6:18pm: Updating his earlier report, Holtzman tweets a return by the playoffs represents Dalton’s best-case scenario, according to multiple team sources who still tell the ESPN.com reporter the injury is probably season-ending.
4:36pm: While there isn’t yet certainty about Dalton’s injury, the “feeling in the [Cincinnati] locker room is that it’s likely a season-ender,” tweets Bob Holtzman of ESPN.com.
4:18pm: The Bengals’ excellent start to the 2015 season was driven, in part, by an unprecedented streak of good luck when it came to injuries. That string of good fortune has ended, as Marvin Lewis confirmed to reporters, including Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network (Twitter link), that quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a fractured right thumb during today’s loss to the Steelers. It sounds like the Cincinnati staff is still gathering information on the injury, but Lewis did say Dalton will be “out for a bit.”
Lewis didn’t get into any more specifics on the projected length of Dalton’s absence, but he did say that Dalton won’t necessarily miss the remainder of the season (Twitter link via Kinkhabwala). Dalton himself told the Bengals radio network that he’ll see a surgeon tomorrow for a consultation, per John Kryk of the Toronto Sun (Twitter link), at which point the club will likely learn more about the exact nature — and timetable — of the injury.
Though the Bengals essentially have a playoff berth (and probably, the AFC North) locked up, Dalton’s injury is a massive blow to their chances of receiving a first-round postseason bye. Infamously, Dalton, Lewis, and the rest of the Bengals have suffered first-round exits in each of the last four playoffs, so a bye — and home-field advantage for much or all of the tournament — would have been a big help. However, Cincinnati is now probably looking at the No. 3 seed, as the Broncos and Patriots look like the favorites for byes.
Dalton will assuredly miss next week’s contest against the 49ers, and even in a best case scenario, he’ll likely miss the following week’s game against Denver. That contest, which had always loomed large on the schedule, has taken on extra importance as both clubs vie for those top two seeds. If Dalton misses the remainder of the regular season, he’ll also be be out for Cincinnati’s final regular season game against division foe Baltimore.
The man tasked with guiding the Bengals through that gauntlet in the absence of Dalton will be second-year quarterback A.J. McCarron, Cincinnati’s fifth-round pick in last year’s draft. The 25-year-old didn’t play a single snap last season (and notably, was unable to even practice, having been relegated to the non-football injury list all year), and until this week, had seen just three snaps in relief of Dalton. Against the Steelers today, McCarron completed 22 of 32 attempts for 280 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Luckily, the Bengals have plenty of weapons for McCarron to work with as he steps into the starting role. The club ranks first in offensive DVOA, and while much of that ranking can be attributed to Dalton posting the best season of his career, Cincinnati does possess an offense chock full of talent, and A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Jeremy Hill, and Gio Bernard will all be expected to pick up the slack in the absence of Dalton. One issue, however, is that Eifert also left today’s game with a concussion, so his status for next week could also be in doubt.
The Bengals had only been carrying two quarterbacks on the active roster, so they’ll need to make a move to bring in a backup to serve behind McCarron. Keith Wenning, currently on Cincinnati’s practice squad, is the most obvious candidate to move into thar role, but it’s always possible that the club goes the free agent route.