Recency bias is a common affliction in the NFL. First-year head coach Zac Taylor will soon be tasked with resisting the urge to succumb to this affliction, as he makes a crucial decision for the future of the Cincinnati Bengals: LSU Tigers star Joe Burrow, or incumbent starter Andy Dalton?
On the surface, it’s a simple, binary decision. But delve deeper into the discussion, and you’ll find that there are more complex mechanisms at play. The flash of new things. The comfort of familiarity. The situational necessity of change, and the inherent danger of that same change.
Taylor, just one year into his tenure, has a franchise-altering decision to make. In a way, it’s a fitting responsibility for a young, personable head coach who was called into Cincinnati to reverse decades of dysfunction. But so early into Taylor’s career, it could be the decision that makes or breaks him. Who should Taylor choose to be the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback in 2020? Burrow, or Dalton?
Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton
Bengals quarterback Dalton is an enigma, not just to the city of Cincinnati, but to a nation. He’s been the starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals since 2011 when he was drafted in the second round out of TCU to succeed Carson Palmer. In that span, Dalton has earned three trips to the Pro Bowl, and he made it to the playoffs four straight years from 2011 to 2014, peaking with an 11-5 record and an AFC North division title in 2013.
While the heights of Dalton’s career have established him as a quarterback a cut above the average journeyman, the valleys have been just as distinct. Dalton’s Bengals haven’t registered a winning record since 2015, and in 2019, Dalton’s embarked on a career-worst season. He’s logged a sub-80 passer rating for the first time in his career. Per Ben Baldwin’s quarterback efficiency chart, Dalton is one of the top-five least efficient passers in the NFL, in the same tier as Mitchell Trubisky, Gardner Minshew, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Dalton was benched after Week 8 in favor of rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, but after Finley struggled in his new role, Dalton was given back the starting job in Week 13. He gave the Bengals their first and only win of the season, against the New York Jets (granted, beating Adam Gase isn’t that hard). In his most recent outing, a loss to the Dolphins, Dalton was 33 for 56 for 396 yards with four scores, including a game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert.
Dalton is closing out the year on a high note, but on the season, he has just 15 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, and his welcome seems to be wearing out in the jungle. His 1-14 season has played a part in his demise, as the Bengals now have a unique chance to pick his immediate replacement with the #1 overall pick.
Future Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Ohio gave Dalton his first NFL opportunity, and in a cruel twist of irony, Ohio may take it away.
Hailing from Athens County, Ohio, LSU quarterback Burrow, once an overlooked transfer from Ohio State, has ridden a historic college football season to an overwhelming NFL Draft bid. Burrow is the strongest quarterback prospect to hit the draft circuit in years, and he’s a virtual lock to be the first quarterback taken. That is if Taylor and the Bengals decide Burrow is the one.
Burrow has thrown for 4,715 yards, 48 touchdowns, and just six interceptions in 13 games this year. He’s thrown for 10.7 yards per attempt, and he’s completed an incredible 77.9 percent of his passes. Statistically, Burrow is putting up never-before-seen numbers, and his play on the field reflects the results. Burrow is a quick processor who has age-defying resolve, progression skills, pocket awareness and movement, and above-average athleticism. Saying he doesn’t have transcendent arm talent is the worst thing one can say about Burrow, which only says a lot more about just how good and deficiency-devoid he is.
For the Bengals, it seems like an easy decision from afar. On the field, Burrow is electric, immaculate, precise, and tough-as-nails. Off it, he’s smart, charming, charismatic, and humble. The adversity he fought through before ultimately emerging as a star is similar to that of the Bengals, and it’s an arc of progression he can lead them along if he’s awarded the opportunity.
Is there a chance Dalton stays in Cincinnati?
It makes sense for Taylor to start clean with Burrow. Dalton has regressed to the mean, and in 2020, the Bengals can cut him out of the last year of his contract with no dead cap. The team has a promising young core on offense, containing players like Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon, and John Ross, and it’s reasonable to align the roster and create a flexible championship window with a rookie quarterback’s contract. Burrow has more upside, and he could be what Taylor needs to get off the ground in Cincinnati.
Perhaps Dalton has a destiny as a starting quarterback somewhere else in 2020; the NFL is generous to former starters, and Dalton may get another chance in a better situation. But if the Bengals decide to pick Burrow, there’s no sense in paying over $17 million for a backup. If Taylor defies expectations and rolls with Dalton, he may find that he’s already seen all he needs to and that he should have trusted the evidence he had.
Dalton likely served as an asset for Taylor in his first year in Cincinnati; Dalton was one of the Bengals’ longest-tenured players, and as a veteran player familiar with the landscape in Cincinnati, Dalton likely helped Taylor with some of the learning curves in 2019. But there’s no precedent for a new coach keeping a middle-tier quarterback past his prime; if anything, there’s more of a precedent for a regime change to lead to an eventual change at quarterback. For the Bengals, a transition from Dalton to Burrow represents what might be the latest installment of that precedent.
Sometimes the familiar can be comforting, but the Bengals knew a change was needed when they decided to hire Taylor in the offseason of 2019. There’s no reason to stop now.