Quarterforward: Has Andy Dalton Taken His Game To The Next Level?

There's a reason that the NFL plays a new season each year. It is true that many things in the NFL tend to be constant, such as Arian Foster going down with an injury, the Indianapolis Colts beating up on the AFC South, and Tom Coughlin's face turning red when the New York Giants make a mistake. However, there are also so many changes from one season to the next that we can't help but come back for more. We have reached a point in the 2015 season where we can easily identify some differences from last year.

How are starting quarterbacks playing this season, when compared to last season's performance? The following chart shows the QBRs of the 24 quarterbacks who have qualified in each of the past two seasons, sorted in order of the QBR differential from 2014 to 2015. The 2015 QBR is reflective of numbers through Week 6.

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Quite predictably, three of the top seven most-improved quarterbacks, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, and Teddy Bridgewater, were rookies last season. We expect players to struggle in their rookie seasons, as they transition into the NFL, but we also expect them to improve the following season, when they are a bit more comfortable.

It is also not surprising that amongst the top seven quarterbacks, three are playing for new teams this season. Ryan Fitzpatrick is now with the New York Jets. Brian Hoyer has replaced Fitzpatrick with the Houston Texans. Josh McCown has replaced Hoyer with the Cleveland Browns, after spending last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

When quarterbacks switch teams, they find themselves in situations with new coaching staffs, new offensive systems, and new sets of weapons to play with. Therefore, it is very likely that they will experience major swings in performance. The only other quarterback on the list who is playing for a new team is Nick Foles, who was traded from the Philadelphia Eagles to the St. Louis Rams this offseason. Notice that he also finds himself on an extreme end of the list, with the third worst differential.

After accounting for the sophomores and the team-switchers, we are still left with one other quarterback in the top seven: Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals. Dalton seems to have shown a drastic improvement this season, leading the 32 qualified quarterbacks in QBR, after ranking 21st out of 30 last season. In fact, the worst single-game QBR Dalton has posted through six games this season, which was 67.8 versus the San Diego Chargers in Week 2, is 13.9 points better than his overall QBR last year!

How much of this increase in QBR can be attributed to Dalton's performance, as opposed to external factors? While Dalton is playing for the same team as last season, with the same head coach, in Marvin Lewis, and the same offensive coordinator, in Hugh Jackson, there are still other factors to consider. 

For example, can the improvement be attributed to a soft schedule? The following chart illustrates the difficulty of Dalton's schedule via the Football Outsiders' Pass Defense DVOA of the Bengals' opponents this season:

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The average rank of 18.5 out of 32 teams suggests that these teams are collectively slightly below average in pass defense. However, the schedule has not been nearly easy enough to make a mediocre quarterback look like an MVP.

Maybe Dalton's performance has looked better due to an improved arsenal of weapons. There are five players who have caught double-digit passes from Dalton this season - A.J. Green (35), Tyler Eifert (28), Marvin Jones (24), Giovani Bernard (18), and Mohamed Sanu (16). None of those players has missed a game for the Bengals this season.

While each of those players was technically on the Bengals last season, some of them were forced to miss games due to injury. Both Green and Bernard sat out three games in 2014, while Eifert suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 1 that cost him the rest of the season and Jones didn't play at all due to foot and ankle injuries. Eifert has been a monster this season, ranking ninth amongst tight ends in receiving yards per game, and tied for first in receiving touchdowns. Jones has been very solid as the number-two wide receiver, ranking 37th amongst wide receivers in yards per game, and tied for 15th in touchdowns.

If Dalton has really improved, his receivers should have better numbers across the board. Otherwise, it is likely that the Bengals' improved passing game is merely a result of better health for the members of the receiving corps.

Three players have played significant roles in the Bengals' receiving game in each of the past two seasons: Green, Bernard, and Sanu. When targeting those players in 2014, Dalton averaged 7.99 yards per attempt; this season he is averaging 9.38 on such throws. That number would actually increase to 9.52 if we used the same target distribution as last season.

Analyzing Dalton's completion percentage tells a similar story. In 2014, Dalton's completion percentage on passes targeting one of those receivers was 0.615. This season, it is 0.711, or 0.706, if we use last season's target distribution. Clearly, Eifert and Jones are not solely responsible for the Bengals' improved passing attack.

We are only seven weeks into the NFL season, and there is still a lot of football to be played. We don't know if the 6-0 Bengals will continue to win every game they play. What is pretty clear, however, is that, to this point in the season, they have benefited from Andy Dalton's superb play.

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