The ninth-year veteran was benched midway through the season on the day of the trade deadline so the Bengals could take a look at rookie fourth-round pick Ryan Finley. When that experiment failed after three games, Dalton returned to his starting role, but he got one win (his first game back) and Sunday’s overtime loss at Miami sealed the team’s draft position.
Dalton is 69-61-2 and holds the franchise records for career passing touchdowns (203) and completions (2,741). He leaped Ken Anderson in both categories during the 22-6 win over the New York Jets on Dec. 1. Dalton’s contract expires after the 2020 season.
“It’s one of those things where it’s obviously not my focus right now,” Dalton said. “Like I said, I understand the situation that I’m in and so I’m going to try to go out and play the best game I can play. … I don’t think it comes down to just this game. But like I said, I want to finish this thing off the right way, I want to finish this thing off with a win for this team, so doing everything I can to make sure we play well Sunday.”
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Dalton said he came into the season expecting it to be a successful turnaround under Zac Taylor.
He didn’t know then that A.J. Green would never play a down, John Ross would miss half the season, the running game and defense would be slow to pick up and the team would be utilizing a third- and fourth-string left tackle for the first 10 games.
Dalton was never accustomed to losing like this. He began his career with a team that went 4-12 the year before and helped lead the Bengals to a 9-7 record and the first of five straight playoff appearances before the current run of four straight losing seasons. Cincinnati selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft, after taking Green fourth overall, and he immediately stepped in as the starter to replace a disgruntled Carson Palmer.
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Palmer, the 2002 Heisman winner, was the last quarterback the Bengals selected in the first round – also a top overall pick – but he spent his rookie year learning from mentor Jon Kitna before assuming the starting job in 2004. Dalton said he has expectations of being a starter in 2020, whether that’s in Cincinnati or somewhere else. He had expressed interest in being traded when he initially was benched during the Week 9 bye, but the Bengals might be looking at him as the next Kitna.
“I’m under contract, so I don’t know what they are going to be thinking,” Dalton said. “We will figure all this out when the season is over.”
Dalton already has played the role of a mentor, though, even when he was sitting on the bench behind Finley. His impact goes beyond what he does on the field on game days, as wide receiver Alex Erickson learned during his first Organized Team Activities in 2016 after he signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Wisconsin.
“No one knew who I was; I was going with the (second team) and running a route, so he wasn’t even in, and the way I ran the route wasn’t the best way to do it,” Erickson recalled. “So, he came back and was like, ‘Hey, this is the way we want to run this route. You should try to do this the next time,’ and for him to go out of his way and to do that, that just shows a lot of his character and who he is. He didn’t have to do that. My chances of making the team weren’t very high at that point, so to do that really showed the character he has, the leadership he has. He really cares about everyone on the team from top to bottom.”
Those are the kind of things Dalton wants to be remembered for if Sunday does end up being his last game in Cincinnati — the intangibles he brings the team and what he’s done in the community through the AJD Foundation, which provides support, resources, opportunities and life-changing experiences to seriously ill and physically challenged children and their families.
Dalton and his wife, Jordan, have immersed themselves in the community and now have three young kids they are raising here, but he says he won’t allow all that to make him emotional Sunday because of the uncertainty for the future.
“It’s not the end of my career,” Dalton said. “Obviously a lot of our lives have been here in Cincinnati. And again, we don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re going to have to wait until after the season for all that to get handled. A big part of our lives has been here. We’ve made Cincinnati our home and we’ve grown up, our family’s grown up together. JJ and I have spent our whole married life here, with three kids like you said. This city’s been a big part of our life.”
Browns at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 1o4.7