Two days into what had been an impressive draft for the Cincinnati Bengals, ESPN's Tedy Bruschi said, "If there was a year they can win the division, it's this year." Herm Edwards raised expectations even higher, predicting the Bengals would win the AFC North by two games.
The Bengals can take the next step only if Dalton does. Over the course of three days in the NFL draft, Cincinnati did everything it could to help the offense and its third-year starting quarterback. In turn, it increased the pressure on Dalton to deliver in the red zone, on third downs and in the playoffs.
It started in the first round when the Bengals passed on drafting a strong safety, the team's most pressing need, in favor of taking Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, the best tight end in the draft. Before the second round, the Bengals re-signed free-agent right tackle Andre Smith, which brought back all five starters from the NFL's second-best pass-blocking offensive line. Then, with its first pick in the second round, Cincinnati made North Carolina's speedy Giovani Bernard the first running back taken in this year's draft.
Two poor performances in the playoffs have raised questions whether Dalton is a franchise quarterback. The Bengals should be able to determine that this year after adding these playmakers.
Dalton now has another big target inside the 20-yard line with Eifert. He has an exciting checkdown option with Bernard, a luxury that Joe Flacco has enjoyed for years with Ray Rice. This is in addition to throwing to two Pro Bowl players, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, and handing the ball off to grind-it-out back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
There is no reason for this offense to rank 22nd in the NFL or flame out in the playoffs, as it did last year. I'm not the only one saying that, either.
"There shouldn’t be any excuses,” Dalton told reporters this week. “The players we already have and adding these guys is just going to make the offense better. So I expect us to take the next step. I expect us to improve from where we were last year. Time will tell, but we’ve got the right attitude going in and the way we’ve been working. I don’t expect any less.”
Right now, Dalton is a good quarterback, not a great one. He's right in the middle of the pack of NFL starters. Dalton has potential and a lot of qualities that you can't teach quarterbacks. He's smart. He has a feel for reading defenses. He has great anticipation to throw the ball even before his receiver breaks out of his route.
In his first two years, Dalton has done something that hadn't been accomplished in Cincinnati in more than three decades -- lead the Bengals to the playoffs in back-to-back years. He also has thrown 47 touchdowns in 32 career games. The only quarterbacks who have passed for more in their first two seasons in the NFL are Dan Marino (68) and Peyton Manning (52).
But in a division with Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, two quarterbacks who have combined for 19 playoff wins and three Super Bowl titles, a quarterback is going to be judged by the postseason. Dalton is 0-2 in the playoffs and is a major reason for those defeats. He threw three interceptions in his first playoff game in the 2011 postseason (including a critical pick returned for a touchdown by J.J. Watt) and failed to complete half of his throws in his second postseason game in the 2012 playoffs.
Dalton knows he has to be better than no touchdowns and four interceptions in two playoff games. He knows he has to complete more than 47.5 percent of his passes on third down. He knows the Bengals must improve from being the NFL's 16th-best red zone offense. And he knows he can't commit 20 turnovers (16 interceptions, four fumbles) and have four of them returned for touchdowns as he did last season.
What impresses me the most about Dalton is how he handles criticism. When he was getting bashed for a lack of arm strength last season, he showed swagger that's not often seen in young quarterbacks. Dalton handled the addition of these young playmakers on offense the same way.
“I don’t feel more pressure,” Dalton said. “I expect to be better this year. Regardless if we didn’t get anybody, I would still expect to be better. The more weapons we have, the better I feel.”
I get the feeling that the Bengals want Dalton to feel pressure this year, which is a different approach. Last year, coach Marvin Lewis said he didn't want Dalton to listen to criticism because the team had no doubts in him. But in March, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden set a different tone, saying Dalton has "got a long way to go."
"He’s done some great things for a second-year quarterback, won a lot of games and thrown some good touchdown passes, but we feel like he has not come close to his potential," Gruden said.
It's time for Dalton to live up to that potential. The Bengals return a top-10 defense and added talented young weapons on offense. Everything is set up for the Bengals to go from a playoff team to a Super Bowl contender. All they need is a quarterback to take them there.