When Andy Dalton fractured the thumb on his right (throwing) hand during Sunday's 33-20 loss to the Steelers, it was frustrating in all kinds of ways.
It cost an untold number of fantasy teams their playoff lives; it helped knock the Bengals out of the top spot in the AFC, a move which could ultimately cost Cincinnati home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs; and it appeared, for a moment, to deny both Bengals fans and neutrals alike some closure after wondering whether Dalton's wildly impressive 2015 campaign would be followed up by a long overdue moment of playoff glory.
As it turns out, Dalton may still get his chance. Indications are Dalton won't require surgery and could possibly be ready to return in January. Even if Dalton returns for the playoffs, though, I would be skeptical that he'll look like the same passer. That wouldn't be because of any postseason curse, but the sheer fact that it's really hard to be the same quarterback with a broken thumb, especially after taking three or four weeks off and accumulating rust. Even if there's a speedy recovery, the rest of Dalton's 2015 is a question mark at best.
That brings us to one AJ McCarron, who had thrown just four career pass attempts before being thrust into action against the Steelers on Sunday. McCarron was a mixed bag in his first meaningful professional action, going 22-of-32 for 279 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, including an ugly gift of a pick-six. He posted a 36.4 QBR against a group which had allowed the league's 13th-lowest QBR (52.4) heading into Sunday.
It's easy to assume the Bengals will suffer a drop-off going from Dalton, who has been playing at a Pro Bowl level, to an untested fifth-round pick like McCarron, and their season is subsequently toast. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the injury turns the Bengals into the equivalent of the Vikings and drops their chances of making the Super Bowl by about two-thirds.
That may very well happen, but there are legitimate reasons to think Cincinnati will be able to get by with McCarron at quarterback. Let's run through the ways Cincinnati can compensate for the absence of Dalton under center:
1. McCarron will likely improve.
Backup quarterbacks often play better when opening a game as the starter than they do coming off the bench cold. Research I've done in the past suggests that backup passers are about 10 percent better when they suit up as the primary quarterback, likely owing to the extra practice reps and the simple reality that they're going to prepare harder during the week as the starter.
That's critical for McCarron, who will practice with an unfamiliar first team this week. He'll also naturally improve as he grows more comfortable with the speed of NFL pass rushes and has to break down pro defenses. There's no guarantee he'll end up as an above-average quarterback, but he should improve with more reps.
The other advantage is who McCarron will face. Yes, the Bengals get Denver in what might amount to a battle for a first-round bye in Week 16, and the Broncos have an impressive pass defense, but the two other regular-season games remaining come against the 49ers and Ravens, who rank among the seven worst pass defenses in football, per DVOA. Bad defenses can mask plenty of quarterback flaws. (And remember, the Broncos have their own backup QB struggling to score points.)
2. McCarron has arguably the best offensive line in football.
The best thing a team can do for a quarterback is keep him unmolested in the pocket. The average QBR when a passer is pressured is 17.1; when defenses don't pressure the opposing passer, that figure skyrockets to 78.8. The worst quarterback in the league when unpressured is Sam Bradford, who has posted a 43.9 QBR in those situations. That same QBR would be good for the fifth-best rate in football among quarterbacks who are pressured, just ahead of Aaron Rodgers (39.2).
If anybody can keep a quarterback upright, it's the Cincinnati offensive line, which has been incredible all season. Dalton's biggest issue as a pro has been his struggles when pressured, and the Bengals have kept pass-rushers off their star quarterback all season. Dalton has been bothered on just 21 percent of his dropbacks this year, the second-lowest rate in the league, behind Oakland's Derek Carr. And when he hasn't been pressured, Dalton's 91.1 QBR is the best in all of football. (Dalton was 25th in QBR when pressured.)
Some of that should be attributed to Dalton, but given how Cincinnati looks on tape, a fair amount of the credit should belong to the offensive line and Hue Jackson's scheme. And those guys aren't going anywhere. McCarron was pressured on 24.3 percent of his dropbacks as he filled in for Dalton last week, and while his sack rate (8.1 percent) was higher than Dalton's (4.6 percent), it should get better as McCarron grows more comfortable with NFL pass rushes.
3. McCarron should have a full complement of weapons.
While Dalton's thumb injury drew most of the attention during Sunday's game, the Bengals also spent most of the contest without star tight end Tyler Eifert, who was returning from a stinger and promptly suffered a concussion in the first quarter. With Eifert unavailable, it may not surprise you that the Bengals proceeded to score just 10 points on their three red zone possessions.
Eifert's status within the concussion protocol is currently unknown, but once he recovers and returns to the lineup, McCarron will have a stacked group of receivers to work with. Even without Eifert, a wide receivers room led by A.J. Green and Marvin Jones rates as one of the deepest and most talented sets in all of football. They can't turn McCarron into a superstar on their own, but if the former Alabama star can spin throws in their direction, Eifert and Green are often capable of doing the rest.
4. The Bengals should be able to move toward a more run-heavy approach.
Cincinnati has been able to piece together a relatively efficient ground game this season, as they ranked seventh in rushing DVOA heading into the Steelers game. Their attack looks relatively balanced, with 445 pass plays to 371 rushing attempts, but it has been more pass-happy than things might seem. My favorite measure of what a team likes to do on a typical down is seeing what they choose on first-and-10 while the game is within 14 points; in those situations, the Bengals run the ball just 43.1 percent of the time, the seventh-lowest rate in the league.
Last year, in those same situations, the Bengals were running the ball 60.7 percent of the time. Only the Cowboys were running more frequently. A lot of the switch boils down to the improvements in Dalton and the disappointing campaign from second-year runner Jeremy Hill, which led the Bengals to hand more of the workload to Giovani Bernard. Quietly, Hill has gotten better as the season has gone along. After averaging 3.1 yards per carry before Cincinnati's Week 7 bye, Hill is up to 3.9 yards per attempt over the past seven games. And that's despite the fact that Hill's longest run of the year has gone for just 17 yards.
The Bengals will likely use this opportunity to reintegrate Hill back into the lineup and lean on a more balanced approach with their attack. Given how he has improved, that may not be a bad decision at all.
5. Cincinnati's defense can be good enough to win games on its own.
While the Bengals had the league's best offensive DVOA heading into Sunday's game, they were a very respectable eighth on defense. While Pittsburgh scored 33 points, that included a pick-six and a possession which started on the Cincinnati 16-yard line after a second McCarron interception. It was a game in which the Bengals were without starting cornerback Adam Jones and had virtually every member of their secondary banged up heading into the contest. Jones may well be back for this week's game against the 49ers.
The Bengals have enjoyed a remarkable advantage in terms of field position this year. Their average drive has started with 70.2 yards to go for a touchdown, the fifth-highest rate in the league, and they've required opposing offenses to go an average of 76.1 yards for a score, which ranks second. As much as McCarron might need to make some big plays to silence those doubters who think the Bengals might be done without Dalton, what he really needs to do is simply keep up that massive field position gap by avoiding mistakes.
6. Dalton may not be all that he appeared to be.
The former TCU passer deserves a ton of credit for raising his game this year; after seasons in which it appeared Dalton was stagnating, he brought his performance to new heights in 2015. Dalton's performance spiked in a positive way in just about every major statistical category, and it helped the Bengals to a 10-2 start before his thumb injury Sunday. He's third in the league in QBR at 73.1.
If you measure McCarron's likely performance against what Dalton has done in 2015, it's going to seem like a massive drop-off. The reality, though, is that the 2015 version of Dalton is only part of the package you would use to estimate how he'll perform going forward. He might have established a new level of play, or this could simply be a breakout season which sticks out like an unlikely sore thumb when we look back at Dalton's career. Maybe 2015 is the most important season in analyzing what Dalton can do going forward, but the other seasons still matter some in estimating how Dalton would have performed during the playoffs. That makes it easier for McCarron to try to approximate Dalton's play. And as I've pointed out, Dalton received a lot of help with great blocking and great weapons.
The truly paradoxical thing here, as Mike Sando noted on Twitter, is that there's a certain lack of logic in the argument that the Bengals are doomed. You can't simultaneously believe that Dalton was a quarterback incapable of succeeding in the postseason and then suggest that the Bengals have no shot at competing without him around. Yes, it would have been rewarding to see Dalton face his postseason fears and come through with flying colors. At the same time, if you think that there was something to Dalton's postseason woes (and I don't), the Bengals can't really be that much worse off with McCarron under center.