INDIANAPOLIS- NFL punditry has made its annual pilgrimage to the NFL Scouting Combine and as it gathers on this screaming summit of hype the conventional wisdom seems to match the Bengals' power brokers.
Andy Dalton is the once and future quarterback of the franchise and the charge for the Bengals is to make him better while also finding a way to pay him before he hits free agency after this season. In the meantime they'll troll the middle rounds of the May 8-10 NFL Draft in an effort to find what they haven't had since the first of head coach Marvin Lewis' 12 seasons: their own draft pick playing No. 2 quarterback.
It's believed the Bengals have had some talks with Dalton's people but there don't look to be many specifics. And it's not an easy number to resolve. It sounds more like an essay question on a final exam in a sports business law class.
How much is a franchise quarterback worth if he's led his franchise to the playoffs every year he's been in the league but doesn't have a post-season victory? How much do you pay a guy that has more touchdown passes than anybody in his first three seasons but Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, more playoff appearances than Norman Julius Esiason and Carson Palmer, but has thrown twice as many interceptions than touchdown passes in the postseason?
"I think a lot of teams would love to have Andy Dalton," said CBS-TV's Rich Gannon, who finished 20 games over .500 in his 17 years of NFL quarterbacking. "Replace him with whom? Replace him with what? The guy's won 30 games in three years. I see steady improvement. He's not perfect. But you know what? All he has to do is eliminate the inconsistent performances. That's it."
Lewis and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have said they're not looking for a quarterback early and good luck trying to figure out which one would catch their interest on the second or third day of the draft. Some prospects chose not to throw Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium and the next three months are going to be filled with pro days and private workouts.
"Look at any of these quarterbacks coming out. None of these guys are Andrew Luck, none of these guys are Peyton Manning, a sure shot to succeed," said NFL Network's Solomon Wilcots, a former Bengals safety. "If you said Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel is going to average 10 wins a year and take his team to the playoffs in his first three years as a starter, we would deem that a success with any of those guys. That's what Andy has done. There's only one thing he hasn't done. Win a playoff game. You don't get a quarterback who has reached that point and don't stick with him when his list of things he's done outnumbers the things he hasn't done."
The appointment of Jackson has drawn raves around the NFL and has taken the Bengals off the hook with the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to Washington as head coach.
It certainly got the attention of the leader of the Bengals division rival. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome saw Jackson help tutor his quarterback, Joe Flacco, to three playoff wins in his first two seasons.
"Number one, he's a real good leader," Newsome said. "He works well with his players. He gets his players to play above their level and he's very creative."
Under Gruden the Bengals reached the NFL's top ten in offense for the first time in six years last season while scoring the third most points in club history. But Jackson also has a fine rep, gained through the production of a diverse array of quarterbacks on his watch. Flacco and Jason Campbell each have had their second-best passer ratings in their career under Jackson and Palmer came off the couch in the middle of the 2011 season to average the most passing yards per game in his career.
"He's a quarterback, play-calling guy," said Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, a fellow University of Pacific product who shares Jackson's California roots. "He had kind of an exciting run with the Raiders. It didn't last long, but he did some good stuff while he was there. He's been recognized for having wide-open, explosive offensive football."
ESPN's Bill Polian, the former Colts general manger who drafted Manning, says Dalton should be the Bengals' guy but he also admits this is a decisive year in his development. Polian thinks Dalton is going to improve under Jackson. Which means cutting back on last season's career-high 20 interceptions.
"I don't worry about the playoff game stuff. Before they turned it around it was they hadn't made the playoffs in 100 years. Now they make the playoffs and it's not good enough. It's just nonsense," Polian said. "This will be a good measurement year both because he's learned what the league's about and is ready to take a step and he's going to have a guy that may be a little more friendly in his scheme."
Although Dalton is part of the new breed that started right away, Polian says the new collective bargaining agreement crafted in Dalton's rookie year of 2011 has cut into quarterback development.
"Everything I've seen has been positive. He's got growing pains like all quarterbacks. Learning to adjust to what defenses do. I got this from talking to Jim Kelly and Ted Marchibroda.", Polian said. "A first-year quarterback doesn't know what end is up. Too fast for what he's facing and he's learning to get in and out of the huddle and call plays. Between the first and second year he's starting to learn what defenses are trying to do to him and. By the third year he's able to understand what defense is about and sees it much more quickly. In the fourth year he's able to properly use the people that he has. It's a four-year process and the new rules have slowed down the progress."
Jackson's blueprint to make Dalton more efficient with fewer interceptions comes right off Carroll's script that beat Denver in the Super Bowl earlier this month. Seattle second-year quarterback Russell Wilson threw just 25 passes and rode home on the play of the NFL's best defense. Wilson threw just 407 passes all season while Dalton threw 586 times for the league's No. 3 defense, tying the franchise record set by Palmer.
"This is a tough league. Every week you're playing against really good defensive coordinators, really good defensive football teams," Jackson said. "If you're going to drop back and throw it, I think a lot of bad things can happen. I'm not saying bad things can't happen when you run. But I know when I can call a run play and if I hand it off to the backs the quarterback's chances of bad things happening to him go down. And a lot of good things when you have special runners and special blockers. It's just a balancing act of those two things.
"At the end of day, that's where it all starts. But we'll throw it as well as anyone in the league. We did it last year and I suspect we won't do anything that's different than that as far as throwing it with that kind of efficiency. To me, we'll just throw it better. That's what I want to do. That's my goal for our offense. Throw it better than what we have."
It's a philosophy that Wilcots embraces with Wilson's performance fresh in the mind.
"(Dalton) is good enough to do all the things you want as an organization," Wilcots said. "Russell Wilson didn't throw it 50 times a game. That's why the other 52 guys matter. They're not stunt doubles. They're not there to make the quarterback look good. In fact, one might argue if the quarterback threw it 25 to 30 times and he doesn't turn it over, we play our defense and run the football, we can win a Super Bowl. That's what Seattle did. They beat one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. The better quarterback didn't win. So maybe the thinking should be let's get our quarterbacks to do less, not more and get the other 52 guys do more."
Gannon has a checklist of two things Dalton has to do (more decisive, better footwork on the deep ball), but he says they're very reachable goals.
"His footwork has got to be a little more urgent on the deep ball," Gannon said. "Working on the deep ball is no knock on Dalton. There's only about five or six guys in the league that can throw it 60 yards on a dime…When you have a different play caller, I think the emphasis can change a little bit. Maybe more play-action, maybe more running the football, maybe less empty and wide-open formations."
How much is he worth?
"The market. It's the price of doing business," Gannon said.
"What the market bears. I don't know what the number is, but if you think he's the guy you have to do it," Polian said. "Is he Andrew (Luck)? No. Is he RGIII? No. Would you rather have him than Cam (Newton)? Probably. Is he (Colin Kaepernick)? Not physically, but he's got a lot going for him…His arm is OK. Do I love it? No, but he got better this year. Why? He had Gio (Bernard). He had the other tight end (Tyler Eifert) and they had more consistency there."
Gannon put the epitaph on this Combine as the Bengals began looking for a backup.
"The thing Andy Dalton does is he puts that team in position to have a chance to win each week," Gannon said. "To me, that's the sign of a pretty good quarterback."