The Contrarian - Andy Dalton is a Franchise QB
Recently Matt Schauf wrote a fun guest column taking a look at a few guys who scored more fantasy points than their reality performance would have suggested. One of his targets was Andy Dalton. This is what he had to say:
Wanna know a secret? Numbers do lie.
Well, maybe not lie, per se. Andy Dalton did throw 33 touchdown passes this season, just like his stat line says. He did reach 4,293 passing yards, more than 600 better than his previous best. And he ran for a career-high 183 yards.
That all added up to the third-best fantasy football point tally among quarterbacks in 2013. But would you argue for Dalton to rank anywhere among the top five QBs in the league? Of course not. You’d probably have trouble finding anyone to convincingly argue for Dalton anywhere near that group.
I like Andy Dalton quite a bit. I can’t promise you’ll be convinced, but I can make an argument.
1. The narrative about Dalton doesn’t fit our usual storytelling models.
In the entirety of NFL history, only two players have thrown for more yards in their first three seasons: Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. Consider that for a moment. All of NFL history. Moreover, despite playing in a division with perennial Super Bowl contenders in the Ravens and Steelers, Dalton has led Cincinnati to the playoffs in all three seasons at the helm. In the previous 43 seasons the Bungles only made the playoffs nine times.
Meanwhile, fans in Cincinnati are supposedly agitating for their franchise to go in a different direction and find a quarterback who’s more than a game manager. I would submit to you that this makes no sense. Raw passing yards and team wins are pretty poor ways to evaluate a quarterback, but our football culture tends to revere them anyway. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, two quarterbacks who can check similar narrative boxes, have parlayed those two components into salaries that place them among the highest paid players in the game. For Dalton to be so good in those two areas and yet for fans, pundits, and even analysts to roundly despise him . . . well, he must look really, really bad once you peer under the hood.
Except, of course, he doesn’t.
2. Dalton is a quality decision-maker.
One of my favorite stats in the PFF Signature Stat portfolio is Time in Pocket for quarterbacks. Watching any NFL telecast, you’re likely to hear a lot about how important it is for the quarterback to make swift decisions and get the ball out quickly. I’m going to examine this concept in more detail later in the offseason, but right now I’m going to ask you to take it on faith that this is one area where the conventional wisdom gets it right. For pocket passers, getting rid of the ball quickly is hugely valuable. In 2013 Peyton Manning led the NFL in Time to Throw at 2.36 seconds. Dalton finished second at 2.43. Tom Brady was fourth at 2.46. Dalton led the NFL in percentage of passes thrown in 2.5 seconds or less.
It’s not enough to get rid of the ball quickly, however. You must also do it successfully. Dalton is obviously not anywhere near Manning’s insane 121.4 passer rating in such situations, but his 91.7 is very solid. Brady finished at 98.3. Matthew Stafford, another quarterback who receives scant recognition for getting rid of the ball quickly, was at 93.1. (Unlike Brady and Stafford, Dalton’s passer rating didn’t crater on passes released after 2.5 seconds.)
3. Andy Dalton is an elite deep passer.
If there’s one thing about Dalton no one disputes, it’s this: he finds himself in possession of a lousy arm. Fortunately, having a howitzer isn’t the key component in attacking a defense deep. Accuracy, anticipation, and a willingness to let it rip are all more important.
Ignoring small sample passers, only Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Peyton Manning were meaningfully more accurate than Dalton on deep balls in 2013. Only Manning and Drew Brees – who was less accurate than Dalton – threw for more yardage on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Neither of them attacked deep as frequently as Dalton, who threw long on 14.7% of his attempts. Then there’s this. Manning and Brees saw their receivers drop four deep passes combined. Dalton’s receivers dropped seven all by themselves, the highest number of deep drops in the NFL.
4. Blasphemy: A.J. Green is just a tiny bit overrated.
Whenever I point out that Dalton’s numbers on deep passes are actually very good, readers immediately respond with a very succinct answer. “A.J. Green.”
The problem with giving Green credit for all of Dalton’s performance is simple. It can’t possibly be true. At least not in 2013. For one thing, Green dropped 11 passes this year or a full 10% of his catchable balls. He’s not alone in this category among elite receivers. His drop numbers were virtually identical to those of Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant. All three players struggled in that category, but, unlike Johnson and Bryant, the Bengals’ top receiver was extremely inefficient with his targets.
The WR Rating is just the QB Rating on passes thrown to that receiver. Dalton’s overall QB Rating was 88.8, which means Green’s performance was actually a drain on his quarterback’s overall efficiency numbers. These numbers are essentially mirrored on deep passes where Jones was again superior to Green.
The obvious counterargument is that while Green struggled in 2013 from an efficiency perspective, this was really all Dalton’s fault. The Bengals signal-caller forced passes to a covered Green, making his receiver look bad and creating a whopping 12 interceptions. Meanwhile, the presence of the transcendent Green freed up players like Jones and Sanu to run wild. Therefore when Dalton did make the right read, those guys reaped the benefits.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Since A.J. Green came into the NFL with Andy Dalton, we haven’t seen him play with anyone else. It’s possible he’s benefitting from Dalton. It’s also possible he shouldn’t really be mentioned in the same breath as guys like Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas. While I don’t want to unfairly denigrate the cluster of talents that might be labeled as “football skills,” we now have overwhelming evidence that speed and weight are two of the most important indicators in projecting receivers to the NFL and judging the likelihood of sustained professional success. Look at how Green compares to the remaining trio of superstars at the position.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Green must be worse than these other three because he’s smaller and slower. I’m simply saying that if we’re trying to figure out how to parcel out credit, it’s worth considering that the direction of value may be going more from Dalton to Green than most realize. Conversely, I suppose we could argue that Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan are only putting up big numbers because of the receivers they have at their disposal.
5. Jay Gruden was a disaster.
This again is a conjecture, but it’s one I believe is backed up by the data. One of the reasons stats are often lampooned as a measure for valuing NFL players is the “interaction effect.” I find trying to use the numbers to explain various interactions the most interesting part, even if the final conclusions are always at least somewhat tentative.
If Marvin Jones and even the wildly disappointing Mohamed Sanu were both more efficient – at least in terms of WR Rating – than the supposedly otherworldly A.J. Green, then the fault has to lie with somebody. Unfortunately for Washington fans who just had to endure the foibles and distractions of a swiftly deteriorating Mike Shanahan, the person at fault was probably Jay Gruden.
Take a look at the usage for the main players in the Bengals offense.
It’s easy to look back after a season and accuse an offensive coordinator of using his pieces inefficiently. Some measure of the final tally is going to merely represent randomness. But the final stats for the 2013 Bengals paint a pretty ugly picture. While the WR Rating attributed to Marvin Jones may owe much of its impressiveness to an unsustainable and fluky touchdown rate, his yards per route do not. Jones played on only 50% of Cincinnati’s snaps even though he was their second best receiver by a wide margin. What’s even more puzzling is how Gruden approached his snaps after the breakout game. Jones saw his snaps rise but still played in less than 50% of the team’s snaps on three more occasions. Jones ran 86 fewer routes than Sanu and three fewer than Jermaine Gresham.
It’s also strange that BenJarvus Green-Ellis was allowed to run half the routes that Gio Bernard logged (302 to 147). Bernard turned his routes into 514 yards. The Law Firm managed 22. Bernard finished with the eighth most receiving yards among backs and was the eighth most efficient in terms of yards per route. He easily bested two of the elite receiving backs in the NFL. (Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy finished at 1.37 yprr and 1.36 respectively.) Bernard only played in 70% of his team’s snaps on two occasions during the regular season, one of which came in Week 4. While his snap percentages rose slightly as the season progressed, his underdeployment was puzzling at best and malpractice at worst.
It’s tricky to draw conclusions about the usage of the tight ends considering they both endured some injury issues during the season. Still, Tyler Eifert had a fairly impressive campaign as a receiver. His 1.47 yards per route placed him ahead of Jordan Cameron (1.46), Martellus Bennett (1.46), Tony Gonzalez (1.41), Coby Fleener (1.26), and his veteran teammate. It’s therefore difficult to understand why he was asked to block on 372 of his snaps and only run routes on 303. It makes little sense that he played 303 fewer snaps than Jermaine Gresham, a player who was not only a less dynamic receiver but a truly atrocious blocker.
If you look at any of these pieces in isolation – the usage of the receivers, the usage of the runners, the usage of the tight ends – it would be easy to dismiss as a fluke. Taken together, those decisions raise a lot of questions about Gruden’s status as an offensive mastermind.
6. The weather doesn’t help.
This is probably just a footnote to the rest of the argument, but keep in mind that Dalton has accomplished his gaudy raw stats in one of the more difficult divisions when it comes to inclement weather. Earlier I mentioned that Dalton has thrown for the third-most yards in NFL history in his first three seasons. It’s easy to give most of the credit to structural changes in the game. Teams pass more. The rules favor offenses. But Dalton isn’t accomplishing all of this merely on volume. Dalton averaged 6.60 adjusted yards per attempt during that time period. Peyton Manning was at 6.78. Matt Ryan, who ranks ninth in this category, averaged 6.77. Both of those players got to play at least half of their games in domes.
Even a novice DFS player will tell you weather is the first thing you consider in selecting a quarterback. Bad weather has a depressing effect on yardage and efficiency. (To put those efficiency numbers a little more in context, the unparalleled Dan Marino averaged 8.0 AYA. On the other end of the spectrum, Drew Bledsoe’s prolific first three seasons saw him pass for the fifth-most yards in NFL history. He averaged 5.13 AYA.)
7. Being a high variance player is a statistical fluke and largely irrelevant.
One of the loudest complaints lodged against Andy Dalton is the Tale of Two Cities Effect. It’s either the best of times or the worst of times. Nobody had a bigger split in 2013 between his quality of play versus good defenses and his quality of play versus bad defenses. While it’s easy to craft a narrative out of this, the truth is boring. It’s just noise.
The example every math teacher uses when explaining randomness and variance is to have students generate a list of hypothetical coin flips by hand and then actually flip coins and record the results. The professor can always tell which is which because the reality flips include much longer consecutive strings of heads or tails than the fabricated lists. All quarterbacks are better against bad defenses. Dalton’s extremes result from the unusual way his recent results have bunched. If you want to blame his supposed physical limitations for his results against good teams, then you must also come up with an explanation for why he’s so insanely good against bad teams. If there is an explanation beyond randomness, it likely traces back to Gruden’s game plans.
The Conclusion and Fantasy Spin
I don’t expect you to believe Andy Dalton is one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, but I do think you should consider him part of the solution in Cincinnati. It strains credulity to believe he’s part of the problem. The idea that Gruden has “manipulated” a low-end talent into this level of success is laughable on its very face. (Perhaps Gary Patterson manipulated him to a 25-1 record over his final two years in college, including a senior campaign in which the then mid-major Horned Frogs were arguably the best team in the nation.)
Somewhat surprisingly, in my friendly Twitter exchange with Matt Schauf of DraftSharks.com, I discovered that our evaluations of Dalton diverge in an unexpected way. Even though I think Dalton is a better reality player, Schauf has higher expectations for him as a 2014 fantasy asset. One of the reasons quarterback is a low priority position in fantasy is due not just to a lack of scarcity but a lack of predictiveness. After Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and a healthy Aaron Rodgers, we can generally expect the rest of the Top 10 places to be almost randomly filled. Dalton resides in the skill range where a Top-5 finish was well within the range of likely outcomes.
On the other hand, the same factors he’s overcome so far – weather, strength of schedule, questionable coaching – make him a poor bet to repeat. Schauf put his probable ADP and likely finish in the No. 6 to No. 9 range. I think there are at least 12 signal callers who are of similar talent and find themselves in a superior situation. Then again, Hue Jackson may decide to actually use Marvin Jones, Gio Bernard, and Tyler Eifert. In that case, we may look back after 2014 and say, “I thought Andy Dalton wasn’t supposed to be able to play against good defenses.”