When Andy Dalton pulled into the Paul Brown Stadium player parking lot on the morning of Dec. 13, 2015 for the game against the Steelers, he was 50-25-1. Only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers had more wins among NFL quarterbacks since the Bengals chose Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft. He was on the verge of becoming the first Bengals quarterback to ever lead five different teams to the postseason and the second NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era to do it in his first five seasons.
Since then, two of his seasons have ended with a broken throwing thumb. His favorite target, wide receiver A.J. Green, has missed to what amounts to 30 of the 68 games since that loss to Pittsburgh. Since that awful day, he's had seven starting left tackles, four offensive coordinators and a 19-36-1 record.
Now when he pulls into his PBS parking space for Sunday's 2019 finale (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) against Cleveland, everyone just assumes it's for the last time.
Everyone but Dalton. After all, who could have seen all that four years ago?
"Who knows?" Dalton asked before Thursday's practice. "I could be standing right here talking to you in April."
With the Bengals holding the first pick in the NFL draft and everyone assuming, again, it is LSU quarterback Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy sitting in Dalton's locker, he was asked in what sounded like a lifetime achievement award press conference if he'd accept being a mentor to a rookie.
"I'm under contract, so I don't know what they're going to be thinking," Dalton said. "We'll figure all of this stuff out once the season is over."
Could be a trade. Maybe they draft the pass-rusher Chase Young out of Ohio State as Dalton plays out the final year of his deal. Maybe they trade that top pick for three of them, get the linebacker, cornerback and pass rusher in one fell swoop and let Dalton play it out. Or maybe Dalton is the bridge to Burrow. Or….
That's about where he is. But he has allowed himself to think his 133rd start could be his last. But only as a Bengal. He wants to start in 2020. Anywhere.
"It's not the end of my career," Dalton said. "A lot of our life has been here in Cincinnati. Again, we don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what's going to happen. We'll have to wait and see until after the season for all of that to get handled."
This has Erica and Andy Muskopf thinking.
They are the parents of one of Dalton's many friends he has gathered during his nine seasons in Cincinnati. When their red-headed son, Brody Hammons, first met his favorite NFL player and threw footballs with Dalton four years ago, their 11-year-old was standing up. Now he's in the orange-and-black wheelchair Dalton signed, barely able to lift his arms. But Dalton is still his friend, texting video happy birthdays and hanging out with him for his 15th birthday after a training camp practice.
"If he comes back to play and is playing for another team, we'll definitely go watch him play," says Erica "Ric" Muskopf, Brody's mom. "I would love for him to get to be where ever he wants to be. I know he's from Texas and would probably like to be back in their main home all the time. But I would hate to see it for our city. They're such genuine people.
"I think it's true of most quarterbacks in probably every city, although I don't know that. I would assume they get a lot of grief and you have to take the brunt for the entire team. They're such good people and I hope they'll be where ever they want to be. If he's not here, I know Brody will be so devastated they're gone. I know he'll still put him on his fantasy team."
Ric Muskopf can't really explain why her family clicked so well with Andy Dalton and his wife, Jordan, that Date Night and began to get to know them through the Andy and J.J. Dalton Foundation that has impacted the lives of so many in Cincinnati either financially, medically, spiritually or emotionally, or all of the above. Maybe it's because the only sports fan in their family of five kids is Brody and everyone is just so easy to be around everyone else. Maybe it's the red hair and Brody's matching fiery determination to beat his fatal form of muscular dystrophy.
Dalton had a tough time, too, Thursday trying to figure out why Cincinnati had been such a good fit for such a wide array of events and causes dear to him and J.J.
Such as King for A Day, where one day a year they host physically and mentally challenged children and their families at King's Island. Or Date Night, where they treat parents who haven't been on a date in years because of the commitment to their challenged children. Or Holiday Hearts, where economically-strapped families with ill children are given everything from the tree to the turkey to gifts. Or the various programs at Children's Hospital they donate not only computers and toys to the patients, but to their siblings.
"I wouldn't say there's one thing. There's a lot of good people here in Cincinnati, and there are a lot of people that are willing to help others," said Andy Dalton as he thought about the bond stretching through nine years. "There was an instant connection there, and we just tried to be as involved as we can and tried to help out in so many different ways. You can't do it by yourself. You have to have support from a lot of different people, and we've had support from the city."
Which is funny because even after he led the Bengals to four straight playoffs, he was booed at the 2015 All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark. Maybe that's just the way it is. Maybe quarterbacks are always booed in their towns?
"Yeah," said Dalton, still, nine seasons later, always so polite, ever so careful and respectful. "Don't have anything for you there."
But he'll talk about 2015. He'll talk about the 8-0 start, the almost mystical connection with Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, arriving at PBS at 10-2 to face the Steelers and ready to claim a first-round bye. Now it seems like the fork in the road.
"Oh yeah. Absolutely," said Dalton, when asked if that year still hangs on him. "Obviously that's the best team we've had since I've been playing. We felt like we had something special that year. To get hurt in Week 13 and not be able to finish that one out, that's tough. I feel like we had the team to win the Super Bowl.
"A lot of change has happened since then," Dalton said. "There are a lot of different factors that go into every year. I've been able to accomplish a lot in my years here."
One of those accomplishments is that he's always had plenty of people swearing by him in the locker room and in the community. Start back in 2012 when Dalton threw a 21-yard rope to Green with 14 seconds left in Pittsburgh to set up the field goal that put the Bengals in the postseason and knocked out the Steelers. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was in the Heinz Field locker room raving about how Dalton outplayed Big Ben with the money on the line.
Or talk to wide receiver Tyler Boyd after last Sunday in Miami when Dalton did what no quarterback ever did in the Super Bowl era and engineered 16 points in the final 29 seconds.
"He's a Pro Bowler," Boyd said.
Or talk to safety Shawn Williams watching it all unfold down there.
"I knew it. Andy has done that for a while," 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."
Wide receiver Alex Erickson, who hasn't played on a winning team in his four seasons with Dalton, knows what he did before he arrived. But what really hits Erickson, a regular at the weekly team Bible studies during the season at the Daltons' home, is what he's done off the field. Erickson and his wife have helped out at various events for the foundation and the one that stands out is the Pay It Forward Fund.
"It helps middle class Americans on the cusp where insurance doesn't cover a lot," Erickson says. "The kids are sick and they're $20,000, $40,000 in debt and when you're making $60,000 a year, it's very hard on families. And to see them get help like that and the impact, it's powerful. It's inspiring.
"Here's a man of faith and he just doesn't talk it. He does it. To me, that means more than the game. And it's a great game because it gives us this platform."
At their latest fund raiser at Music Hall back in June, more than $370,000 was raised for the Dalton foundation's efforts to provide daily support, opportunities, resources and life-changing experiences to Cincinnati's seriously ill and physically-challenged children and their families.
But while Brody's family watched others raised up economically, they were boosted emotionally by the Daltons. They live in West Chester. Ric is a speech therapist at the Mason schools. Andy is a machinist. They also have twins and an autistic 14-year-old. A date night? Impossible until someone told Ric about the Dalton's Date Night for parents with special children. And, yes, Andy Dalton. She had heard of him because he was Brody's favorite. Ric and her Andy hadn't been on a date in who knew how long as they came to grips with Brody's Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Don't bother to Google it. Brody plans on defying what it says. When he was born they were basically told to go home and love him. Then they were told he could possibly live into his mid-teens. Now there are those that live beyond 20. On his 15th birthday, the same day Green turned 31 this year, Brody spent time with Dalton after a training camp practice in the Bengals wheelchair boasting Dalton's signature. On one of his birthdays, Dalton sent Brody a video birthday message.
"For Andy, it was just 15 seconds. But for Brody, it was 15 years," Ric says.
Whitworth, Boyd and Green have their memories of Dalton. So does Ric Muskopf.
It was at one of the foundation's Celebrity Waiter Nights, where his teammates help out Dalton and raise money. Brody was in heaven. There was A.J. Green, right there. And he was sitting next to Dalton looking at a mountain of steak at some pretty pricey eatery.
"Brody was just kind of looking at that food like, 'Hell, no am I eating any of that,'" Ric says. "Andy asked him, 'Dude, what is it that you want? What do you eat?' And Brody said, 'Chicken nuggets and fries.'"
No problem. Dalton called over a real waiter and gave him the order and the guy looked at him like he saw a zero blitz. But the order soon arrived.
"As they were eating dinner Andy kept reaching over and stealing a fry and dipping it in Brody's ketchup and eating it," Ric says. "It's one of my favorite memories. For Brody, it was 'Oh my gosh. I'm eating French fries and ketchup with Andy Dalton.'"
Another Sunday. Another drive to the yard. Another game.
But maybe not.
"We can think we know exactly how we want our life to go, know exactly how our career can go, exactly how all the different phases of your life go," Dalton said. "But you never know what's going to happen. You have to trust that God's got you, and that's what we're living in right now. That's what we're believing and trusting in."
Where ever Dalton's next stop is, Brody Hammons is going to come down and watch him when he parks in the visitor's lot. But they'll both have a piece of this town dipped in ketchup.