Dalton, who turns 34 next month, is in his 11th season. | Getty
Is Dalton perfect? Hardly. Has he ever been great? The mixed answers speak for themselves. But he brings plenty to the table that Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles didn’t, and he’s an ideal tutor for rookie Justin Fields.
There’s something steady about Andy Dalton. And while steadiness is hardly exhilarating, the Bears have been craving it at quarterback for decades.
After a decade of everyone — especially the Bengals — trying to decide whether Dalton was a franchise quarterback, the critics have a list of all the things he isn’t. He’s not mobile, he’s not an awe-inspiring deep ball launcher and he’s not even close to his prime.
But he’s also not inexperienced and skittish like Mitch Trubisky or reckless and erratic like Nick Foles.
While most of the NFL would yawn at the opportunity to sign Dalton, the Bears pushed past other teams to do it. If they couldn’t trade for Russell Wilson, Dalton was at the top of their list in free agency. They fought off at least the 49ers, if not others, to sign an almost-34-year-old who spent last season as a backup for the Cowboys.
Dalton will start the season opener Sunday at the Rams and is a placeholder for the Bears as they get first-round pick Justin Fields ready for what they hope will be a Chiefs-like ascent to championship contention. But, for better or worse, they’ve never been willing to concede this season as merely filler while everyone waits for the Fields era.
They believe they still have a playoff-caliber defense and they just need a quarterback who won’t waste it.
Enter Dalton. He has taken 8,407 snaps over over 148 games (playoffs included) and seen every imaginable defense. He has led 27 game-winning drives. The Bears say he made exactly one mental mistake in the entirety of the preseason. He’s not perfect, but nothing shakes him or sends him into panic.
“At this position, pressure comes from all different angles,” Dalton said. “You still have to be even-keeled through the whole thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say just in [football], but I pride myself on just always being steady and a guy who’s unwavering in everything.
“When you’re talking football, it’s understanding when you can get the ball out of your hands and when you can hold on to it a little bit longer.”
The Bears, especially coach Matt Nagy, trust Dalton in that regard more than any of their recent quarterbacks. Nagy won’t say it because he has no inclination to criticize Trubisky, but overseeing the offense with a quarterback of Dalton’s competency is a much easier job than trying to guide Trubisky through it.
Nagy saw the difference after just a few weeks of offseason practices. In June, he said of Dalton, “When the quarterback already knows what the defense is doing, he can play faster than others. I hope we all understand what that means for a vet versus a young guy.”
The Bears hope it means the difference between their offense meandering the last two seasons and clicking under Dalton.
Dalton won the Bengals starting job as a rookie in 2011 — he was almost 24, compared to Fields coming in at 22 — and played well enough to help them reach the playoffs with a top-10 defense. It was a fortuitous draft class for the Bengals as they picked up future star wide receiver A.J. Green at No. 4 overall and Dalton at No. 35 early in the second round.
But it never amounted to significant success. The Bengals were in the top 12 in scoring defense each of Dalton’s first six seasons and Green averaged nearly 1,200 yards over that span, but topped out at 12-4 in 2015 and couldn’t get past the first round of the playoffs.
Dalton was at the center of that 2015 success with the best statistical season of his career: 25 touchdown passes, seven interceptions, 250 yards per game and a 106.2 passer rating. He broke his thumb late that season and missed the playoff game against the Steelers — a two-point loss.
Everything slid after that.
Dalton’s passer rating plunged to 91.8 the next season, and that’s the last time he’s broken 90. He drifted into the club of constantly debated quarterbacks like Joe Flacco, Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill. Are they great? No one ever seems to know for sure, which effectively answers the question.
The Bengals fired coach Marvin Lewis after going 6-10 in 2018, then bottomed out at 2-14 the next season as Dalton posted a career-low 78.3 passer rating and were ready to move on without him. They released Dalton and drafted LSU quarterback Joe Burrow first overall in 2020. The two will face each other for the first time when the Bears host the Bengals in Week 2.
Dalton seemed to think that was the end of his run as an NFL starter. He signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys to back up franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, who had never missed a start before last season. After Prescott went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5, Dalton filled in with 14 touchdown passes against eight interceptions while averaging 197.3 yards for an 87.3 passer rating over 11 games.
“I wasn’t expecting to play,” Dalton admitted. “I was expecting just to sit back and watch how he prepares, help him out as best as I could and help the team win games in that role.”
It’s a major plus for the Bears that he’s willing to think that way, because the month after he signed on as their starting quarterback, they asked him to take a part-time job on the side: The vital mentorship of Fields.
The combination of fans’ disappointment in ending up with Dalton after the Wilson talks fizzled and their frenzied anticipation of Fields put Dalton in an incredibly uncomfortable position. All of Chicago is waiting for Fields to finish his studies and kick Dalton to the bench for good.
And not once has Dalton seemed bothered by it.
“It’s something he relishes,” Lewis told the Sun-Times. “We had good talks two years ago, and he knew these kinds of situations may be in his future. The kind of person he is and the strong faith that he has, he will mentor Justin Fields.
“His intellect, his awareness and how he goes about preparing. He is incredibly smart and has a great grasp of the opponent by Tuesday at lunch. He doesn’t have the arm strength that Carson Palmer has, for example, but he gets it done with all the other tools he has. He’ll be great for a young quarterback to watch.”
The Bears hope that’s true in more ways than one. They want Fields to learn from Dalton throughout each week regardless of who’s starting, but their dream scenario is that he spends the season making meticulous observations from the sideline as well while Dalton navigates a variety of obstacles.
Considering what the Bears need from Dalton on the field and behind the scenes with their prized rookie, he was the best choice among the realistic options. They couldn’t afford to give up two first-round picks like the Rams did for Matt Stafford or take on a massive contract like the Colts did in landing Carson Wentz. Ultimately, Dalton was the right guy at the right price, and he might just be enough to make the Bears viable offensively.