The understated former TCU quarterback who led the underdog Horned Frogs to consecutive BCS bowl games and a riveting Rose Bowl championship as a senior is applying his humble, hard-working approach to the Bengals. He is orchestrating one of the major surprise stories of the NFL season, quickly and remarkably restoring credibility to one of the league’s more chaotic -- and downtrodden -- franchises.
In the Queen City, Dalton is dubbed the "Red Rifle" for his fiery red hair and an arm that isn’t exactly a cannon. It’s certainly been steady enough to lift the Bengals to a 6-3 start after winning just four games all of last season.
Remember, this is a franchise that has stumbled through a mindboggling number of arrests and suspensions; that regrettably joined Terrell Owens with Chad Ochocinco; whose franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, became so disenchanted with the organization’s chronic dysfunction that he walked away after last season vowing never to play another game in tiger stripes.
Could a more volatile situation exist across the NFL for a rookie quarterback with no option other than to start?
“I wasn’t worried about anything that happened in the past. I was coming into a new situation where there was basically just open competition for the quarterback job,” Dalton said in a phone interview this week. “I was just trying to be myself and try to do what I can to help this team. I think that’s the attitude everyone’s kind of taken here. We have a young team that’s really hungry and wants to be really good. It’s the practice we put in and the effort and time, and I think that’s helped with our success.”
Whether Dalton and the Bengals can keep this going and contend for an AFC playoff berth will unfold over the next seven weeks. They lost a tough, 24-17 decision for first place to North Division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Dalton threw two touchdowns through three quarters, but was picked-off twice in Pittsburgh territory in a scoreless fourth quarter.
Sunday’s divisional opponent is another difficult defensive draw and first matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, also 6-3. That Dalton’s favorite target, rookie A.J. Green (41 catches, 635 yards and six touchdowns), left last week’s game with an injury and might not play Sunday doesn’t make the task easier.
“If you really want to see what it’s like to be a quarterback, go play the Ravens and the Steelers with the way they play defense,” said Gary Patterson, Dalton’s TCU coach and one of his biggest promoters. “He’s got his hands full, so let’s see how he does. He’s probably going 24 hours [a day] doing what he’s doing.”
That’s how Dalton operated even before he became the Red Rifle. His study habits are legendary at TCU and a week rarely goes by when Patterson doesn’t reference “Dalton’s teams” as an example of discipline and determination that he doesn’t always see from this season’s younger bunch of Frogs.
Patterson tells stories of Dalton sitting in a darkened film room on the team’s day off or of firing up his laptop to break down the road game he just completed before the bus driver can find his keys to whisk the team to the airport.
“My time is devoted to football and there’s a lot that goes on, and it’s not just while I’m here,” Dalton said, speaking of the Bengals’ practice facility. “I’ve got a laptop at home that I watch film on, and it’s kind of fun because I get my wife watching it, too, and I try to teach her what’s going on. It’s definitely been a lot of fun and I’m definitely enjoying it.”
Dalton’s work habits, demeanor, steadiness and dedication convinced Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden to keep coming back to the TCU campus to work him out. They’d open the playbook to the new West Coast offense they’d install when the lockout ended and let Dalton familiarize himself with it by running plays on TCU’s practice field.
A group of TCU’s talented senior receivers and defensive backs joined him and, each time, the Bengals walked away more impressed with his accuracy and understanding. The 6-2 Dalton is shorter than most NFL quarterbacks, and he certainly isn’t the physical specimen that is fellow rookie Cam Newton, whose Carolina Panthers have matched last season’s win total of two.
But the Bengals concentrated on the qualities that allowed Dalton to lead Katy High School to the state championship game and then rewrite TCU’s record books as a four-year starter. They focused on a quarterback that didn’t have his best day in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl loss, and then who dedicated his senior season to making amends. His teammates followed. The Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to finish undefeated and No. 2 in the nation.
“I think their coaching staff took the right approach. They were the last team here before the draft. I mean they had five coaches here,” Patterson said. “I’m standing out there with the Bengals head coach and their offensive coordinator and a couple of other assistant coaches and they’re throwing the ball all over the place. And you can tell that they were very high on what he could do and how he did it and how he handled himself. So, it was not a surprise to me that the Bengals took him.”
He has delivered as advertised: smart, accurate, decisive, even-keeled, competitive and even dangerous. Dalton has provided stability for a franchise in desperate need of a rudder at the game’s most important position.
“I came in with an open mind and I came into a great situation getting drafted here,” Dalton said. “I felt like the coaches trusted me and had confidence in me early on, so I was just trying to be myself.”
Through nine games, no rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger has thrown more touchdowns than Dalton’s 14. Dan Marino and Jim Plunkett both had 13. Dalton is on pace to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes in 1998.
Dalton has completed 173-of-287 passes, a 60.3 completion rate with just nine interceptions. His accuracy and ability to manage the natural ebb and flow of a 60-minute game helped the Bengals win five consecutive games for the first time since 1988. He says each time he steps on the field he gains a greater understanding of what the NFL’s more complicated defensive schemes are attempting to do and how they try to disguise what they do.
“The style of our offense [at TCU] and the things that we were doing, the way we called plays and the way I was able to make checks at the line of scrimmage are very similar to what we’re doing here,” Dalton said. “The way I was coached and all that stuff really helped me out to get to this point. And, when I came in I feel like the coaches had a lot of confidence in me.”
Quickly and quite remarkably, Dalton picked up in the NFL where he left off at TCU.
“It was just going out and being myself, doing what I can to learn everything, to come in and show everybody that they can trust me,” Dalton said. “I think I did a good job of that.”