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Three years later

Posted Jan 22, 2014

Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese did some research before he went to this week's Senior Bowl.

MOBILE, Ala. — Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who came down here three years ago this very week with exactly no starting quarterback, did some research before he went to this week's Senior Bowl. It may hold the key to the enigma that is Andy Dalton, the quarterback that began to sell the club three years ago this week.

Zampese took the top quarterbacks in the game and compared their first three seasons to what Dalton has done. He wrote the numbers in pencil on pieces of notebook paper and discovered, among other things, that Dalton in his first three years has:

» More yards and wins than Tom Brady.

» More pass completions of 40 yards and fewer interceptions than Peyton Manning.

» More yards passing per year than Drew Brees every one of those three seasons and more passes of 20 yards than Brees.

» Fewer sacks and more touchdown passes than Aaron Rodgers.

» More TD passes, higher passer rating, more 40-yard throws and fewer sacks in his first two years compared to Andrew Luck.

"I found a lot of similarities; he's right there with them in a lot of things," Zampese said in the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium after one practice this week. "All those guys at a certain point had some kind of breakthrough. We're waiting for our breakthrough. We have to keep doing what we're doing and come to a better understanding about protecting the football."

But Zampese thought about the question. Yes, he decided rather quickly. If people down here three years ago knew Dalton would put up those numbers, "most people would" have drafted him right where the Bengals did in 2011 at No. 35, and probably higher.

In the 17 days since Dalton's breakthrough season broke apart in a mere 10 minutes of three turnovers in the wild card game against San Diego, a few things appear to be emerging.

The Bengals could take a quarterback early in the May 8-10 draft, but in what looks to be developing as a best-player-available-gig for them, they could take any position in the first round. A cornerback would be nice, but the Bengals have both starters coming back. They would like to re-sign left tackle Anthony Collins, but they also have a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle in Andrew Whitworth. The key to Cincinnati's immense success in the past five drafts has been not to reach and be true to its board no matter the need. This may be the ultimate draft to take what drops into the team's lap in the first round no matter the position.

That said, the Bengals aren't looking to replace Dalton like they were trying to do Carson Palmer three years ago. On the day head coach Marvin Lewis appointed new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, both men enthusiastically endorsed Dalton and his three straight postseason berths in an almost unprecedented first three seasons in the NFL. On Monday during one of the practices Jackson reiterated that while the Bengals are looking to upgrade anywhere on offense, they also have a starting quarterback with a lot of wins in Dalton.

And the Bengals appear to be thinking what a lot of observers are thinking down here as they watch practice this week where there is decidedly not the quarterback crop of three years ago.

"Out of the quarterbacks in this league, there are 10-12 guys who you bang the table with that you know you can win a Super Bowl with the guy," said NFL Network's Mike Mayock. "Then there is the group of four or five guys that have been good quarterbacks in this league but haven’t necessarily gotten to the next step. I think Andy Dalton is in that group … there's no guarantee you can get a better guy. You're always looking to upgrade every position. The quarterback position isn't a sacred cow. You look at the draft, you look at free agency. But he's pretty good."

How good? Come back to where the Bengals as a team first saw Dalton work three years ago and it takes just one practice to remind anyone what a gamble the QB roulette wheel is and how secure it is to have a guy that can play. The conventional wisdom is that there is just one quarterback at this game this year that can compare to what Dalton was in the 2011 game and that is Fresno State's Derek Carr of the North, the one legit first-round quarterback in the Senior Bowl at the moment.

Dalton was part of a marquee week when he played for the South down here with Florida State's Christian Ponder, eventually the 12th pick in the draft, and Alabama's Greg McElroy, a seventh-round pick of the Jets now with the Bengals. The Bengals had a bird's-eye view as the coaches of the North quarterbacked by Washington's Jake Locker, the draft's eighth pick, and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, taken a slot behind Dalton at No. 36, as well as Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, a fifth-round pick.

"I still like Andy. When you have a guy with talent, patience is a virtue," said NFL Network's Charles Davis, who along with Mayock also worked the Senior Bowl three years ago. "People forget. It's hard to win in this league. Hard. Hard. Hard. You know how it is. Go ahead and make the change and a lot of people regret it because someone else can't do it. I'm a big believer in patience."

Someone will emerge this week. It could be Carr's North teammates, Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois and David Fales of San Jose State. Rob Rang, the CBS Sports draft guru, says the South has the more traditional NFL type of big, strong-armed passers with 6-6, 254-pound Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech, 6-1, 225-pound athletic Tajh Boyd of Clemson, and 6-2, 218-pounder Stephen Morris of Miami.

Maybe some second-rounders, thirds and fourths. The hot name rising maybe into the second round, Rang says, is Garoppolo. But while Thomas has a howitzer, he's wild. Fales's ball has been fluttering and Boyd and Morris are grappling with consistency.

One intriguing guy who won't even take a snap this week is Georgia's Aaron Murray, barely six feet tall but impressing people down here with immeasurable intangibles by simply showing up. He's coming off his ACL tear against Kentucky in late November and can't do a thing until his April 16 pro day, but he's here taking in the atmosphere, huddling with teams, sitting in meetings and drawing on anything that looks like a grease board.

The 5-11 Russell Wilson is the only active NFL quarterback shorter than Murray, but the Bengals have to love the fact he's even here hurt and other guys have blown it off. Plus, everyone including Murray knows how much the Bengals covet Georgia players. Even though he says he hardly watches the NFL because he says he watches his own film on Sundays.

"What is it? Seven guys? They love them some Georgia players," said Murray, who also shares agent Pat Dye with Bengals Geno Atkins, Robert Geathers, Andrew Whitworth, Wallace Gilberry and Clint Boling.

But, like Murray says, it's too early to know who is going where. Zampese agrees. "No idea," he said of how he'd rate guys since he's just getting a look at them. Rang wonders if the Bengals would stay away from Murray because "the same things you like about Andy, you like about Murray," and for a more physical pocket presence.

But somebody will rise this week.  

"Ponder elevated this week," Davis said of the '11 Senior Bowl, "and you can go back and check the tape. I was a big Kaepernick guy when we were doing our shows."

But Davis and Rang shake their heads when the Bengals are taken to task for not taking the more athletic Kaepernick now that he has been to the Super Bowl and two NFC title games while Dalton is 0-3 in the playoffs.

"C'mon now," Davis said. "When you really sit down and examine it, the thing Colin has is he moves and he runs. But you and I both know to ring the bell and win the big game, you still have to win from the pocket and look where we are with the two guys (in the Super Bowl). Russell Wilson's mobility is overrated. Look at the big throws he makes. They're in the pocket."

Rang thinks the right call was made according to the schemes and the fact the Bengals needed a guy immediately and the 49ers didn't.

"If you had to do it all over again, Dalton remains a better fit for what the Bengals do," Rang said. "Colin Kaepernick had a better upside then and still has a better upside. But Dalton was the more pro-ready guy and that pro-readiness is the reason he's had a very effective three years in the NFL."

Zampese coached Kaepernick that week while also taking notes on Dalton.

"Colin was real good. So was Andy. It seems like the line of demarcation is winning playoff games and that's something Colin has done," Zampese said. "It just depends on how you were going to use them. Andy was polished in the things Andy was good at and Colin was polished in the things he was good at."

Zampese has those pieces of paper and Dalton has thrown more touchdowns than anyone on them but Manning. Only Manning has thrown more interceptions, but only Manning has thrown more passes than Dalton in his first three seasons than Brady, Brees and Rodgers.

Zampese is watching this week for what stood out about Dalton three years ago.

"You want to see someone this close because you want to see how the ball comes out of his hand," Zampese said. "I like how fast he got rid of the ball and the poise he showed in the two-minute drill. And he had a compact-kind of body. He wasn't a frail guy and that's proven to be with his durability."

If there is no consensus on who's going to emerge here, there seems to be a consensus that QBs that put up numbers on paper don't grow on trees. Former NFL quarterback Jim Miller of Sirius Radio looked at one Senior Bowl practice this week and observed the QBs aren't as polished or as deep as in that '11 game.

"The guys I saw today, they need to show they can run an NFL offense," Miller said. "Take a guy like Tajh. People say Clemson has a gimmicky style of offense. Can he make the jump? But he has credentials Thomas and Morris don't have when it comes to numbers.

"I think you always have to have (a backup) in your system, (but) I don't think it's paramount for the Bengals to draft a guy high. (Dalton) has proven he can win. He's got the parts around him. He's going to continue to grow. He's going to start to play better in situations. … He has to play the perfect game because he's not great athletically, but if he cleans up his game, he can take that step toward to the Super Bowl."

It's a long step, but the CW seems to be saying it's not as long as the leap the Bengals made three years ago and it's even harder to replicate.

"Hard to do," said the NFL Network's Davis.

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