Andy Dalton finally saying the right things

CINCINNATI -- It has been a long time coming, but finally, Andy Dalton is starting to say the right things.

Whether they're true, well, that remains to be seen.

But it was at least refreshing Monday morning to hear the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback speak with some of the assertiveness that he has lacked to this point in his career. It was likewise refreshing to hear him say unequivocally and unflinchingly that he felt he was the face of the organization and that he felt he didn't do enough to help the Bengals win their playoff game against the San Diego Chargers in January.

"For me to know that I could have played better [in the playoff game], it's tough," Dalton said. "Obviously the turnovers killed us. I wish I could have done some things differently in the game."

Dalton threw two interceptions and lost a fumble trying to dive for a first down in the 27-10 loss to the Chargers. Each of his turnovers came in a troubling second half and began with Bengals trailing by four.

"I've watched it several times," Dalton said of the playoff game. "We had chances."

They did. But those chances are over and done with, long cast into the abyss of Bengals history. Now it's all about the future and what Dalton can do next for this franchise that is 26 seasons removed from having been to a Super Bowl. Some believed 2013 was Cincinnati's opportunity to get back to the league's championship game with this group of players.

Dalton disagrees.

"We have improved every year," he said. "We haven't gotten the win in the playoffs we had been planning to get, but the team has gotten better overall and we just got to continue to improve."

Those improvements must begin and end with him. And he knows that. He's always known it, in fact. But the problem has been that he hadn't fully expressed how much he felt he had to improve and what he specifically needed to improve -- until now.

The Dalton who addressed reporters for nearly 20 minutes in his corner locker Monday was far from the same man who typically offers cliche after tired cliche in news conferences. He was at times feisty. At others, a little defensive. He also was occasionally quirky and actually kind of funny. During one exchange with a reporter who asked which quarterback Dalton felt he best compared to, Dalton paused and started counting on his fingers.

"Let's see here, [Joe] Flacco, [Aaron] Rodgers, [Drew] Brees and who else? Oh, yeah, Matt Ryan," Dalton said, laughing. "All those top guys."

Each of those quarterbacks makes more than $20 million per year. Dalton will finish his four-year, $5.2 million rookie contract making about $1.7 million this year.

The old Dalton wouldn't have even told a joke like that, let alone tell it with the appropriate timing and humor. This was a new Dalton and, from a locker-room standpoint, an improved Dalton. But will it end up being the real Dalton?

Only time will tell.

For now, at least Dalton is finally loosening up, taking ownership and saying this team is his.

There are two words that can explain this personality change: Hue Jackson.

Credit Cincinnati's new offensive coordinator for sending the right message through the media in February when he promised from the NFL combine to be just the disciplinarian the team needs. He felt there were players on the team who hadn't been coached hard lately who needed to be. Dalton was one of them, he said. He wanted Dalton and receiver A.J. Green to blossom into bigger leaders as they entered their fourth seasons.

"If a guy's not performing at a high level, there's a reason," Jackson said in February. "They have work to do, but it's my job as leader of the group, along with the head coach, to create that environment to be all they can be."

Jackson has been known for much of his career as being a Mike Zimmer-type of coach, one who isn't afraid to check players. He will be the first to curse them out when they've done wrong and shower them with praise when they've done right. It's clear that Jackson's prodding has been received by Dalton.

"He's going to push guys," Dalton said of Jackson's coaching style Monday. "[Former offensive coordinator] Jay [Gruden] had a different style than what Hue is going to bring. Guys are just going to have to get used to how Hue does things. Obviously, we haven't been out to practice yet, so I don't know exactly what it's going to be like with Hue running everything now, but it is going to be a little different than Jay."

That's not the only thing that's going to be different. It seems Dalton will be different too. For Bengals fans, that could be a good thing.