'Franchise star' Dalton to face QB gauntlet

CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton dominated the Cincinnati Bengals' headlines this week when he told reporters at the start of voluntary team workouts that he believes he is the face of his franchise.

Most quarterbacks, he reasoned, are naturally the stars of their franchises because of the attention they receive. In what he calls a "quarterback-driven league," Dalton believes players at his position should be compensated as the superstars they are perceived to be.

In Dalton's mind, there isn't just a perception he is the face of the Bengals. It is a fact. Credit head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for instilling that belief in him.

"Everything that Marvin has said, Hue has said, and what everybody here has told me is that," Dalton said. "They've told everybody that. So I'm confident with that. I hope to spend a lot of my career here."

It's unclear how much more time Dalton will be spending in Cincinnati, but we know he will be around for the 2014 season. His contract negotiations are underway, with his representatives hoping to land him a long-term contract competitive with some of the game's $20-million-a-year passers. The Bengals aren't sure he's worth that much.

Dalton's rookie deal expires next March, and a look at the Bengals' 2014 schedule, released Wednesday, makes it clear he won't have long to prove himself as a franchise quarterback. If a new deal hasn't been struck by the start of the season, Dalton ought to take the first eight weeks of the Bengals' schedule as the ultimate challenge. He will be facing some of the game's best quarterbacks (and top earners, too). Beat them, and he'll prove he deserves the $18-$20 million per year that some salary-cap analysts think he might be worth.

It won't be easy for the Bengals to come out of their first seven games unscathed. The stretch includes both matchups against Joe Flacco and the Ravens, a night road game against New England (and Tom Brady), and games against young stars Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. So Dalton will have several opportunities in the first two months of the season to prove he belongs atop the quarterbacking food chain.

By the end of the season, Dalton also will have played Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers twice, and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. If he can beat two of the three, it will go a long way toward proving his status as a franchise player. Last season, Dalton had wins against Roethlisberger, Flacco and past Super Bowl champions Aaron Rodgers and Brady.

Of course, quarterbacks aren't the only ones playing in a game. Defenses must shut down the opposing quarterback and his playmakers. Special teams units must manage field position. Offensive lines have to block. Receivers have to catch passes. Running backs have to find daylight.

But in a "quarterback-driven league," it's the signal-callers who get most of the glory and all of the blame. That is just the way it works. It is particularly the way it works when said quarterback tosses a pair of interceptions and loses a fumble in the second half of a playoff game. (See: San Diego-Cincinnati, AFC wild-card game, Jan. 5, 2014)

In his quest to prove his status as the face of this franchise, Dalton will need to make it his mission to limit turnovers and refine his decision-making this season. It could be the difference in millions for him, assuming he doesn't have a second contract by the time it starts.

Contract numbers from ESPN Stats & Information show that Dalton makes less guaranteed money and less on his average annual salary than all of the quarterbacks he will be facing this fall. Of those, five have won Super Bowls and a sixth has advanced to a conference title game.