Dalton is a quarterback at a crossroads

CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton is standing at a career crossroads. This could be a make or break year for him.

OK, maybe "break" isn't quite the word to use here. For the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, it's more like this could wind up being a make or keep middling type of year.

If he keeps playing like he has so far in his three-year career -- good, but occasionally bad in the regular season and overwhelmingly awful in the postseason -- then he'll continue to be regarded as a so-so quarterback who never really hit his stride, nor turned into an easily identifiable bust. He'd continue to be average -- a lukewarm signal-caller on a team with white-hot talent.

Another season of such mediocrity would be considered worthy of the title "break." So what then would a "make" year look like for Dalton? Chiefly, leading the Bengals to a playoff win or two. Secondarily, keeping his interception numbers in career-low territory while also surpassing his franchise-record 33-touchdown total from a year ago. If he does both those things -- win in the postseason and have a favorable touchdown-interception ratio -- he'll have traveled down the right road in the junction he's facing.

If you ask some experts, there is no chance Dalton takes that avenue to success during this pivotal fourth season.

"He is what he is, and he will never change," ESPN insider scout Matt Williamson said in fellow ESPN insider Mike Sando's story Wednesday about forecasting success for quarterbacks at a crossroads.Insider "He will be too good to cut and not good enough to win with. He wins three or four [games] a year for his team and loses one or two, but he is so much less gifted than all the other guys we are talking about here. Maybe if he was playing indoors, he could get away with it more."

Sando's story is the basis for this blog. He focused on using metrics (mainly QBR) to determine where young quarterbacks rank among their peers, and how those metrics could predict where their careers might head. Sando compared the QBR numbers from the first 16 career games of quarterbacks who entered the league after 2006.

He found that the QBR numbers from those first 16 games correlated to three tiers of "crossroads quarterbacks." There's an elite tier, which had first 16-game QBRs that were higher than 65.2. Then there's a middle group with first 16-game QBRs between 60.1 and 42.0. A lagging group had QBRs that only got as high as 40.3. The seven-man "QBR-elite" group featured three players who appeared in recent Super Bowls. The middle group had a sizable mix of young quarterbacks and veterans, with only one having appeared in a recent Super Bowl. The final group had several players who were drafted after 2006, and who are no longer in football.

The better the QBRs were, the more promising the quarterback's career should be, it appears.

That, of course, becomes a tricky subject matter with Dalton. He is one of the few players who was forced to play from Week 1 of his rookie year. He hasn't looked back since, starting all 48 regular-season and three playoff games the Bengals have appeared in since 2011. Other quarterbacks might not even appear in a game their first two seasons. Coupled with his middle-of-the-road play the first three years, the fact he has played so much early makes it tough to forecast Dalton's career.

Back to Williamson's comment on Dalton playing indoors. Dalton has struggled at times during games played in December and January. While he's still 0-3 in the postseason in January, he did change his December woes in 2013. After tossing a combined eight touchdowns, getting sacked a combined 27 times and compiling a 41.5 QBR through his first two Decembers, Dalton had 12 touchdowns, a 71.1 QBR and was sacked only three times last December. The effort was good enough to post a 4-1 record across the final month of the season.

Perhaps he's starting to turn a corner.

The thing is, as Dalton flirts with a contract extension this offseason before his rookie deal expires next March, he needs to do more than turn that corner. He has to turn it, run -- not walk -- down the block to the next one and the one after, and keep going until he reaches the Super Bowl. He has the receivers, tight ends, offensive line, dynamic running back and talented defense to make a deep postseason trip a possibility sometime soon.

He also has had each of those, but the combination has yet to yield a run past the wild-card round of the playoffs. Is Dalton the common denominator behind Cincinnati's postseason misfortunes? Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't necessarily think so, but his quarterback's six interceptions and one touchdown pass in those three playoff games are hard to overlook.

Maybe having an offensive coordinator who is more dedicated to the run than the previous one will help Dalton. Hue Jackson's ground-game tweaks ought to ease the pressure off the quarterback's shoulders.

A looser Dalton would make the Bengals a better team. A more decisive Dalton would make him a better player.

But on-field decisions aren't the only ones he has to make right now. Soon we'll find out which path Dalton chose to take in this all-important make or break year at the crossroads.