And such characterization has been well-earned. Dalton entered the NFL fully-formed, an experienced quarterback who started an incredible 50 games in college. Since then, he’s produced solid but unspectacular numbers, while the Bengals have posted a winning record each season while not winning a single playoff game. From 2011 to 2014, there were 40 quarterbacks who threw at least 600 pass attempts; among that group, Dalton ranked 20th in pass efficiency, as measured by Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.
So, through three weeks, it’s easy to dismiss the great numbers that Dalton has produced as the product of a small sample size. On 94 passing drop backs, he’s thrown for 866 yards and 8 touchdowns with just two sacks and one interception. That translates to a 10.32 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average, the best in football through three weeks. But is there any reason that Dalton, who has had hot streaks before, can maintain this level of play?
Dalton’s strong numbers are driven by three factors: a large increase in yards per completion, a big spike in touchdown rate and a decrease in interception rate. It is not unusual for a quarterback to have stellar numbers over a short sample size in each of these three metrics, but there are also promising reasons to think Dalton can at least remain an above-average quarterback for the rest of the 2015 season.
In each of Dalton’s first four seasons, he averaged between 11 and 12 yards per completion; in typical Dalton fashion, that is right where the league average has been, too. But in 2015, Dalton’s Bengals receivers are averaging 14.2 yards per completion, the third best mark in the league. Even discarding the 80-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green, Dalton has still averaged 13.1 yards per catch on his other 60 completions.
It isn’t a fluke that Dalton’s yards per completion average has increased this season. Last year, the Bengals quarterback’s average completion came 5.44 yards down the field, according to information collected by the NFL’s Game Statistic and Information System, while Cincinnati’s receivers averaged 5.56 yards after the catch on each completion. In other words, just over half of all of Dalton’s passing yards came after the catch, a sign of the horizontal passing game Cincinnati employed.
This year, Dalton’s average pass has come 7.52 yards downfield, representing a much more vertical style (that average is sixth highest in the NFL through three weeks). Bengals players are gaining 6.67 yards after the catch per completion, and while that is likely unsustainable, the increased emphasis on downfield passing is likely to stay. Dalton’s top deep threat, Marvin Jones, missed the entire 2014 season due to injury, while superstar wide receiver A.J. Green was limited or out for stretches in 2015 due to a toe injury. This year, Dalton has attempted 15 passes to Green or Jones that were 15 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage; he’s completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns. By the end of this year, we may come to the realization that Dalton would have had a breakout season last year had Jones and Green stayed healthy in 2014.
Dalton is averaging a touchdown pass every 11.5 throws, a significant improvement over his 2014 after (25.3). And again, the return from injury of Green and another player — in this case, tight end Tyler Eifert — is paying big dividends. A first-round pick in 2013, Eifert played well as a rookie before missing nearly all of 2014 with a dislocated elbow. But the former Notre Dame tight end has looked outstanding so far in 2015, with three touchdowns in three games (and a fourth overturned on a questionable call on review). With Eifert and Green healthy, Dalton should continue to be effective in the red zone.
Perhaps the least sustainable aspect of Dalton’s strong play this year is his interception rate. In general, interception rate is one of the least consistent statistics in football; Dalton himself threw just one interception over the final six games of 2011 before throwing three in the playoffs. Dalton has also been the beneficiary of a positive game script: he has thrown only six passes while trailing this year, compared to 75 while playing with the lead.
Dalton’s history suggests he won’t continue to avoid throwing interceptions, particularly in games when the Bengals are trailing, but a rejuvenated supporting cast could signal a career year for the fifth-year quarterback.
It is easy to assume that at 27, what you see is what you get with Dalton. But he made steady strides during first three seasons, improving his yards per attempt averages (from 6.6 as a rookie to 6.9 in 2012 and then 6.9 in 2013) and touchdown totals (20 in 2012, then 27, then 33), while the Bengals won one more game each year. Last year, Dalton took a step back statistically, but that was likely due to the injuries to his top weapons. As he enters his physical prime, and with one of the best supporting casts in the NFL, the stars are aligned for Dalton to no longer be synonymous with average.
Chase Stuart writes about the historical and statistical side of football at his site, FootballPerspective.com.