After watching a video littered with more what-ifs than a campaign ad for the past 24 hours, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden came away more impressed than ever with his rookie quarterback despite Andy Dalton's three interceptions and second straight loss to the AFC North elite last Sunday in Baltimore.
Gruden knew there would be rookie days like this, when he and Dalton would wish they had done something differently in a game that would turn out to be decided by one turnover, one decision, one great play, one bad call in a 31-24 loss.
"Live and learn," Gruden said Monday on a day of further review.
But he also knew there would be days like this, when Dalton would torture one of the NFL's best defenses with his arms and legs and have the Ravens scrambling in the face of his 373-yard assault. The Ravens didn't have icon Ray Lewis, but they had Hall of Famer Ed Reed, Pro Bowlers Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, and the NFL's third-best defense huffing and puffing and holding on at the end.
"He had a hell of a game. Three mistakes and all three of them I can live with," Gruden said. "He did a great job. For the most part having to come from behind and throw that many times ... he kept us in it. They tried to rattle him and blitz him and he stood in there like a champ."
Like when Dalton checked to wide receiver Andre Caldwell's 49-yard touchdown, a gorgeous pitch and catch.
But, yes, he probably shouldn't have thrown the first interception, the heave at the end of the half that Reed gobbled for his 57th career interception and denied the Bengals a potential field goal opportunity. Dalton definitely shouldn't have thrown the second interception with 40 seconds left in the third quarter that rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith grabbed for his first career pick.
And, Dalton and Gruden talked about the intentional grounding call with 40 seconds left in the game on second down and the Bengals on the Ravens 7. With Suggs all over him, Dalton got a 10-yard penalty and loss of down for firing it over Caldwell's head while still in the pocket.
As head coach Marvin Lewis would say, a teachable moment.
"We just talked about it right now and sometimes the best bet in a situation like that is when he's got you down like that and it's a four-yard loss and it's second down, take the sack," Gruden said. "When you risk standing up and throwing it, a lot of bad things can happen. You can get your arm hit, fumble, or arm hit, ball pops out and it's intercepted. Intentional grounding is a 10-yard penalty instead of a five-yard penalty; it would have been third-and goal at the 11 instead of third and goal at the 17, which would have been a huge difference.
"I think since he thought he was throwing it over (Caldwell's) head it wouldn't be grounding. But since he threw it so far above his head it was grounding. Had he thrown it above Andre's feet it would have been OK."
Gruden was doing his own bit of second-guessing on the play. With the Ravens in a three-man rush, Suggs never should have been matched up on running back Brian Leonard.
"They made it look like they were blitzing and they ended up dropping eight and that's where we slid the line to Suggs and obviously we don't want to put Leonard in that position," Gruden said. "We never want to do (that) unless it's a quick throw and it wasn't a quick throw. The ball didn't get out quick. Andy held the ball longer than he should have in that protection. That's play design. That's my fault."
The next two snaps were just as disastrous. On third down, Dalton got chased out of bounds when the Ravens bolted inside left tackle Andrew Whitworth and flushed him outside while all his receivers were on the other side. On fourth down, Dalton audibled to a different snap count in order to beat the play clock and everyone heard the switch but Whitworth and his man, rookie Pernell McPhee, took advantage of the split second and beat him around the edge to sack Dalton to end it.
On Monday, Gruden was wondering if the Bengals should have taken a timeout before that last snap to settle everyone down and freeze the play clock. Head coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday he wanted to keep that final timeout in case the offense got a new set of downs via penalty.
"Which is fine. We have to do a better job of executing and getting the play in quicker," Gruden said and, besides, Dalton thought he had it covered.
"He thought he could get it off and he thought everybody heard that he changed it back to a quicker count," Gruden said. "That's the advantage of playing at home. That's why you have to avoid those situations on the road and try to take the crowd out of it. We had a couple of chances early in the game and didn't capitalize on some big plays that would have shut them up for good. Then they get involved, take the lead back and we have to battle back."
Gruden said it's just not rookie quarterbacks that mull the second-guesses on Mondays. It is the nature of the game.
"I think a lot of people deal with it all the time; it's an ongoing deal," he said. "You look at breakdowns of every interception, a majority of them are quarterback thinks one thing the receiver is going to do and the receiver may not come out of it exactly how the quarterback thinks or whatever. Windows are so tight a lot of times that it has to be exact and if it isn't interceptions are going to happen."
For instance, Gruden said Dalton threw a great ball on the third pick, the one on which cornerback Lardarius Webb made a diving grab and set up Baltimore's last score.
"Outstanding throw. Caldwell didn't come out of his break at the angle we had been working on," Gruden said. "Andre is supposed to come out of an angle toward the sideline and he threw it and Andre came out more vertical. Andy does a great job anticipating routes and where guys are supposed to be. I think Andre's feet at the top of his break got a little bit stuck in the ground. He didn't really come out of it like he normally does, and he anticipated it."
But Gruden said Dalton shouldn't have thrown the first two. On the first one he figures if Dalton had to do it again, he would have run for the first down, got a few more yards, and then settled for a field goal.
On the second one, Gruden says he never should have thrown it into that type of coverage without Caldwell getting inside leverage.
But, in the end, he'll take it.
"He scooted away from the rush, made a ton of audibles and stepped up in the line of fire," Gruden said. "He checked down on the TD to Caldwell. He's a pro. There's no doubt about it. He's made some plays the past couple weeks that not many people can say they've made better."
Live and learn.