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Dalton Does, Dalton Doesn’t: Breaking down the ins and outs of Chicago’s new starting QB

So Andy Dalton is officially the Bears’ “QB1”... what does that mean for their 2020 offense?

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

After weeks of speculation about a splash QB trade, the Chicago Bears signed Andy Dalton and named him their “QB1”, and while reception to the Red Rifle has been anything but warm, it means that (at least for now) he’s the Bears starting quarterback.

With that in mind, it’s about time we answer a few questions:

  • Is Dalton is an upgrade over Mitch Trubisky/Nick Foles or just a lateral move?
  • What kind of offense does Dalton play best in? Does it mesh with the Bears’ coaches?
  • If Dalton is an upgrade, is he enough to help save Nagy and Pace’s jobs?

Let’s dive into Dalton’s 2020 film and see if we can figure out what Andy Dalton DOES do... as well as what he DOESN’T.

Dalton Does: Run RPOs effectively

If you’ve followed Matt Nagy’s offense since he’s gotten to Chicago, one of his favorite tools to start off drives is the Run-Pass option (or RPO). RPOs are the latest and greatest offensive innovation to rise out of college football and the Bears make very good use of it — according to Pro Football Reference, they gained the 6th most yards off RPOs in the NFL last year (451 yards, ~150 yards short of 5th) between Trubisky and Foles combined, and since we’ve seen Nagy consistently use the play throughout his Bears’ tenure you can expect it to show up in 2021.

Given Nagy and Lazor like to call these, it’s ideal to find a QB that can effectively leverage the play. Andy Dalton happens to be just that kind of QB. In just the two games I charted out to prep for this breakdown the Cowboys called 9 RPOs — that’s a lot! And as you can see in the reel below, Dalton consistently ran them correctly (even if the play didn’t result in positive yards). I’ve highlighted the ‘key’ defender for you in each clip.

The coolest part about this set of plays is seeing the different types of RPOs Dalton can run — some are your standard “pick on the ILB” RPO most people know about, but CB-driven RPOs (like the 5th one in the reel) that attack dropping Cover 3/Cover 4 corners and Safety-driven RPOs that keyed off Harrison Smith’s tendency to play in the box showed Dalton’s diverse understanding of the play and his ability to execute it well. RPOs are something Dalton definitely DOES.

Dalton Doesn’t: Throw with above-average accuracy

If you’re like me, when you think of a QB like Dalton you naturally assume that he must be able to throw the ball accurately since he’s survived this long in the NFL. Strangely enough, Dalton’s film proves that wrong.

According to NFL Next-Gen stats, Andy Dalton’s 2020 CPOE (Completion Percentage over Expectation) was a flat 0.0%, putting him at 23rd among 44 QBs. Not bad! But when you realize that’s his best figure of his last 4 years (-2.8% in 2019, -0.9% in 2018, and -3% in 2017) it puts things into perspective.

Most of Dalton’s inaccurate throws come on short-distance and intermediate throws that rely on timing, and the misses come every which way. Throws can be too high, too low, too far out front, or behind their target at any given moment — Dalton doesn’t have a favored method of missing, his “accuracy cone” just isn’t tight. Take a look at this set of throws and you’ll see what I mean.

You could probably make a reel like this about any QB with a sub-100% completion percentage, but I want to make it clear before the season starts that Dalton isn’t particularly accurate — he’s going to make physical mistakes that will cost the Bears downs, especially on shorter throws like the ones you just saw.

There’s a silver lining to this though, and that’s that most of Dalton’s throws are catchable and leave his teammates to decide their result — not all of his throws are surgically precise, but many are good enough to result in completions if his receivers can make plays on the ball. Speaking of which, I think Dalton’s throws into the end zone last year do a great job of making this point — Dallas’s WRs dropped a surprising amount of balls in the end zone, and while not every throw is great they show the relative margin for error his receivers should expect to get from him. Take a look for yourself!

No Dalton DOES NOT throw the ball more accurately than his peers, but he’s not inaccurate either.

Dalton Does: Use his legs as a weapon

Did you know Andy Dalton is... sort of mobile? I sure didn’t.

After 10 years of watching Bears games cut away to Dalton throwing long balls to AJ Green, the last thing I expected to see on Dalton’s film was how often he uses his legs. He’s no Mitchell Trubisky, but Dalton uses his feet well to escape jams in the pocket, set up throws on the run, and occasionally tote the pill for yardage in open space. It’s something you have to see to believe, so take a look at the next reel I have for you to get a sense for Dalton’s mobility.

Dalton’s not Lamar Jackson, but he’s not Nick Foles either and I think Matt Nagy was looking for that in his free agent QB choice. At 33 years old, Dalton showed enough juice in his lower body to capably handle the play-action half-field rollouts the Bears ran with Trubisky while commanding a minimum amount of respect from defenders on zone reads and deep-drop coverages. Put another way, Dalton is just mobile enough to assist his offensive line via pocket movement/play-extension while forcing opposing defenses to defend all 11 Bears on the field. Much like Alex Smith on the 2017 Cheifs, Dalton DOES use his legs well.

Dalton Doesn’t: Go above his station (Act like a superhero)

I do want to clarify that “mobility” doesn’t mean heroism, and that Dalton’s athletic toolkit is still fairly limited. He’s not going to break tackles from the pocket, he’s not going to launch 40+ yard bombs while rolling left, and he’s generally not going to do anything that makes you think the Bears have a superstar under center. This section’s a bit of a debbie-downer, but expectations are everything as a football fan — Dalton’s athleticism is basically Chase Daniel’s, so without support around him he’s not going to ‘be the difference’ on offense.

Below I’ve got a reel of plays where Dalton, a perfectly regular QB, fails to “superstar” his way out of trouble. Dalton DOES NOT cover up team-building deficiencies, so if your offense wants to succeed it’ll have to succeed WITH him rather than BECAUSE of him.

Dalton Does: Read the defense pre-snap & distribute the ball with anticipation

Dalton’s ability to process defenses is the most interesting part of his game, primarily because he shows us how years of NFL experience created a confident and effective pre-snap processor that uses what he sees before the ball is snapped to determine his actions after it. I’ve got three examples for you and all of them involve sound, so turn your volume up and check them out.

In each of these 3 examples, Dalton processes the defense in front of him using motion and defender body language to suss out coverages and deliver the ball. My personal film study suggests Dalton is a player that’s rarely fooled pre-snap, so if you’re willing to trust me I’ll tell you that Dalton definitely DOES process defenses well and uses that info them to throw with anticipation.

Dalton Doesn’t: Read the defense well post-snap

This is where Dalton’s game gets a bit complicated, because it’s easy to assume that a QB that processes well pre-snap should be able to do the same post-snap, right? In Dalton’s case, that’s not true at all.

Most of Dalton’s issues throwing the ball come from when he makes assumptions about what will happen downfield — in plays like those shown below, you can tell Dalton either lost track of an off-ball defender (like first two plays), assumed he had baited a defender away from his man before throwing the ball into traffic anyways (the third & fourth play), or failed to catch a cheating defender and missed a downfield opportunity (fifth play for sure, sixth play is on the line but Aaron Rodgers makes the throw).

The fourth play is most interesting to me because at first it looks like a nice play for ~20 yards (complete with a solid throw into a coverage hole), but if you watch Amari Cooper at the bottom of the screen you’ll see he devastates his man on a double move and is wide-the-hell-open for a walk in touchdown… but Dalton doesn’t see him.

Why didn’t he? My best guess is that Dalton pre-determined that his pump fake would move the Cover 1 safety towards Cooper and open up a vein for CeeDee Lamb, so he swapped immediately to his second option after the fake to line up his throw. Because of this assumption he never saw Cooper break loose downfield — thankfully he hit the throw to Lamb, but it’s undoubtedly a missed opportunity.

I don’t want to give the impression that Dalton is incapable of going through progressions here, he does just fine on longer-developing plays or single-defender reads, but most of his best decisions come from things he finds pre-snap and executes on. For example, remember the 4th play from the reel above where Dalton missed Shultz streaking open downfield against Minnesota? The Cowboys set that same situation up later in the half as bait, and Dalton didn’t miss on his second opportunity.

Even so, I think it’s safe to say Dalton DOES NOT process defenses well post-snap.

Dalton Does: Deliver catchable balls to deep targets

After 3 years of watching Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles air-mail deep and intermediate targets, I can confidently tell you that Andy Dalton doesn’t miss wide open deep receivers. Tight deep touch windows? Different story, but if Nagy and the Bears get a player (like Darnell Mooney) open deep you can expect Dalton to get the ball in his area code, leading to potential catches or DPI calls. Take a look at this reel of Dalton’s best 2020 deep work and you’ll see what I mean.

Now as you can probably tell, talking about “deep” throws (20+ yards) with Dalton is a weird conversation because most of his strongest completions came on 20-30 yard lower-trajectory drives that look like graduated intermediate throws. Dalton is at his most comfortable when working the intermediate game (10-19 yards), and while he can hit touch throws when needed they’re not his weapon of choice.

Even so, given the downfield accuracy Bears fans have grown accustomed to (literally some of the worst in the league) Dalton is definitely an improvement… if only because he can do the bare minimum. Dalton DOES hit his mark when throwing deep to open targets.

Dalton Doesn’t: Throw deep often

Remember how I said Dalton’s touch throw “isn’t his weapon of choice”? That’s putting it lightly.

Over the last 3 years of Dalton’s career, his deep throw percentage (20+ yards) has hovered between 9.9% and 10.2%, good for bottom 10 in the league every year. For a frame of reference, Derek “Captain Checkdown” Carr posted a 9.2% and 9.4% deep throw percentage in 2018 & 2019 respectively, and even Brian Hoyer’s 2016 Chicago Bears stint saw him throw deep 12% of the time. Suffice to say, 10% ain’t much.

Dalton also has a fairly poor deep completion percentage year over year at ~30%, placing him outside the top 25 deep-throwing QBs in 3 of his last 4 seasons. With these numbers in mind, and taking into account what I just said about his consistency in hitting wide open deep throws, I think the best conclusion we can reach is that Andy Dalton is simply less comfortable throwing the ball deep (low attempt rate + low completion rate = lack of confidence) than when throwing the ball 25 yards or less downfield.

If there’s a silver lining to this section, it’s that Dalton makes up for his lack of deep throws by ferociously attacking the intermediate layers of the field — while Derek Carr posted intermediate throw percentages of 16.5% and 16.6% in his strugglesome 2018 and 2019 seasons, Dalton posted plucky 26.0% and 26.7% intermediate throw percentages in his last two years with the Bengals, good for the 7th & 3rd highest rate of such throws respectively.

Now did he complete those throws at a high rate? No, he posted fairly dismal intermediate completion percentages of 53.7% & 51.1% in those years (~30th), but the attempts show that he’s not simply throwing short all the time. Couple that with a strange year in Dallas where he threw at intermediate ranges much less often (17.7%) but did so with much more effectiveness (67.8% completion percentage, 3rd best in the NFL on such throws) and it’s clear to me that Dalton isn’t “scared” to throw deep so much as he prefers throws under 25 yards downfield (sidelines not included, not gonna do the geometry).

Given Dalton will have a full offseason to settle in as the Bears starter, I’m curious to see what his intermediate throw percentage will be in Nagy’s offense (Trubisky posted a 23.2% rate, Foles 14.7%). It’s also safe to say Dalton DOES NOT prefer to throw deep.

Dalton Does: Fit what the Bears’ need at QB, both as a year-long starter or a QB mentor

Andy Dalton can faithfully execute both the Trubisky-led style of offense that focuses on play-action and intermediate throws as well as the West Coast style of offense Nagy (ineffectively) deployed in 2019. His experience with Bill Lazor made him an easy choice for the Bears’ starting job and he should be able to provide their 2021 offense a boost, if only a minor one.

Dalton isn’t a franchise quarterback (and maybe never was), but if you think of him as “Starter Chase Daniel” or “Budget Pre-Injury Alex Smith” his fit with the Bears starts to make sense. He brings the running element Trubisky provided and the veteran experience of Foles for a fairly inexpensive price, so in a year where Nagy needs to “show his stuff” Dalton’s a sensible choice.

He’s mobile enough to help out the offensive line, has experience in West Coast-like systems, and processes defenses well enough pre-snap to make the most of his opportunities — while shoddy accuracy and a relatively short range hold him back from being great, Dalton DOES fit what the Bears need in their 2021 QB and is, at worst, a backup option you can count on.

Dalton Doesn’t: Save Ryan Pace or Matt Nagy their jobs

Have you seen the 2021 Chicago Bears schedule? It’s a nightmare.

Green Bay, Arizona, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, the Rams, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Tampa Bay are ALL on our schedule, and that takes lightly a New York Giants team that just spent in free agency and a Minnesota team that’s never worth counting out. I know you should never assess a schedule’s difficulty in March, but that list of teams is a never-ending parade of the NFL’s toughest contenders and all of them should be tough to beat next season due to their investment in this year’s free agency. Whether you pick Mitch or Foles to start, how many games do the 2020 Bears win against that list? It could’ve been be as low as 2, maybe just 3 games.

With that in mind, even if Andy Dalton creates a moderate improvement on offense, how much difference is that going to make in the Bears’ 2021 record? With the loss of Kyle Fuller, the lack of a starting slot cornerback, Jaylon Johnson’s injury history, and holes at OT and WR, it may take a knockout 2021 draft just to give the Bears a shot at 8-8, let alone 9 or more wins. And given the disappointment George McCaskey seemed to express at the 2020 Bears’ lack of improvement (and his general detachment from football specifics), I don’t think this’ll be the year that saying “we had a really hard schedule!” saves anyone’s job if the team’s record regresses.

Unless Nagy turns into the savant he was originally billed as or Ryan Pace has the best draft of his life, I’m not sure Andy Dalton can offset the 2021 schedule difficulty and losses the Bears will likely take on defense. He may be a scheme fit for Nagy’s Bears, but he DOES NOT save Pace and Nagy’s jobs.

Conclusion

So what does Dalton’s signing mean for the rest of the Bears’ offseason? I think it means Pace and Nagy won’t stop trying to upgrade at quarterback. I know Bears fans are tired of hearing about it, but Russell Wilson’s contract still hasn’t been restructured despite seemingly every quarterback in America getting their deals re-worked, so I think the Bears are going to keep pestering Seattle with trade offers until the day of the draft passes. Obviously this has a fairly low chance of success, but now that the 49ers have traded up to #3 in the draft the Bears may have better odds of acquiring Wilson than they do a Top 5 QB prospect — the top 3 picks of the draft are now almost sure to be quarterbacks, and the pressure’s on teams like Carolina, New England, and Denver to figure out how they can grab the final 2. Based on demand alone, this likely means 5 QBs in the top 10 picks and a nice player falling to Chicago at #20. It’s officially the wrong year to trade up.

Whether this offseason leads to Dalton mentoring a young rookie (like Kellen Mond, Davis Mills) or backing up an extremely improbable star QB, I don’t know. What I can tell you is that Dalton clearly fits Nagy’s vision for what he needs in a QB, and if he ends up starting games for the Bears I’m excited to see what he does. He isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he might make the Bears’ offense watchable, and in what looks to be a rough 2021 season that’s about all I could ask for.