After the game, as you watched Andy Dalton skip most of the midfield handshakes and quickly run off the field through the cold rain and the emptiness — and the once sold-out stands at Paul Brown Stadium were mostly empty of the orange-clad Bengals fans after Cincinnati’s numbing 27-10 loss to the San Diego Chargers — you couldn’t help but ponder the primary questions facing the franchise.
Does the Bengals’ third-year quarterback simply need a little more coaching? Or a shrink? Or, just a pink slip?
With a little more seasoning, will Dalton finally rise to the moment in a big game — something he hasn’t done in the Bengals’ three playoff appearances in the past three years?
Does he need to spend some serious time on a psychiatrist’s couch working out the demons and doubts that seem to eclipse his glory-filled regular seasons and turn each postseason into a nightmare for both him and his team?
Or, is Dalton simply a second-tier quarterback, a big step up from franchise flops like Akili Smith and David Klingler, but no Kenny Anderson or Boomer Esiason of Bengals’ fame and certainly not one of those playoff wondermen — guys like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, each of whom led their teams to Super Bowl victories.
By the way, during the 11-5 regular season this year, Dalton outdueled all three of them and also Joe Flacco, who led the Baltimore Ravens to last year’s league crown.
But when it comes to the playoffs, Dalton seems to implode.
Cincinnati had beaten San Diego earlier this year and now had the Chargers flying across the country and playing in the cold at PBS, where the Bengals were a perfect 8-0. Odds-makers had the home team a seven-point favorite Sunday.
But Dalton submarined those odds with his third straight subpar postseason performance.
Although a Dalton TD pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham helped give Cincinnati had a 10-7 lead at the half, the quarterback had a fumble and a pair in interceptions in the second half.
Over the past three seasons — first round losses to Houston twice and now San Diego — he’s thrown six interceptions against just one touchdown pass, fumbled the ball away once, been sacked nine times and has a three-game quarterback rating of 50.9.
Certainly the Bengals all had a hand in this fiasco — rookie running back Giovanni Bernard fumbled the ball away just steps from the goal line, both Bengals lines were pushed around, All-Pro receiver A.J. Green even had a drop and Marvin Lewis and company were outmaneuvered in their chess match with the Charger coaches — and afterwards several people in the losing dressing room acknowledged that.
“We didn’t play well at another time when we needed to,” said veteran offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth. “Today we weren’t a very good football team and we’re going home. We deserve all the criticism we get.”
And there will be plenty because so many people — including the players — thought things would be different this year, especially with the AFC North Division title and a home playoff game.
“This is really tough man,” Green said. “I felt like we had the team that would take it the distance… And then we came up short … again.”
Defensive end Michael Johnson was even more to the point: “It’s embarrassing anytime you lose, especially at home when we’ve been so good here. It’s a big letdown for the whole city, man. I know everybody wanted it. I wanted it. It’s just embarrassing to go out like that.”
Dalton’s gaffes were the most glaring and he will take much of the blame, but several of his teammates tried to redirect the bulls-eye.
“Everyone is gonna blame the quarterback, they’re gonna blame Andy, and say ‘da-dada-dada,’ but it’s all of us,” said receiver Marvin Jones, who set a Bengals playoff record with eight catches for 130 yards. “We all could have done something to turn this game around and we didn’t.”
That’s gallant on Jones’ part, but he couldn’t have done much more.
You can’t say the same for Dalton. His turnovers were the difference in the game.
“You can’t expect to have three turnovers and win the game — not at this point of the season.,” Green said.
Whitworth was asked how you defend Dalton’s error-plagued 0-3 record in the playoffs.
“You can’t,” he said matter-of-factly. “You have to come back and win a game. It doesn’t matter if it’s him or us or anybody in this building with the organization. You have to win and until we do, we deserve the criticism.”
Afterward one of Dalton’s staunchest defenders was head coach Marvin Lewis, who, by the way, dropped to 0-5 as a head coach in the playoffs: “No, I don’t have any questions about Andy and his role in this thing. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything to help Andy all the time. He’s going to be very disappointed in himself today, obviously. He is the football team.”
After the game — when he sat in front of a questioning press corps in the Bengals media room — Dalton’s tone was flat and he tried to keep some of his hurt bottled up, but you sensed some shell shock.
He said he was frustrated and knew he would be the target of much of the wrath that comes with this unexpected loss.
“It all comes with playing the position,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes on in the game and the quarterback is in control of everything. He is the leader of the team and the offense. When things don’t go right, the quarterback is going to get the blame. I’m willing to take every shot at me. You’ve got to have thick skin.”
Beyond the media room — in the team’s dressing quarters — cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick didn’t try to put up a front.
“I’m devastated,” he said with emotion bubbling up in his voice. “I hate losing. This team hates losing. I hate how this feels. We need to remember this. This is something that don’t need to go unnoticed.”
It hasn’t and that’s why the questions remain: Does Andy Dalton need a little more coaching? Or a shrink? Or just a pink slip?