when we've played in those games. We've got to take that next step. We've got to go in with an attitude that we're going to do whatever it takes to win the game. Hopefully we get that chance this year."
The Bengals' inability to win both of Dalton's playoff games and the offensive struggles in both his Decembers have, at times, obscured his 19-13 record as a starter that includes an 11-5 road record. The Bengals have given him a vote of confidence in a backup quarterback search they have limited to only No. 2s need apply.
"I'm not too worried about that. I have to come out and be consistent," Dalton said. "You like to come in and say 'OK, I'm going to come in this year and win a playoff game, make a run at the Super Bowl and all that kind of stuff.' I think there is a lot of stuff that I've accomplished in the first two years in the NFL that a lot of people don't get the opportunity to do. I just have to keep being me, playing my game. Everyone is going to have an opinion on the whole franchise QB kind of thing. Hopefully the organization feels confident in me and I think they do."
He has yet to talk to Josh Johnson and John Skelton, the two veterans that have signed on for the competition with Zac Robinson to replace backup Bruce Gradkowski. But Dalton has phoned all his receivers this season and it is that young corps opposite two-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green that is one of the many reasons he's excited about year three.
Once Mohamed Sanu went down with a foot stress fracture with five games left in the season after scoring four touchdowns in his first three games of regular action, head coach Marvin Lewis said the mix of Sanu, fellow rookie Marvin Jones, and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins was only on the practice field together for 15 minutes starting that last week in November.
"Mo was really coming on. The one thing with Mo is he's really reliable. He's got a great feel for the game, he understands what we're trying to do running routes and different things like that," Dalton said. "It was unfortunate for us and it was such a freak thing that happened to him. I know he's back to 100 percent. Just to know that you're going to have the guys around that know where they're going to be … he's a big part of that. He's a great guy on the sideline. He's a vocal guy, gets the guys going. I think we did miss that a little bit once he got hurt, so it's definitely nice to have him back."
While everyone is wondering about receiving complements to Green, Dalton thinks they may already be here.
"I think they very easily could be here. I feel confident in all the guys that we've got. The thing is we didn't have a consistent guy there," Dalton said. "The guys kept rotating because of injuries and whatever happened. I think that's why people are saying that. We've got a talented group, that's for sure. It's just getting them all together at the same time.
"Mo and Marvin were both rookies last year. They've got an understanding that 'this is happening, this is how we do things, what competition is like at this level,' so I think they'll only get better this year."
Another guy that has Dalton's confidence is two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham, under fire for dropping two balls early in the playoff game that underlined his inconsistency and that of the offense.
(In the month of November the Bengals averaged 29 points per game before failing to score a touchdown in each of their last two elimination games.)
Gresham is the one guy Dalton has thrown to during the offseason since Gresham lives close by in Dallas. The mishaps during the 19-13 loss in Houston were more glaring because the Bengals didn't throw the ball to Green until early in the third quarter.
"He was pretty down. That first series against Houston there was stuff designed for him and he had a couple drops," Dalton said. "He's talked about that a little bit. He wanted to be at his best at that point. We didn't take advantage of the chances that we had. He's going to be ready to go. He's put that behind him. It's more of a motivation thing for him more than anything. He wants to be at his best. He knows and understands that.
"Jermaine is one of the best tight ends in the league. He has all the talent in the world. It comes down to a consistency thing."
Dalton could have been talking about the offense. He says it was the Achilles heel, particularly on third down. And he says an offense that had just four passes longer than 20 yards in December needs to get more explosive.
And Dalton knows he has to help. He knows he has to get the ball downfield more accurately and, yes, he says he has looked at The Overthrow several times this offseason on tape. With the clock ticking to less than three minutes in the Wild Card playoff game, Dalton had Green open in the end zone on a go route down the right sideline from 39 yards away and it went too far.
"I wish I could have had that one back. I needed a little more air under it and hit him in stride and win the game. But hindsight is 20-20," Dalton said. "I think there are times where I didn't get those throws. That's one thing people have said about me since I was coming out of college. I'm going to get better. I know I need to get better. I'm going to make the improvement. I expect myself to make throws like that. I have to hit more throws downfield. I also have to get better in other areas."
Dalton thinks having every starter back is going to go a long way in cultivating that consistency. It will be recalled that last season he dealt with rookie receivers, shakeups on the offensive line throughout the preseason, and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis's adjustment to a new team.
Now unsigned right tackle Andre Smith is the only question mark because everyone else is back.
"It's nice to know that everybody is going to know the offense, everybody is going to know what we're doing and not having to plug anybody in a hole we're missing. Hopefully we get Andre signed and we'll have everybody back," Dalton said. "You're only going to get better from year to year, especially with a team like us that's really young. I expect everybody to make improvements."
While offensive coordinator Jay Gruden raised eyebrows recently with some gentle criticism of Dalton and the need for him to improve, the comments far from ruffled him. He agrees and has talked to Gruden since.
"I saw where he said everything," Dalton said. "If you play in this league, you're not going to be like 'I'm really good at that so I'm not going to improve.' You want to improve on everything that you do. I think that's what he was getting at. I agree, I can get better on all phases of the game whether it is throwing the ball or making certain checks at the line or getting out of certain things; I think there is so much you can keep improving and getting better at.
"We didn't talk about that very much. I didn't take that much into it. We've talked a lot throughout this offseason."
Dalton doesn't have to be told that as historic as his start has been, the guy drafted right behind him in 2011 at No. 36, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, led his team to the Super Bowl last year.
"You can go back and look at your draft class, you want to be the best guy that comes out of it," Dalton said. "For him to get that opportunity in year two, it wants to make you get there as well. It all comes down to everyone having the same goals; it's getting to the Super Bowl, the team getting hot at the right time and they were one of those teams."
But Dalton seems to sense he's got enough skins on the wall to start throwing his weight around in making sure he and every other Bengal takes the next step.
"As a team we have accomplished a lot since I've been here. Made the playoffs the first two years being there. Gone to the Pro Bowl my first year and done good things," Dalton said. "Now it is about taking that next step and winning a playoff game. Doing a little bit more than what I've already done."