Cincy's Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players
By Doug Orth
Stepping up in the moment of truth is less anonymous than it ever has been. Anymore, a New York Giants fan in Oregon can watch his favorite team on his computer just like the Seattle Seahawks follower in Louisiana can watch her team play on her tablet or smartphone. Statistics and box scores usually also do a fine job of identifying who is clutch. If A.J. Green has 15 targets and catches 10 of them on a regular basis, there is a pretty good chance he will not only get a chance to make the big play, but that he will also actually make it.
But what about the other side of the equation? As easy as some believe it is to spot the “non-clutch” performers, it is rarely as easy as Jackie Smith dropping a sure touchdown catch in the end zone for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII or Scott Norwood missing a 47-yard field goal wide right for the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Certain players tend to feel pressure more and consistently fail to maximize their talents in those situations, but there is often more than one reason that causes a player to fail in a situation where he is expected to succeed.
Nevertheless, when certain players habitually underperform on the biggest stage – or seemingly always dealing with an injury – they start earning labels such as “non-clutch” or “injury-prone”. In short, people are what they are until they prove they aren’t. This kind of thinking is rarely ever fair (or even correct), but we live in a culture that is quick to judge, even if those being judged are young men playing a grown man’s game.
It may help to think of the following players as “not ready for prime-time” as opposed to “non-clutch”; the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” was commonly known as “The Not Ready for Prime-Time Players”. It is important to keep that moniker in mind when discussing what players currently on the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster have yet to step up. The current core of the Bengals is very young and the blame for their shortcomings in big games in recent years can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff and some of their mind-numbing decisions in those spots as it can the players, if not more so. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the players who haven’t been ready for “prime time” just yet:
QB Andy Dalton – It may be cliché, but it is true: quarterbacks get too much of the credit when things go right and too much of the blame when they don’t. While it may seem harsh to say a quarterback is coming up small after compiling a 47:29 TD-to-INT ratio and leading his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, it is not about what Dalton’s final numbers are. Dalton has yet to throw for a touchdown in two playoff starts and his stats (173 yards passing, eight TDs, six interceptions) in nine December starts pale in comparison to those over the 23 combined starts he has made in the first three months of each season. If we dig a bit deeper and call every division game important, Dalton has a 14:13 TD-to-INT ratio in 12 games against the AFC North. With a dynamic talent like Green on the outside and serviceable tight end like Jermaine Gresham, those are not acceptable totals. With that said, quarterbacks typically need at least 3-5 years to make their mark in the postseason. Relatively few signal-callers have experienced anything close to the success Dalton has enjoyed through two years – only five quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown for at least 7,000 yards and 40+ scores in their first two seasons. In other words, Dalton is a wait-and-see “not ready for prime-time” player.
TE Jermaine Gresham – It stands to reason that if a quarterback is coming up small in big spots, then perhaps one of his main targets could be as well. Like Dalton, Gresham’s counting numbers have improved every season. Unlike his quarterback, it’s hard to make the case that the 2010 first-rounder is getting better as a player. Per Pro Football Focus, Gresham graded out at -10.2 as a rookie, improved to 0.7 in 2011 before bottoming out at -19.0 this season. But let’s see his actual statistical performance in important games. To his credit, Gresham did step up over the final two games of the 2011 season to help Cincinnati secure a playoff berth, but in this season’s playoff loss to Houston, he was charged with as many drops (two) as catches. Entering his age-25 season, there is still hope for Gresham to emerge as a “clutch” player, but it is growing more and more unlikely that he will emerge into the field-stretching, 8-10 touchdown-per-year player he was drafted to be.
MLB Rey Maualuga – The coaches are saying the fans won’t know what they are missing until the fourth-year linebacker is gone, but the soon-to-be free agent is yet another Bengal that looks like he is improving based only on his year-to-year stats. However, he isn’t passing the eyeball test. Per PFF, Maualuga did not earn one “green” (grade out above +1.0 in a single game) this season after doing so only twice in 2011 and, worse yet, his lowest grades in each of the past two seasons came in the playoff losses. It is also debatable whether or not his pass-coverage skills have improved at all since college. His missed tackle rate is also increasing, so it’s hard to even make the case he should be kept as a two-down linebacker. While there is always a chance that undrafted free agent surprise Vontaze Burfict falls on his face in his second season, Cincinnati will almost certainly get better play from Burfict moving back to his college position than it has received from Maualuga recently.