It's not that they dislike their QB, but four playoff losses in four years have had Bengals fans wondering whether the franchise had hitched its future to the right hired gun. The Bengals invested a second-round pick on Dalton, and now a big contract, but four straight seasons with a wild-card loss -- four straight identical outcomes -- is, almost by definition, the perfect way to describe good but not great. And Dalton's ceiling is a constant question, not just locally but at the national level.
But at least for now, the legend of the Red Rifle is growing, and it's not just because of the wins. Dalton is different, improved because of his release of the football. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only Tom Brady releases the ball quicker than Dalton. Brady's average time before he delivers a pass is 2.01 seconds. Dalton is next at 2.07 seconds.
In other words, Dalton isn't just faster on the trigger from a physical standpoint; he's processing, making reads and executing a plan faster than ever before.
After leading the Bengals to an incredible fourth-quarter comeback in which he overcame a 17-point deficit to the Seattle Seahawks, Dalton has the Bengals off to a fast 5-0 start, and he thinks added work is paying off.
"I've worked with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, and both of those guys helped me out just pure mechanically," Dalton said. "Not that there's a huge, drastic change in my motion, but there's fine-tuning things to make sure we're getting the most of it. They've helped me out a lot, and it's been working."
Two years ago, Dalton started working with House and Dado, who also trains Brady. He entered the league with a quick release. As a rookie, he got rid of the ball quickly. His average time before a pass as a rookie in 2011 was 2.28, second best in the league. He stayed at that number in 2012 and improved to 2.2 in 2013.
"I feel like I've always had a quick release," Dalton said. "So it's not necessarily that's it's speeding up, it's just making sure that I'm getting the most out of my body to be as accurate as possible."
But Andy, it is speeding you up. And giving defenders less time to react.
Each year, Dalton has been improving his release and his accuracy. He has gone from 61.9 percent accuracy in 2013 to 64.2 last year and is a few ticks higher this year. The speeding-up process also cut down his sack numbers from 46 in 2012 to 29 in 2013 to 21 last year and just two through the first four games of this season.
Sunday was the supreme test. The Bengals were going against the Legion of Boom, a Seahawks defense that ranked second in the league in yardage allowed. The Seattle defense exerted more pressure on him than any previous game this season. The Seahawks got him for four sacks and four hits.
But Dalton was red-hot early. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown in the first quarter. For the game, he was particularly effective inside the painted numbers, completing 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards.
"Every year, Andy comes back after the offseason and it looks like he's throwing the ball better," tight end Tyler Eifert said. "He understands defenses, and he understands where the ball needs to go. He understands when we are getting the pressure and how to protect against it. It all goes hand in hand."
Dalton has also grown dramatically as a leader this year. In a win over the Baltimore Ravens, he laughed off a fourth-quarter fumble the Ravens took to the end zone for a touchdown. He came back on the next play and hit A.J. Green with an 80-yard touchdown pass.
His legend grew Sunday thanks to the way he walked up and down the sideline when the team was 17 points behind, telling individuals not to worry. The Bengals didn't. Dalton marched them to two touchdowns and a field goal in three consecutive drives to send the game into overtime.
"He's playing lights-out, man," Green said. "He gets us in the right play. He has been off the charts."
And the leadership isn't just winning and getting people fired up. If there is any question about whether this is his team, watch the offensive meetings. Dalton runs them, not the coaches. This change happened this year when Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson decided Dalton had been around long enough to run the offensive meetings.
"There's a lot of time spent between me and Hue and our quarterback coach Ken Zampese," Dalton said.
"There's a lot of interaction there, a lot of give and take. It's been working really well for us. Our guys understand what we are trying to do. We've been practicing really well, and it's showed up on game day." He's averaging 303.6 passing yards a game, 9.5 yards an attempt, and has 11 touchdowns compared with two interceptions.
"Because he's getting the ball off quick, I have to make sure I turn my head around quicker," receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "He keeps getting better. It's tremendous. Once he gets going, he knows where he wants to go with the ball. He gets the ball in hands of playmakers, and we go out and play for him."
Inside the Huddle
• Weren't Brandon Weeden's struggles in his three games replacing Tony Romo expected? I would say so. He doesn't get the ball downfield enough. His 72.4 completion percentage doesn't translate into points because so many throws are basically extended handoffs. We saw it again in the Cowboys' 30-6 loss to New England on Sunday. Might be time to go to Matt Cassel.
• The Detroit Lions don't have a quarterback controversy, but they do have a coordinator debate. Head coach Jim Caldwell is a nice man who would be reluctant to fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. But, as Caldwell said, the 42-17 loss to Arizona was unacceptable. Something probably has to happen. Matthew Stafford is averaging only 6.2 yards an attempt, second lowest in the league. There is no pop to his offense.
• The fall of the Baltimore defense started in Week 1 with the loss of Terrell Suggs for the season. Elvis Dumervil suffered a groin injury in the second half of the 33-30 loss to the Cleveland Browns. Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb, Kyle Arrington and Will Davis were hurt, and Webb seems to be losing the fight to injuries the past few weeks. "It's not helpful," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of injuries. No kidding. No pass rush plus no pass coverage has led to a 1-4 start.
• As expected, Rex Ryan found a way to slow down hot rookie Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in a crazy 14-13 come-from-behind victory. Two sacks and seven hits on Mariota limited him to 21 of 32 for just 187 yards and one interception. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mariota was 1-for-7 with one interception on passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. That bought time for Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor to bring the team back for a victory after a slow start. He didn't complete a pass until the second quarter.
• The Chicago Bears aren't very good based on raw talent, but you can see the influence of John Fox as the coach over the past two weeks. On Sunday, after the Chiefs lost RB Jamaal Charles to an ACL injury, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio went to the blitz and threw Alex Smith well out of his comfort zone. The Bears might not have better talent on defense, but they are better coached.
• Aaron Rodgers is battling Tom Brady for MVP honors, but the bigger story in Green Bay is what Dom Capers is doing with the defense. The Packers are in the top seven for yards (316.4). They are second for sacks with 20. They rank fourth on pass defense, allowing only 186.2 yards a game.
• It's strange watching Denver Broncos games these days. Wade Phillips' defense is so good, and it's so much fun to watch, the way it pressures the opposing quarterback. What's tough is watching Peyton Manning run an offense that ranks 29th in total yards. He has seven interceptions and only six touchdown passes.