On Jan. 23, 2011, Cincinnati joined a number of other NFL cities in need of a franchise quarterback when Carson Palmer requested a trade following a 4-12 season.
The Bengals had the fourth overall pick and an unorthodox plan to boost its passing attack. They would build in reverse order, taking the receiver, A.J. Green, first and the quarterback, Andy Dalton, second.
“I was a big Andy Dalton fan since the start of our evaluation process,” Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said this week.
Cincinnati, obviously, hit a home run with Green. But the tail end of the plan required waiting through another 31 selections until the Bengals were back on the clock with the third pick of the second round.
Cam Newton already had gone No. 1 overall to Carolina. Jake Locker went next at No. 8 to Tennessee. Jacksonville, knowing the Vikings also needed a quarterback, traded from No. 16 to No. 10 and took Blaine Gabbert. After Houston took defensive end J.J. Watt, the Vikings took Christian Ponder 12th overall.
“I was holding my breath, hoping [Dalton’s] name would be written on our ticket and taken to the podium,” Gruden said. “To me, he was the most accurate and poised quarterback available. Anticipation and accuracy are important in any offense, and particularly in this one.”
Gruden and the Bengals aren’t bragging. And critics would argue they aren’t in position to brag too much since the 49ers took Colin Kaepernick one spot after Dalton.
But for what the Bengals were looking for, they believe they targeted the right quarterback for several years to come. At 6-2, 215 pounds, the so-called “holes” in Dalton’s résumé were a lack of size and questionable arm strength.
Gruden wasn’t among those doing the questioning. Gruden saw a quarterback holding every major passing record at Texas Christian, including 42 victories, one of which was a Rose Bowl.
“I could tell he was a great leader and a winner,” Gruden said. “We studied him [on film], and every time I had a doubt, he erased the doubt. If he threw an interception, the next drive he’d come back and lead them to a touchdown. If he got sacked or made a poor decision, he backed it up with something special.”
For whatever reason, Dalton still hasn’t won over fans in southwest Ohio. Two weeks ago, when the offense was pitiful in a 17-6 loss at Cleveland, critics were calling for the ouster of Dalton and Gruden.
Last week, Dalton completed 74.1 percent of 27 passes in a victory over unbeaten New England. The Bengals are 3-2 and tied atop the AFC North. All is well … for now.
Since being drafted, Dalton is 22-15, which is eight victories better than any of the other top six QBs selected in 2011. The Bengals were 17-20 in their previous 37 games without Dalton.
In 2011, Dalton was the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and win at least eight games. In 2012, he joined Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw for 20 or more touchdowns in their first two seasons.
Yes, he’s 0-2 in two playoff games and didn’t play well. But the Bengals still believe they filled a big hole with a quarterback some considered too small.
“Some of the best current and past quarterbacks aren’t 6-4,” Gruden said. “[Drew] Brees is doing pretty well, [Joe] Montana did pretty well. [Michael] Vick has done pretty well. We thought, and now we know, that Andy is plenty big enough and strong enough.”
Eli Manning’s first-quarter pick-six bailed Bears coach Marc Trestman out of an early gamble that would have been a big deal had the Bears not beaten the Giants 27-21 on Thursday.