Don’t Fall for the Quarterback Hype

Andy Dalton and Philip Rivers' diverging fortunes show the failings of the NFL, a league where every signal caller is propped up as the hot new thing

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Early in their Sunday afternoon telecast of Chargers at Bengals — a genuine playoff game, I’m told, even though it sounds like AFC regional early-game action from Week 11 — CBS’s usually milquetoastastic Jim Nantz began sticking up for Andy Dalton, Cincinnati’s ostensibly poor, beleaguered quarterback.

Said Nantz, “I know you agree: We’re tired of hearing all the reasons Andy Dalton can’t do it. Three years in the league, three postseason appearances, single-season touchdown passes mark in Bengals history.” And again: “First time in Bengals history they’re in the playoffs for three straight seasons. Andy’s three for three.” After Dalton’s only touchdown, which tied the game at seven: “How about Andy Dalton? He’s back there… Of course, I must have heard it all week long, ‘He’s never thrown a postseason touchdown pass!’… It’s like he was supposed to go on the road and just light it up, I guess, huh?” And then, in the fourth, as the game went to commercial after a backbreaking Dalton interception (his second), again: “Dalton’s critics won’t let him forget this one.” Can it, #haterz! Only God will judge Andy Dalton. NANTZ OUT.

You wouldn’t know it from Nantz’s words, but San Diego routed Cincinnati, thanks in no small part to Dalton’s three turnovers. He had two picks and a lost fumble Sunday, in keeping with the four interceptions he threw in his first two postseason games. The Bengals have lost all five of their wild card games under Marvin Lewis, despite hosting three at Paul Brown Stadium. Sunday’s final score, 27-10, fit the smackdown script — Cincy has now been outscored 132-64 in those five games.

It’s easy enough to think that Nantz fixated on Dalton’s case to gin up a storyline for a boring game — à la “Call me crazy, but I’m really excited about Tyler Palko” — or simply because he heard the wrong talk-radio windbag pillorying the passable quarterback before the game.

But Nantz’s unfounded protestations said something about the league for which he shills, too. The NFL too often props up the hot new thing, and in the process too often ascribes the whole of an offense’s performance to the quarterback. And it’s nauseating.

Dalton is lucky to have an exceptional group surrounding him. A.J. Green happens to be the best prototypical No. 1 receiver not named Calvin Johnson. Dalton’s tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, both came to Cincy as first-round picks. Rookie running back Giovani Bernard was selected in the second round, and No. 2 wideout Mohamed Sanu came in the third. His right guard and tackle were first-rounders, and left guard Andrew Whitworth made the Pro Bowl last year. All that … and the Bengals’ offense ranked No. 17 in the league this year, per Football Outsiders. Funny enough, it was Cincy’s No. 5 overall defense — resource-starved by comparison — that made the Bengals a division champion, and put Andy Dalton in a position to be defended, wrongly, by Jim Nantz against straw men.

No one knows better how quickly the league’s mouthpieces fall hard and turn fickle than the quarterback on the other sideline Sunday, Philip Rivers. Rivers’s Chargers had for years looked like the Bengals look now — a reliably above-.500 team incapable of breaking through in the playoffs. A 2007 run ended at New England in the conference championship game; the Bolts bowed out in the divisional round each of the next two seasons, and then missed the playoffs altogether in 2010, ’11, and ’12.

The hype machine had tired of San Diego, what with the departures of LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, and Vincent Jackson; the gradual decline of Antonio Gates; and the irrepressible Norv-ness of Norv Turner. The team’s moment appeared to have passed. And with it so had Rivers’s moment on the outskirts of that pretty borough where all the officially elite quarterbacks reside. Never mind that Rivers’s career passer rating bests Tom Brady’s and Drew Brees’s, or that he averages more yards per attempt than anyone but Aaron Rodgers, or that he’s the seventh most-accurate passer in the league’s history. Stripped of a supporting cast, he had a slower-than-usual year in 2011 and another off season in 2012. (Somewhere along the line, too, he got the idea to issue his highest possible endorsement to Rick Santorum, of all people.) Rivers, like his team, had become passé.

But no one seemed to tell Philip Rivers that the league had had enough of the Chargers, and of him. In 2013, thanks to finally fully healthy seasons from Gates and Ryan Mathews, a stellar rookie debut from Cal receiver Keenan Allen, and an unexpectedly fantastic all-purpose performance from Danny Woodhead, the 32-year-old Rivers played, well, like Philip Rivers. He led the league in completion percentage. He threw 32 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He finished fourth in yards per attempt. The weak AFC cleared his team’s path to the playoffs, but no broadcaster had even bothered to wonder aloud if he could get it done on that stage.

I can’t help but root for Rivers, who, on the cusp of his second decade in the NFL, has graduated from his awkward drill-sergeant chic into an upscale-pawn-shop-owner look.  Extricated from the babbling vortex of NFL quarterback commentary, he’s actually pretty damn good.