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Andy Dalton leads a new breed of Bengals
Updated 10/30/2011 2:04 AM ET
Quarterback Andy Dalton inadvertently added to his celebrity at Texas Christian University when he rushed water to save a dog suffering from heat prostration. Now, backed by one of the NFL's staunchest defenses, he is working to reinvigorate a Cincinnati Bengals franchise that has known more than its share of dog days.

With the second-round draft choice emerging as one of the league's most impressive rookies, Cincinnati has matched its victory total from last season in taking a 4-2 record into Sunday's game at the Seattle Seahawks.

"It's got to be as good a time as it's ever been in talking about the future," CBS analyst and former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason said.

MORE: Cincinnati Bengals team notes VIDEO: Rookies Dalton and Green form 1-2 punch

Esiason often has been blistering in his criticism of a franchise ESPN The Magazine rated as the worst among 122 teams in the four major professional sports for its history of penurious spending, bungled draft choices and losing. Cincinnati last won a playoff game Jan. 6, 1991, defeating the Houston Oilers 41-14 in a wild-card game. The Bengals have appeared in two postseason games since, most recently falling to the New York Jets 24-14 on Jan. 9, 2010, after they had rolled to the AFC North crown.

By Jeff Swinger, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rookies Andy Dalton (14) and A.J. Green (18) give the Bengals a can’t-miss combination they hope will echo throughout stadiums for years.

Owner Mike Brown thought he was building on that division title when he signed Terrell Owens to pair with Chad Ochocinco. In theory, it looked to be one of the most devastating wide receiver combinations imaginable. In reality, the atmosphere turned so toxic that franchise quarterback Carson Palmer vowed to retire rather than wear orange and black again.

That led to the selection of Dalton (6-2, 220), who fell to the second round because of concerns about his arm strength. He immediately displayed poise and aptitude beyond his years and joined Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only rookies since the merger in 1970 to achieve passer ratings of 100 or better in each of their first two starts. He owns three 100-plus ratings through six starts.

He quickly earned the respect of veterans weary of losing with his can-do attitude despite outside projections for another miserable season.

"When winning a football game is the most important thing to you, that's leading," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "And that's something that a lot of guys see in him."

The red-haired rookie with boundless enthusiasm comes along at the perfect time after the Owens-Ochocinco show flopped so badly.

"Last year we had some individual guys trying to do things for individual statistics," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "Now we have a group of guys going after one stat, and that's a W at the end of the game. We're a lot more of a team. … And when you have that, you can do big things in this league."

Owens, 37, was not re-signed. Ochocinco, 33, was dealt to the New England Patriots for a 2012 fifth-round pick and a 2013 sixth-rounder. He left as the club's all-time leader in receptions (751) and receiving yards (10,783) but was best known for choreographing elaborate touchdown celebrations.

When Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone, Brown's previous unwillingness to deal Palmer was rewarded last week. Oakland sent Cincinnati its first-round pick in 2012 and its second-rounder (which could improve to its first-rounder) in 2013.

"It is exciting. We feel we have a bright future ahead of us," Dalton said. "We've just got to keep putting in the work."

'Chip on his shoulder'

Keep putting in the work. That has been Dalton's mantra since he attended Katy (Texas) High School in his hometown.

"When he came here, he was not the most talented kid in the world," said Gary Joseph, his high school coach. "You didn't pencil him in and say, 'He's a Division I quarterback.' He's a self-made kid."

TCU was one of three Division I schools to offer a scholarship. He went on to produce a 42-7 record as a starter, surpassing Sammy Baugh (29 wins, 1934-36) as the school's all-time leader in wins. He also is the Horned Frogs' career leader in completions (812), attempts (1,317), completion percentage (61.7), passing yards (10,314) and touchdown passes (71).

None of that surprised Jake Kirkpatrick, his center and roommate at TCU.

"He always prepared and played like he had a chip on his shoulder, like he had something to prove," Kirkpatrick said.

That chip might have grown while Dalton watched four passers get drafted in the first 12 selections. He did not get a mention as Cam Newton went first to the Carolina Panthers, Jake Locker eighth to the Tennessee Titans, Blaine Gabbert 10th to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian Ponder 12th to the Minnesota Vikings.

Newton was the only one of the four to immediately start. His Panthers are 2-5. While Dalton does not compare to Newton in arm strength and running ability, he is showing signs of being the better pure passer. He has a slightly higher completion percentage (62.4 to 60.3), has thrown five interceptions to Newton's nine and edges his celebrated counterpart in passer rating (84.3 to 82.8). If the position is ultimately about finding a way to succeed, Dalton looks to be the kind of unflappable answer so many teams seek.

"I look in his eyes," fellow rookie A.J. Green said, "and I see a winner."

'Not much that rattles him'

Dalton-to-Green is beginning to sound like a can't-miss combination that will echo throughout stadiums for years. Green, selected fourth overall out of Georgia, has everything it takes to be special. The 6-4, 207-pound wideout has 29 catches for 453 yards.

"They have a superstar in the making at wide receiver," ESPN analyst and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden said. "He has tremendous body control, great speed. He made some grabs already that I thought were top-10 highlight plays."

Gruden's brother, Jay, a former Arena Football League quarterback and coach, is being credited for his gentle handling of the young talent in his first year as offensive coordinator.

"Jay sees the offense through the quarterback's eyes," coach Marvin Lewis said, "and it's more a case of building from week to week rather than starting over."

Lewis is in his ninth season (64-71-1, including playoffs), one more than club founder Paul Brown and Sam Wyche for the club's longest tenure.

Dalton has completed 118 of 189 throws for 1,311 yards with seven touchdowns.

"We just stay the course," he said of his approach and that of his team. "I can't get too high or too low. I feel I've done a good job with that."

Most rookies are reticent to assert themselves. Not this one.

"Everyone said about him from the beginning that he has a presence about him, and he's continued to show it," Whitworth said. "There is not much that rattles him."

Dalton is showing an early knack for delivering whatever is needed. In a 30-20 win at the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 9, he made two huge plays. With his team trailing 20-16, he hit second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham with a 9-yard strike on fourth-and-6 to fuel a winning fourth-quarter drive.

In the second quarter, he responded to an interception by stopping safety Dwight Lowery at the Cincinnati 2 with a jarring tackle. His fired-up defense then held the Jaguars to a field goal, one of many fine moments for a unit that thrives on its no-name identity.

"We don't have Ray Lewis, Ed Reed (both of the Baltimore Ravens) or Troy Polamalu (of the Pittsburgh Steelers)," Peko said. "Everybody goes hard to the ball and plays like his hair is on fire."

Cincinnati is riding a three-game winning streak but still must play two games apiece against its primary division rivals, defending conference champion Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The Bengals trail only the Ravens (272.7) in allowing 278.5 yards a game. They must continue to rely heavily on a relentless defense that limits its mistakes.

"We are not going out there just to play," Peko said. "We are going out there to win and beat offenses up."

Posted 10/28/2011 2:25 AM ET
Updated 10/30/2011 2:04 AM ET
Rookie Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to a 4-2 start, matching Cincinnati's win total from 2010.
By Andy Lyons, Getty Images
Rookie Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to a 4-2 start, matching Cincinnati's win total from 2010.