CINCINNATI -- The most important objective for the Cincinnati Bengals this season is to establish a plan to propel the downtrodden franchise into a postseason contender as soon as possible.
That includes determining where veteran quarterback Andy Dalton fits into the long-term vision of new coach Zac Taylor. And that is still a work in progress after a mixed start to the season.
"Like all of us, there is good and bad," Taylor said Monday following the 41-17 loss to the 49ers. "He comes to me and he’s disappointed with how he played, and I’m disappointed with the positions I put him in."
Dalton, who will be 32 in October and is signed through 2020, is 22nd in Total QBR and in the middle of the pack in multiple key categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton’s 65.6 completion percentage is only slightly above the league qualifying average, just like his 7.8 yards per attempt.
But the ninth-year quarterback has found ways to be effective as the Bengals (0-2) have relied on Dalton’s right arm in the first two games of the season.
They haven’t really had much of a choice. In the opener against Seattle, Taylor said the Seahawks stacked the box to stop the run and forced the Bengals to move the offense through the air. Dalton responded with a career-high 418 yards on 51 pass attempts in the 21-20 loss.
One week later against the 49ers, Cincinnati fell behind early and was forced to chase the game, which led to another 42 passing attempts. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the 49ers used five defensive backs on 61 of 65 plays to counter the Bengals’ passing approach.
Even though Cincinnati is facing a potential 0-3 start to the season if they were to lose on Sunday at the 2-0 Buffalo Bills, the coaching staff is happy with Dalton’s output.
Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said Dalton has graded above 90% in each of the first two games. After Dalton spent the offseason watching what Taylor did with the Los Angeles Rams the previous two seasons, the QB is getting a better grasp of how to operate in the new system.
"For the most part, he’s thrown the ball extremely accurately," Van Pelt said. "He’s making good decisions."
One of the exceptions was Dalton’s lone interception this season, which came against the 49ers. He scrambled to his right, threw into double coverage and was picked off near midfield. The turnover led to a San Francisco field goal right before halftime in what was arguably the turning point of the game.
"There were some big bodies right there," Taylor said. "Just throw it away. Andy knows that, and he’s accountable for it."
Despite some of the early mistakes, the Bengals coaching staff still believes Dalton is well-suited to run the offense. Dalton's strength of making pre-snap reads and calculating a play’s chances of success at the line of scrimmage should pair well with what Taylor wants.
And some of Dalton’s numbers have improved from last season. In 2018, Dalton completed 47% of his passes between 10 and 20 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. This year, he’s up to 57.1%, which ranks among the top quarter of the league.
"There are some positive things that we’ve done offensively, and some things we have to be better at — things that I have to be better at," Dalton said.
One of those positives was a Week 1 touchdown. Dalton shuffled forward as the pocket collapsed and threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to John Ross. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said other throws that weren’t as notable demonstrated how well Dalton operates in tight spaces.
"There’s a couple of plays where he’s in the pocket, there’s arms and legs and bodies all in front of him," Callahan said. "He doesn’t flinch and he delivers the ball. It might not have been a sexy throw for 50 yards, but they were completions and they moved our team down the field."
If the Bengals can develop a viable ground attack (Cincinnati is last in the NFL with 29.5 rushing yards per game), Dalton and the offense could look different. But for now, the Bengals are still trying to figure out how things will look this year and beyond.
"We’ve done a lot of good things in this offense so far, we just have to put it all together and find a way to win now," Dalton said.