He’s thrown for more than 3000 passing yards in every season of his career. He’s been selected to the Pro Bowl on three occasions. He was a Rose Bowl Champion in college.  Prior to 2016, he had never missed the playoffs.

However, the one tag that continues to bear weight on the shoulders of the 29-year-old quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals; he’s never won a playoff game.

Andy Dalton has become one of the most label-prone players in all of football, some fair, others not even close. He’s become the figure known as the “Dalton Line”, which considers him the middle point between franchise quarterbacks and the rest of signal callers.

The label exists in media markets, but the Cincinnati Bengals front office wouldn’t tend to agree; they believe they have a franchise quarterback in their signature striped uniforms, one that wears #14, a number he wears in tribute to a Bengals great Kenny Anderson.

Prior to preseason action, on August 4th, 2014, owner Mike Brown penned a 6-year contract worth up to $115 million with the quarterback, which would ensure his position until at least 2020.

Contracts haven’t been so kind to others on Dalton’s side of the ball, as he’s lost 5 key starters to the team’s rotation since his deal was completed.

In 2016 free agency, the Bengals would lose receivers Muhammed Sanu (Atlanta Falcons), Marvin Jones (Minnesota Vikings), and tackle Andre Smith (Minnesota Vikings).

Following a gruesome 2016 season, where the three mentioned were clearly missed, 2017 free agency has unleashed its unruly head once again, as the Bengals lost the left side of their offensive line, not to mention two of the best in the league at their positions in guard Kevin Zeitler and mainstay tackle Andrew Whitworth.

Now, a seven-year veteran will certainly set out to prove his worth, as a lot will be going against him riding into 2017; excuses will pretty much have to be thrown out the window at this point.

This season, Andy Dalton has to prove that he is the guy that can lead the Cincinnati Bengals to their first Super Bowl.

So, I did put that in bold, because I knew if I did, I could keep you locked-in, but there is a lot of truth in that statement.

Dalton is currently at a career crossroads where we’re going to learn a lot about what he is as a professional football player. While sports talk radio guys would probably argue a different direction, he’s a better quarterback than he’s given credit.

Yesterday, as they do, ESPN talking heads went on one of their famous Dallas-Cowboys-praise-all-with-a-star-on-their-helmet extreme yesterday, as the intentionally-angry hosts on First Take welcomed guest Will Cain, who got in this argument with co-host Max Kellerman:

Will Cain: If in the future … your support – when you come to the defense of Dallas Cowboys – you compare Tony Romo to Andy Dalton, I would ask you kindly to NOT join me. If you’re going to insult Tony Romo like that …

Max Kellerman : “Same thing. Romo’s no better than Dalton! By the way, Romo’s no better than Dalton! Same thing, same thing, for a more glamorous franchise.”

Will Cain: You compared him. … Max, if your support includes you comparing Tony Romo to Andy Dalton, please sit out. Please sit out. That is a massive, massive insult. A massive insult.

First of all, that’s nonsense, because Andy Dalton’s six-year stats are overall more impressive than Tony Romo can claim.

Tony Romo sat the bench for the first two years of his career; Andy Dalton lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first two (five) seasons. Tony Romo’s first 4000 yard passing season came when he was 27; Andy Dalton’s came when he was 26. Plus, in terms of versatility, Romo has only twice rushed for more than 100 yards in a season; Dalton has done so in each season of this six-year career.

Calling a comparison between Romo and Dalton an insult is ignorant, because I think a lot of teams would say you can pick first and they’ll be happy with whoever they get, but would probably prefer Dalton, because Romo has missed at least one start in six of his eleven years as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, including 3 seasons where he played in six games or less. Dalton has missed starts one time in his career when he broke his thumb in 2015.

What you can take from that debate is one of two things (or both if you’re feeling crazy, it is a Friday after all):

  1. Andy Dalton a top-12 quarterback in football, but is plagued due to the fact that he plays in a smaller market.
  2. When we look at this quarterback in 6-8 years, will his career look more like Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, or Eli Manning?

I think that Dalton has every part of what it takes to get to the Eli Manning-tier of guys; he can find a way to bring a Super Bowl to Cincinnati, just don’t expect him to look pretty doing it. I can also see a situation where he ends up in the Rivers-tier; man, he had some teams, but he could never quite seal the deal, oh what could have been.

So, with the losses of Whitworth, Zeitler, Jones, and Sanu, let’s look at the set of cards the Bengals have now created for a guy they’re paying to be THEIR GUY.

Their premier pass catching threats are as good as any two players in the league when healthy; A.J. Green (28) and Tyler Eifert (26). In 2016 Eifert and Green totaled 1088 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns, but each missed significant time with injuries. When they were both healthy for large portions of seasons in 2015, Eifert and Green were able to combine for 1912 yards and 23 touchdowns. When the duo can share time on the field, it makes the Bengals hard to cover.

Coming out of the backfield, the Dalton has a 5’9″ dual-threat running back who can be a dangerous pass catcher, but will be returning from a torn ACL following his 2016 season. In 10 games last season, Giovanni Bernard (25) rushed for 337 yards and hauled in 336 yards in the receiving game.

Other receivers on the team are primarily new comers, who snagged their first catch in a Bengals uniform sometime in 2016. The group is a combination of a lone veteran with a cluster of rising talents; Brandon LaFell (30), Tyler Boyd (23), Cody Core (22), Alex Erickson (24), and James Wright (25) were the pass catchers not named A.J. Green last season.

This cluster isn’t a bunch of pushovers, but the guys being paid to push people over for the Bengals may fall into that category, or at least as their play dictated a season ago.

Pending any draft or free agency moves, the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line, who allowed the 7th-most sacks in all of football with 41, lost their two best members to free agency yesterday, will have a lot of questions to answer in week one of 2017. The group of LT Cedric Ogbuehi (24), LG Clint Boling (27), C Russell Bodine (24), G T.J. Johnson (26), and RT Jake Fisher (23) make up one of the youngest and unproven groups among league blockers.

Take all of that in, think about it, and now realize that Andy Dalton, for the first time since his rookie year, has a lot of question marks around his team, be it health or inexperience, but there’s a model for what he’ll need to do in 2017; Russell Wilson in 2016.

While Dalton doesn’t have the same wheels as the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, he’s been dealt a similar situation.

The 2016 season gave way to Wilson still having a big target like Jimmy Graham and a proven set of hands in Doug Baldwin, but outside of that, a sloppy offensive line combined with a lot of collective inexperience allowed Wilson to show his capabilities.

D0n’t sell your Cincinnati Bengals stock just yet, watch this season as it plays out, because if they go 9-7 or better, it means they’ve got something legitimate in their starting quarterback. If they go 7-9 or worse, it’s probably time to start reassessing the assets.

Owner Mike Brown and Director of Player Personnel have given their quarterback a test; it’ll be up to him to prove his proficiency as an NFL quarterback.