Just How Good Is the Cincinnati Bengals' Passing Offense?
Through five weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals' passing offense has been a well-oiled machine.
Andy Dalton has efficiently racked up just under 300 yards per game with an 11-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has completed 67.5 percent of his passes and owns a league-leading 9.5 yards per attempt. Dalton is first among all quarterbacks in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), which compare a player's performance to expectation-level, and second behind the injured Ben Roethlisberger in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks with at least 75 attempted pass plays.
He’s been consistently dominant, ranking among the top 12 fantasy quarterbacks every week so far -- a feat matched only by Tom Brady, albeit having played one fewer game than Dalton.
Cincinnati's Adjusted Passing NEP per play (0.41) is best in the league; Arizona's 0.37 ranks second. Last season, Green Bay (0.29) led the league, and the best mark ever for a full season was 0.41: the 2004 Colts and the 2007 Patriots.
Still, public opinion generally places Dalton somewhere between uninspiring and adequate on the spectrum of NFL quarterbacks. The much-maligned anvil attached to A.J. Green's sky-high potential, Dalton has been widely dubbed a bland commodity through his first four NFL seasons. But as the 2015 sample size grows, the throngs of Andy Dalton skeptics no doubt find themselves in an intensifying state of cognitive dissonance.
So just how far can Andy Dalton take the Cincinnati Bengals' offense?
Through his first three seasons, Dalton’s career trajectory looked promising. After the Bengals made Green and Dalton the cornerstone of their franchise rebuilding effort in the first two rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft, the rookie duo burst onto the scene, both eventually punching tickets to the Pro Bowl.
Dalton steadily improved over the course of the following two seasons, culminating in a 2013 campaign in which he completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 4,296 yards with a 33-to-20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His fifth most fantasy points among quarterbacks that season has likely been the subject of some incredulous bar bets but has been otherwise dismissed by most as an aberration.
Hopes of an encore performance by Dalton and the Bengals' passing offense in 2014 were dashed right out of the starting gate. Promising second-year tight end Tyler Eifert's season ended less than a quarter into Week 1 (but not before securing 3 catches for 37 yards on the first 18 offensive plays). Marvin Jones -- after scoring 10 touchdowns in 2013 -- missed the entire season with foot and ankle ailments. A.J. Green battled a lingering toe injury that forced him to miss three games and serve as a decoy in two others en route to a 69-catch, 1,041-yard, 6-touchdown line. Forced to pepper Mohamed Sanu with heavy targets on a weekly basis, Dalton plummeted back to Earth in 2014 to post just 34.67 Passing NEP, ranking 22nd among quarterbacks.
Surrounded by Talent
Now, with his supporting cast restored, Dalton is out to prove that 2013 was not a fluke. Eifert has looked almost Gronkian, on pace for a 77-catch, 998-yard, 16-touchdown line -- despite a Week 3 goose egg in Baltimore -- while ranking third among tight ends with 31.62 Reception NEP. A.J. Green, now healthy, is squarely in the prime of his career at age 27. On pace for 99 catches, 1,584 yards, and 10 touchdowns, his Reception NEP of 40.96 ranks 7th among wide receivers.
Jones has also made a healthy return and Sanu has been recast in a supporting role, while Cincinnati’s offensive line ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate at 4.1 percent.
Compared with the depleted state of the offense last season, it should come as no surprise that Dalton looks rejuvenated.
A Grain of Salt
A more careful look at the schedule reveals that Dalton will almost certainly regress from his current pace of 4,858 passing yards with 35 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions.
Based on Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, the Bengals have navigated a relatively soft schedule so far, facing the 29th- (Raiders), 15th- (Chargers), 13th- (Ravens), 22nd- (Chiefs), and 12th- (Seahawks) ranked units so far.
Their remaining opponents, on the other hand, have an average Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play that would cumulatively rank 14th in the league, and 4 of the Bengals’ 11 remaining opponents rank among the top 6 passing defenses in the league. That's a big part of why our projections see Dalton grading out as the 12th-best quarterback for the rest of the season.
Still, isn’t it possible that Dalton has truly turned the corner?
If not for the ill-fated 2014 campaign, his success so far this season might be viewed as just the next natural step in his career development, given his steady improvement over his first three seasons. Regression notwithstanding, it’s certainly plausible that Dalton will finish as a top-five fantasy quarterback again in 2015 for the second time in three seasons.
Brimming with confidence behind an elite offensive line and surrounded by a group of skill players that rivals any in the league, would anyone really be surprised?