CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton is getting a second chance to shine in a hometown playoff game. The first one didn’t turn out very well at all.
The Bengals’ quarterback had one of the worst games of his rookie season in front of a lot of family and friends in Houston last season. He threw three interceptions, including one that J.J. Watt returned for a touchdown, in the Texans’ 31-10 victory in the wild-card round.
Dalton grew up in suburban Katy, Texas, and had never lost a game at Reliant Stadium, where he played twice in high school and once at TCU. He’s excited to be going back for what amounts to a second chance to look good in the playoffs.
“It’ll be fun,” Dalton said. “There’s a lot of family and (friends) around the Houston area and in Texas in general. It’s definitely cool to come back and play where I’m from.”
Those friends and relatives – and those Texans – will see a quarterback who has grown up a lot in the past year.
Dalton made the Pro Bowl last season after leading the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a wild-card berth. The Bengals went 10-6 in his second season and snagged another wild-card spot, with Dalton improving in every statistical category.
He completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards, 27 touchdowns and an 87.4 passer rating, all improvements from his rookie season. The only negative: Dalton threw 16 interceptions this season, 13 as a rookie.
Dalton received an unexpected challenge at midseason.
With the Bengals off to a 3-4 start, coach Marvin Lewis challenged the quarterback and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to assert themselves and lead the team out of its mediocre malaise. Neither one is very vocal, preferring to let the coaches take control.
With the pressure on, Dalton and Maualuga improved their performances and led a turnaround. The Bengals won seven of their last eight games to reach the playoffs. Instead of trying to blend in, Dalton led the way.
“He’s a guy that’s grown,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He’s matured. I think he’s ready for his opportunity. The truth is, we’re going to be behind him and he’s going to lead us. Like Marvin said earlier in the year about him and Rey: Where they take us is where we’ll go. Those guys continue to elevate their play.”
Lewis was so pleased with how Dalton and Maualuga responded to his challenge that he designated them team captains for the rest of the season, putting a small “C” on the front of their game jerseys.
“I think he’s done a great job of being the leader of the offensive group and really the football team,” Lewis said of Dalton. “He has continued to be very demanding, but he’s got a lot of pressure he keeps on himself. I think he’s getting the players around him to understand and get it right all the time and play to his standard.”
The NFL lockout limited Dalton’s preparation for his rookie season. The Bengals installed a West Coast offense under new coordinator Jay Gruden last season and were learning it as the season went along.
Dalton has a much better understanding of the playbook as he prepares for his second playoff game.
“I feel like I have more control over everything,” Dalton said. “There is a lot more stuff that they are asking me to do at the line – (changing) plays and doing different things like that. That’s definitely an area where I have improved.”
The biggest downside heading into the playoff game is how the offense finished the season. The defense scored two touchdowns in the last two games, while the offense managed one. It’s time for the offense to start making some game-turning plays instead of relying on the defense to bail it out.
“The big-shot plays,” Whitworth called them. “Even more now than ever, it’s the huge plays that win the playoffs. You can go back to clips from Super Bowls past and playoffs past. It’s time for guys to make huge plays, that’s the bottom line.
“You’ve got to go out and do something special to win in the playoffs.”