Against Steelers, Bengals counting on Dalton to exorcise sophomore jinx
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It wasn't easy for Ben Roethlisberger to upstage his rookie season in the National Football League, not when he completed a club-record 66.4 percent of his passes, became the first quarterback in league history to be 13-0 as a starter and led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game.
But, at 23, Roethlisberger did just that, taking control of the offense in the postseason, leading the Steelers to three road playoff wins and becoming the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
Roethlisberger might be in the minority, but he believes it's tougher for a quarterback to succeed in his second season -- even though, for him, the ultimate prize was bigger the second time around.
"The first time around, you kind of surprise teams, they don't know what to expect," Roethlisberger said. "The second time around, teams prepare for you, they're ready for you. It's always a little tougher because they can prepare for you and your tendencies."
Roethlisberger's numbers as a rookie in 2004 were nearly flawless: He completed 196 of 295 passes for 2,621 yards and 17 touchdowns. His passer rating was 98.1.
But, even though he completed a lower percentage of his passes (62.7) and threw for fewer yards (2,385) in 2005, he had just as many touchdowns (17), had two fewer interceptions (9) and had a better passer rating (98.6) in his sophomore season.
Still, he thought it was more daunting, more difficult to achieve the numbers and victories he accomplished as a rookie. And he thinks that's what quarterbacks such as Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers -- players who were No. 1 overall draft choices -- have discovered the second time around.
"People want to jump on guys so fast as rookies, but I always say let's wait till they do it for two or three years and see where they are after that," said Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls and been to a third in nine seasons with the Steelers. "That's why guys sit there and say, 'Oh my gosh, Cam Newton, he's the best quarterback in the league.' Well, he puts up great numbers because he's a great athlete, a great physical specimen, but teams are starting to pick up on some of the things he does.
"I don't mean to pick on Cam, but I always think it's too early to say they're a great quarterback or going to be great after year one or even year two. The question is, can they step up and take their game to the next level where it doesn't matter what the defense does?"
That's what the Cincinnati Bengals are hoping to discover with Andy Dalton.
Like Roethlisberger in 2004, Dalton raised high expectations after his 2011 rookie season. He set several team rookie records, made the AFC Pro Bowl and led the Bengals to the playoffs.
But can he do it again? Can he take the Bengals to the next level, which, given the franchise's recent history, would mean just being able to win a playoff game?
That appeared something of a certainty when the Bengals started the regular season 3-1. But, heading into tonight's nationally televised game against the Steelers (2-3) at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals have lost two in a row and are coming off a loss to a winless Cleveland team in which Dalton tied a career-high with three interceptions.
"I think Andy is way ahead of where he was a year ago, so that's a good thing," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a former Steelers assistant who attended Fort Cherry High School. "I don't think he's having a harder time at all. I think we just need to let Andy keep being Andy and not put any more pressure on him. Last week, he had three interceptions on paper at the end of the day and not nearly one of them was his fault.
"I think any quarterback goes through that and it's frustrating for a quarterback when guys let them down. There's a great quarterback there in Ben [Roethlisberger] who helps guys play better, and guys play better because of him, because he extends the play and he knows that his guys know he's going to get them the football. That's what you want to have from your quarterback."
Dalton is part of the recent craze in the NFL -- the race by teams to unearth the elite quarterback as fast as they can.
Last year, he and Newton were the only two rookie quarterbacks to start the season opener. This year, there were five, the most since 1950.
Three of the quarterbacks -- Robert Griffin III in Washington, Russell Wilson in Seattle and Ryan Tannehill in Miami -- have their teams off to 3-3 starts. Andrew Luck rallied the Indianapolis Colts from a 24-3 deficit to a victory against the Green Bay Packers a couple weeks ago in what could prove to be the watershed moment for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft. And Cleveland's Brandon Weeden had his first victory last week when the Browns upset Dalton and the Bengals.
"I understand why guys are playing quarterback as rookies. I get it," said Steelers backup Byron Leftwich, who started 13 games as a rookie for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003. "I know why -- it's hard to learn from the side. Nobody learns from the side. Those days are over. They are not giving guys, especially quarterbacks, three or four years to develop like they did in the past."
Newton set the bar high last season, breaking Peyton Manning's single-season, rookie passing record with 4,051 yards and becoming the first quarterback in league history to finish with at least 4,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing. But he also threw 17 interceptions, was sacked 35 times and finished with a passer rating of 84.5, 15th in the league.
But, unlike Newton, who ranks near the bottom of NFC quarterbacks and has not had the same impact he did as a rookie with one-win Carolina, Dalton has not shown any sign of suffering from some type of sophomore jinx, real or imagined. He is ranked in the top 10 in yards (1,726), yards per attempt (8.03), touchdowns (12) and completion percentage (66.0). His passer rating of 91.7 is 11th among NFL quarterbacks.
But while those numbers are at least on pace to equal or surpass his 2011 totals, he has also thrown nine interceptions in six games compared with 13 in 16 games last season. He also has been sacked 17 times compared with just 24 all of last season.
"Last year I had to learn a lot of new stuff," Dalton said. "Now I feel like I know what to expect. I feel like we have to keep getting better and better each week. We had two tough losses the last two weeks, but we have to get back on track."
Recent history shows that Dalton's second-year progress is more the norm than the exception.
Of the 13 quarterbacks who have started at least eight games in their rookie and sophomore seasons since 2000, only two saw a decrease in their passer rating from the first year to the second, according to the Charlotte Observer.
One of those was Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, who completed 60 percent of his passes, threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns and had a 76.5 passer rating as a rookie for the St. Louis Rams. He has thrown only 12 touchdowns since, although he battled injuries last season.
The other is Atlanta's Matt Ryan, whose passer rating dropped nearly seven points (87.7 to 80.9) from 2008 to 2009, although his touchdown passes rose from 16 to 22.
"You can definitely surprise them the first year because [defenses] don't know what to expect," said Steelers backup Charlie Batch, who started 12 games as a rookie with the Detroit Lions in 1998. "But when you have a whole offseason, sometimes defensive coordinators seem to catch up. That's why people talk about sophomore slumps, to a certain degree."
Quarterbacks such as that force defensive coordinators to spend time in the offseason devising ways to stop them.
"The more you put on tape, the more all the best coaches in the world see and understand and learn more tendencies. It only makes sense teams will get better defending you, to a certain point," said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "If you're a rookie that comes in and performs well, like this Dalton guy did last year, there wasn't a lot [of video] on him so guys are trying to figure out as they go, hey, what's the best way to defend this guy.
"Take Ben. People for years have formulated ways they're going to defend him. Guys like [Dalton], it's a clean slate. The more guys get on him, especially if you're playing him multiple times, it's an advantage for the defense."
Then there are quarterbacks such as Baltimore's Joe Flacco, the only quarterback in recent years to start all 16 games in his rookie and sophomore seasons. His rating increased 8.6 points from his first to second year and so did his completions, passing yards and touchdowns. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman had a passer rating of 59.8 as a rookie in 2009 and 95.9 his second season when the Buccaneers went 10-6.
"I think the first time through for a young quarterback, every experience is a brand new one," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "In my mind, they are going to be better their next time around. Football is a game of a myriad of bounces and plays. A bad play may happen here and there, but in the long run, and I know you are talking about Andy Dalton, he's playing better. He is quicker with the ball. He has always been accurate. He is only going to get nothing but better. I really believe that."
That's what the Bengals are hoping.
First Published October 21, 2012 12:00 am