Andy Dalton And The Sports Media’s Obsession With Assigning ‘Elite’ness
Sports and NFL media in particular absolutely love to throw around the word 'elite.' It has become the internet's favorite buzzword; a way to simultaneously engage the fans of a player or team while enraging their critics. The misuse of 'elite' - as a descriptor for merely any quarterback that has played very well for any particular span of time - has allowed for the misconception that very good quarterbacks are on the same level as all-time great quarterbacks.
I happen to believe that's a damned shame. NFL fans are blessed right now to be witnessing the greatest era of quarterback play in the history of the league; there is no excuse for trying to manufacture all-time greatness where it just isn't.
Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are not Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady just yet, so why do people insist on trying to group them all together? Why can't they just allow for them to wait their turn? There is no such thing as "elite but just not as elite." The label of elite should be reserved for the absolute best of the best. There are only a few of them, and it's okay to wait for that natural succession to happen.
Every season there is a new quarterback that is up for admission into the "elite" group of quarterbacks that has for years been made up of four constant members: Brady, Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning are mostly-consensus members of the group as well, though they make the list more for their incredible Super Bowl performances (two Super Bowl Championships apiece) than for their consistency across the board. Philip Rivers has been on the precipice of the group for a while for the exact opposite reason; he's one of the NFL's great regular season performers for years but has failed to produce late in the playoffs.
Wilson and Luck have made decent cases for initiation into the group, but have fallen short of truly jumping into that echelon yet; though there are very few who doubt that they are the eventual successors to the current aging group.
Now that Brees and Manning have all but fallen off in the back end of their prime, and former "elite" nominees like Joe Flacco, and Matt Ryan have returned to being woefully inconsistent, everyone is collectively searching for a new young quarterback to put on a pedestal; and right now that guy is Andy Dalton.
The Bengals, according to the eye test and the standings, are one of the best teams in the NFL right now. They are 6-0, just 2nd in the NFL behind the New England Patriots in yards per game and they are 10th in the league in points allowed with just 20.2. They have a well-balanced team on both sides of the ball, and they are being quarterbacked by Andy Dalton, who isn't just having the best start to a season in his career but one of the best starts to a season in the history of the NFL.
Dalton is averaging 294 passing yards per game and has thrown for 14 touchdowns and two interceptions, giving him a passer rating of 116.1 through the first six games of the season. That passer rating is currently the 14th best all-time through the first six weeks of an NFL season.
The names included on this list are nothing less than astounding. There are more than a few Hall of Famers mixed in there, and to be included in a group of quarterbacks of that caliber is nothing to sneeze at. (Please note that in Brady's case his 2015 stats do not include his Week 6 game vs. the Colts on Sunday Night Football, nor do they include Aaron Rodgers updated stats from his game vs. the Chargers.)
Plus you'll notice that the only other QBs on the list to throw at least 14 touchdowns and two or fewer interceptions through Week 6 are Brady in 2007, Manning in 2013 and Rivers in 2014; meaning that Dalton in 2015 is on pace to match three of the best modern single-season passing performances of all time.
Dalton is statistically keeping pace with Rodgers and Brady right now, who are having career seasons. Rivers may have fallen out of the "elite" conversation this season - after weaving in and out of it for most of his career - but Brady, Manning and Rodgers are three of the best to ever to a snap.
So the questions remains: with all of this taken into consideration, has Andy Dalton officially entered into the ranks of the elite?
The short answer is no.
In their first six games, the Bengals have played some of the worst teams in the NFL. So far they have beaten the Raiders, Chargers, Ravens, Chiefs, Seahawks and Bills. Through Week 6, the Ravens and Chiefs are both 1-5, the Chargers and Seahawks are 2-4, the Raiders are 2-3 and the Bills (who started EJ Manuel on Sunday) are 3-3. The only real test the Bengals have faced was against the Seahawks, who traveled to Paul Brown Stadium in Week 4 and took the Bengals to overtime before the home team finally squeaked by with a 27-23 win.
And the weakness of the opponents that Dalton has faced is only part of the equation.
You may be thinking that the quality of opponent hasn't exactly been that high for the Patriots or the Packers other, and you'd be right. But both of those teams have been perennially successful and have Super Bowl Championships in the past five years. Tom Brady is the most successful postseason quarterback of all-time. Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs. That's why he doesn't get the same benefit of the doubt that the other guys get; he flat out hasn't earned it.
If we are going to extol Dalton out for his first six games this season, we also have to examine just how poor his postseason performances have been in historical context. Dalton has the 9th worst passer rating all-time among the 71 quarterbacks that have played in at least four postseason games and have a minimum of 150 pass attempts (according to the data that is available on StatsPass.) Plus a few of the players worse than Dalton on the list, like George Blanda and Jack Kemp, played pre-modern era NFL; so their stats are skewed and incomplete.
In the playoffs, Dalton is basically Drew Bledsoe; with far fewer touchdowns. How could you possibly give a modern NFL quarterback the qualification of "elite" when they have yet to overcome their reputation for being one of the worst starting playoff quarterbacks ever? You can't.
If Wilson and Luck aren't elite just yet, then Dalton definitely isn't.
You cannot say that he is elite right now, just like you cannot say that he will never be elite. Now into his fifth season in the NFL he is still unproven beyond Week 17; and yet he has plenty of time to overcome that hurdle. Dalton is on the precipice of what could turn out to be a turning point in his career. Drew Brees had been in the league for five seasons before he finally began to hit his full stride. Aaron Rodgers sat for a few years behind Brett Favre before he had his chance to shine.
So none of this is to say that because Dalton doesn't have the capability of becoming an elite QB. Not everyone has to start off like Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger or Russell Wilson. Dalton deserves credit and admiration for doing everything in his power to overcome the curse of being a fantastic regular-season quarterback that blows it in the playoffs. He deserves to be acknowledged for what he has done in these six games so far, as it has been extraordinary.
He also deserves the chance to actually earn the reputation of an elite quarterback before we all unduly hand it over, just to yank it away again.
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