While the Bears haven’t completely abandoned the idea of trading for Russell Wilson, that effort became a big enough road block this week that they went ahead with Plan B: Andy Dalton.
The thinking is that a one-year, $10 million contract doesn’t lock them into anything at the quarterback position long-term and doesn’t even prevent them from shifting course this offseason if something dramatically changes in Seattle or Houston. Meanwhile, drafting a quarterback is still on the table.
But in the meantime, the Bears don’t want to sit idle. They believe Dalton will bring stability to the quarterback position and the plan is to build a strong supporting cast around him – but they certainly have work to do, especially because the defense stands to take a significant hit with the possible losses of cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.
So what exactly does Dalton, 33, bring to the table at this stage of his career? After a tape study of the 333 passes he threw in Dallas last season, here’s what I can tell you:
Dalton still has a strong enough arm to launch it when he needs to, so a play-action attack with adequate pass protection can still yield occasional vertical results. He had legitimate weapons in Dallas with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb and they often tried to get those players the ball in space and let them go to work. Still, there are examples of him throwing dimes downfield, including an impressive throw to Lamb against the 49ers in which Dalton was able to launch it 42 yards in the air while scrambling to his right. There was also a beautiful deep ball to Cooper for a touchdown against Washington.
Dalton’s decision-making and command of the offense should be an upgrade over Trubisky and it’s likely the Bears will run more of Bill Lazor’s system, rather than the more complicated offense they shifted to with Nick Foles last season. As a result, it’s not a leap to believe the Bears’ offense should find an identity and rhythm much easier with Dalton – especially if it runs through running back David Montgomery -- even though the play-making ability at the quarterback position will be limited. Dalton can execute the drop-back game – which was frequently an issue for Trubisky – and he’s seen every defense in the NFL so the experience is there. He’s also known for being mentally strong, which he’ll need to be considering the ice cold reception he’s received in Chicago.
As for the mobility, Dalton is somewhere in-between Trubisky and Foles. He’s not a playmaker with his legs, but he does have enough scrambling ability to move when he needs to.
While Dalton can throw it deep, the Bears are going to have to coach up that aggressiveness. Despite throwing 36 more passes than Trubisky last year, Dalton only had eight passing completions of 20+ air yards, while Trubisky had seven. Foles finished with 17. Dalton’s air yards/completion was just 2.50, while Trubisky’s was 2.66. Both of those numbers are towards the bottom of the league.
As for accuracy, Dalton is still known for being accurate, but his interception percentage of 2.4 percent in 2020 ranked 12th. Trubisky (2.7) and Foles (2.6) were both slightly higher. That said, a tape study revealed that only five of Dalton’s eight interceptions were truly on the quarterback. There were some bad ones though, including when Dalton didn’t see Cardinals safety Budda Baker creeping down out of a two-high look and threw it right to him.
Overall, the accuracy and decision-making are likely an upgrade over Trubisky, but there are still moments that leave you scratching your head. A bad one was on a 4th-and-1 in Minnesota when the Vikings completely blew a coverage on tight end Dalton Schultz, but Dalton still threw the quick-out to Gallup, who was in the same route combination. The pass was behind Gallup and fell incomplete, while Schultz was likely gone for a touchdown.
What To Expect
One thing to consider is that the Cowboys’ offensive line really fell below expectations last season due to injuries. Dalton had the third lowest time-to-throw (2.50 seconds) among qualifying quarterbacks last year and while Nick Foles was just above him at 2.51, Trubisky sat at No. 22 with 2.66. Considering the 2021 offense – and the offensive line play – should look more similar to what Trubisky ran, that’s an indication Dalton should have better protection with the Bears than he did last year, especially if the Bears can make upgrades on their offensive line.
If the Bears are going to truly roll with Dalton, they need to get him more help. Adding a receiver like Kenny Golladay to group with Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney is a must. And while Dalton isn’t a quarterback that is going to lose you games – which is very important – Nagy and Lazor need to find a way to get more aggressiveness out of him.
One interesting comparison could be the 2017 version of Alex Smith in Kansas City. Nagy was his offensive coordinator and managed to turn Smith, who was always labeled a game manager, into one of the more aggressive quarterbacks in the league. Smith tied Drew Brees and Russell Wilson for the league-lead with 32 completions of 20+ air yards that season, despite a passing air yards/attempt of 7.7, which ranked 23rd. The means a lot of the offense was based on shorter throws, but Smith was still able to take his shots downfield and he completed 49.2 percent of those 20+ air attempts, which was second to Brees among full-time starters.
Dalton obviously isn’t operating in that same Chiefs offense, but Smith managed 25 touchdowns, five interceptions and 4,042 passing yards in 2017. Dalton threw for 14 touchdowns, eight interceptions and 2,170 yards last season in just nine starts. What if Dalton doubles all those numbers over a full season in Chicago? That’s probably a reach, but it’s also probably what the Bears are hoping by going down this road. For what it’s worth, Dalton did have two seasons over 4,200 passing yards in Cincinnati, but the last one was in 2016.
The problem is, even in a crazy scenario where Dalton becomes the Bears’ first 4,000-yard passer in the history of the franchise, does that get the team to the Super Bowl? Probably not. But that 2017 season from Alex Smith resulted in an AFC West title and helped get Nagy his head coaching job in Chicago.
Meanwhile, a first-round pick named Patrick Mahomes was developing on the bench. With Dalton only on a one-year contract, such a scenario might be a dream, but it also might be exactly what the Bears are trying to execute right now.