"I want to be a starter in this league," Dalton said on Dec. 29 after he led the Bengals to a Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns. "I know I can do that. I just want the opportunity to be a starter."
But it was clear the chance Dalton wanted was slipping out of reach. Earlier in the 2019 season, he was benched for three games while Cincinnati mulled its long-term outlook and started rookie Ryan Finley.
From the time the Bengals ended their 2-14 season until April 30, when Dalton was finally released, the nine-year veteran was in quarterback purgatory. He escaped last week and signed a one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys to back up Dak Prescott.
Whether Dalton agrees or not, this is his new reality. Unless something drastic occurs, Dalton is now an NFL backup until he gets an opportunity to show otherwise. If that time comes, he must convince a team he's better than the numbers indicate during the end of his time in Cincinnati, when he ranked toward the bottom of the league in categories such as Total QBR, completion percentage and yards per attempt.
Dalton knows that chance likely won't occur until 2021.
"I feel like there's a lot of good football left for me," Dalton said in an ESPN podcast with Adam Schefter on Monday. "And so, this year's to hopefully just keep improving and make myself better and then see what happens next March."
Dalton's time in Cincinnati can be split into two eras.
From his rookie year in 2011 to 2015, the Bengals made five straight postseason trips, the longest streak in franchise history. He was one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in 2015 before he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in Week 14. At the time, he ranked third in Total QBR and had the highest QBR in the pocket, against man coverage and against zone coverage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Dalton, who turns 33 in October, has struggled to regain that form.
Since 2016, Dalton has failed to rank in the league's top 25 percent in Total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That time period included the end of Marvin Lewis' coaching tenure and the 2019 season, which ended with the NFL's worst record and the No. 1 overall pick. The Bengals selected former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow on April 23.
Because of how the Bengals cratered after winning the AFC North in 2015, it's hard to discern Dalton's quality. Cincinnati hasn’t finished over the .500 mark since 2015 and is 8-20 in divisional play during that span.
But a closer look at Dalton's stats provides a little more clarity.
The numbers suggest Dalton is a high-risk passer. Since 2016, Dalton has thrown 30 dimes, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Dimes is considered to be a completion of 30 or more air yards into a window of less than a yard of separation. He ranks seventh in that category over that span.
However, that risk has also been a major detriment. Dalton ranks second among all quarterbacks in combined interceptions (72) and dropped interceptions (75), according to ESPN Stats & Info. It's worth noting that Jameis Winston, the only QB who ranks worse in this category, also shuffled from a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a backup with the New Orleans Saints this offseason.
Some of those errors could have stemmed from Dalton trying to make the most of a Cincinnati situation that fully deteriorated by 2019. Last season, the Bengals were 31st in Pass Block Win Rate (an ESPN metric powered by Next Gen). Cincinnati's receivers ranked 25th in average yards of separation per target, according to Next Gen.
The latter issue was a reason Dalton threw four interceptions in a loss to the Patriots in Week 15.
"The quarterback's going to take all of the blame for it when in reality he's taking some one-on-one opportunities that we had to take to be in that game and go make some plays," Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the 34-13 loss.
Just like with the team's offensive performance in recent years, Dalton and the Bengals share some blame in his inability to secure a starting role in 2020. This offseason, teams were willing to wait for Dalton to hit the open market before fully pressing for his services. However, some of that stems from Cincinnati misplaying its situation and spending so much in free agency that it couldn't afford Dalton's $17.7 million salary in 2020.
One of the challenges for Dalton will be changing how he is perceived. That will be especially difficult if he doesn't see significant playing time in Dallas. Prescott is the entrenched starter but he hasn’t been able to get a long-term deal done as his rookie contract is set to expire after 2020.
Last year in Tennessee, Ryan Tannehill flipped a backup spot into a four-year deal this offseason worth $118 million. Dalton is trying to accomplish the same thing, but needs to play.
Even after a turbulent seven months, Dalton is optimistic about his place in the league, just as he was after his final game with the Bengals.
"I feel like I can bring a lot to the table," Dalton told Schefter. "I'm excited about what's going to happen."