When ESPN's Adam Schefter and Adam Caplan reported Monday morning that the Cincinnati Bengals had given quarterback Andy Dalton a six-year, $115 million contract extension, the overwhelming response was: "What?"
The quarterback who led his team to three straight postseasons but nearly single-handedly caused the Bengals to go one-and-done each time is worth an average of $19 million a year? Dalton, whose interceptions have been rising each season along with his touchdowns, will be paid more than two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger?
As it often turns out with NFL contracts: No, not really.
Just as Bengals owner Mike Brown mentioned last month, Dalton's new deal is comparable to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's recent contract. Dalton will receive $18 million for 2014, and the true base value of the deal is $96 million over six years with escalators related to playoff wins.
This pay-as-you-go structure gives Dalton a good chunk of change this year, an incentive to continue to improve as a quarterback, and allows the Bengals to move on as early as 2016 if they so choose. As Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, who negotiated the deal, told the media, they "came up with something we thought worked for both sides."
Now, Dalton has his extension, and the Bengals have just as much stability at the quarterback position as they need. The question now is whether or not Dalton will earn a hefty chunk of that contract—and in turn, his team's total trust.
Bengals owner Mike Brown said in the press conference announcing Dalton's deal that they are "betting big" on Dalton "because we believe in him." However, the structure of the contract looks like a well-hedged bet. And it makes sense. Dalton has come close to proving he's worthy of being their guy but hasn't maintained that status with any consistency.
Take 2013, for instance. Dalton won AFC Offensive Player of the Month for October; in a five-game stretch he threw for 1,584 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the Bengals to four wins and one loss.
He followed that up with two games in November in which he had five touchdowns to five interceptions and only 367 passing yards. Only one of those games resulted in a win, and it was despite and not because of Dalton.
Under pressure, Dalton struggled the most. Last year, only Peyton Manning was pressured less than Dalton, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but he ranked 23rd out of 26 quarterbacks when performing under pressure. His completion percentage on pressured passes was just 38.5 percent, down from his season average of 61.9 percent.
Combine that in-season inconsistency and his troubles under pressure with the fact that he's thrown only one postseason touchdown pass to six interceptions, and it's clear the Bengals needed to protect themselves from the "Bad Dalton" while also setting up a way to reward the "Good Dalton."
Over the last three seasons, Dalton has proven to be a good but still quite flawed quarterback. In a highly unstable, unpredictable quarterback market, it made sense for the Bengals to extend his contract. It also makes sense that they have an out if the market presents an opportunity for the Bengals to improve the position if Dalton falters.
Can Dalton be trusted? The contract suggests the Bengals are still trying to figure that out. But lucky for them, if he cannot they won't be on the financial hook for a cap-eating quarterback for years to come. If the Bengals lose faith in Dalton, it hurts only Dalton and not the Bengals.
It's the best of both worlds—for the Bengals. For Dalton, making good on this contract is up to him and him alone.