CINCINNATI -- For now, the coy smile and sly grin from underneath the black Cincinnati Bengals hat will have to suffice.
Andy Dalton still has, at the very least, nine regular-season games and four playoff games to go before he gets to tilt his head back and enjoy the rich, hearty laugh he's been so desperate to take at his critics' expense. If his performances the last three weeks are any indication of his potential this year, though, that laugh has already started building into a chuckle on the inside.
That's also why, for now, the coy smile and sly grin that he flashed earlier this week will have to suffice.
Not that we'll ever actually hear the normally reserved and private Dalton bellow from his belly in public anyway.
Still, a flash of it did come out as the quarterback answered one particular question during his news conference Wednesday. In it was a hint of perfectly understandable I-told-you-so sass.
Paraphrasing, Andy, do you feel like Sunday's win, earned in a shootout against another potent offense was yet another thing the doubters can stop criticizing you about?
A smile formed in the side of Dalton's mouth.
"I mean, everybody's entitled to their own opinions," he said. "I'm just trying to win games. If I keep doing that, it's all that matters."
When it comes to answering questions about his critics, Dalton's verbal response was perfect. A young football player still trying to grow his career and fend off criticism that will surely continue to pop up anytime anything goes wrong, should answer those questions that way.
But his non-verbal response was solid, too. Whether he knew it or not, that coy smile and sly grin was his way of saying, "Yeah, I am enjoying having the laugh right now. Let the doubters talk as much as they want. I know my game, and I know I'm helping my team win games. That's all that matters."
To that, I say, smile away.
When a quarterback who has, somewhat rightfully, taken the kind of verbal assault that Dalton has since he arrived in Cincinnati -- after all, he was a second-round draft pick whose shoulders were instantly burdened with high expectations and even higher promise -- he deserves having a moment or two to enjoy those times when he has proven his staunchest detractors wrong.
They -- we -- said he couldn't win the big game. Entering Sunday's contest against the New York Jets, he's 2-0 against the AFC East and 3-0 at home this season. He's also beaten Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford in the last year.
They -- we -- said his relationship with receiver A.J. Green was in peril and that their communication was askew. He's completed 43 passes to Green, just five off the NFL lead. He's also hooked up with Green for 619 yards, and that includes the game at Cleveland this year in which the pair appeared out of sync. Only two receivers in the league have more receiving yards than Green. The No. 1 receiver on that list has just 10 more.
They -- we -- said Dalton couldn't complete a deep pass. On his very first pass of last Sunday's game at Detroit, he hit Green on a double-move deep for a play that turned into an 82-yard touchdown reception; the longest passing play of the third-year starter's career.
Go ahead and smile, young man. Smile as coyly as you'd like. For now, you've deserved it.
For now ...
"You never quiet the critics ever, as a quarterback," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said.
Gruden should know. The former Arena League quarterback and one-time record-holding passer at Louisville fielded his share of criticism, deserved or otherwise.
"It's always going to be a critic," Gruden said to reporters. "Tom Brady's getting criticized now because they [the Patriots] lost a game the other day. At that position, you're never going to quiet them totally. You just have to continue to produce, be consistent at the position and ultimately win the final game, and then maybe someday you guys will stop writing that he can't throw far enough."
So, no, Dalton can't laugh right now. At least not yet. He's got a ways to go yet before he can truly feel good about his play.
But don't worry, Bengals fans. He knows that.
"For a quarterback, there's only a few guys considered the greatest guys to play the game, and it's because they were able to string these good games back to back to back," Dalton said. "That's what everybody is striving for. It's hard to do, but you've got to be able to get your team going and prepare each week and go out and play your best and hopefully it shows in the game."
Across the last three weeks, Dalton's preparations have shown up on the field. Not only has he won three straight, making that horrid Week 4 loss at Cleveland a mere speck in his rear view mirror, but he has thrown for more than 300 yards in consecutive games and passed for three touchdowns in those contests, as well. With a Jets defense coming in that doesn't do well defending short passes, Dalton's dink-and-dunk chunk game could be a significant key to success for Cincinnati this weekend.
While Dalton tries to avoid laughing in the limelight, his teammates aren't afraid to boast on his behalf.
"We know what we have in Andy," receiver Marvin Jones said. "Just to go on this run and with him playing very well and doing the necessary steps to progress, and with his preparation with us and with the whole offense, we're all glad to see that everything is turned around and we're getting on a roll."
Said veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth: "We believe in him and he believes in us. We're evolving. And as long as we continue to do that, get better every time we go on the football field and find ways to be better, the sky's the limit."
The heavens are only beginning to open for Dalton. When they completely do, watch out, because the day is coming when he'll finally lean his head back and let loose the loudest last laugh his critics will never have the fortune of hearing.