10/03/2012 09:37 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Bengals' Andy Dalton Rising To Elite Status

Andy Dalton, the undersized and supposedly weak-armed second year quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, is perhaps better known these days as The Red Rifle.

Just last season, the former TCU standout faced a scary situation when he was nabbed in the second round by the Bengals, an NFL team known for being a losing franchise. And, despite his nickname, the two-time Mountain West MVP doesn’t wow with a rifle arm or great speed, and does not run a sub-4.6 40 like Cam Newton at the combine. He also failed to record a 35" vertical leap. (He ran a 4.82 and jumped under 30" for the record.)

Dalton, however, has found remarkable early success with a propensity to throw accurately while not turning the ball over. Last season, he threw just 13 interceptions when defenses routinely stacked eight in the box. Through four games in 2012, while tossing four picks, his quarterback rating stands at 103, good enough for fifth in the league ahead of stalwarts like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.

The most important stat for any quarterback, though, is the "W," and Dalton is sheer clutch when it matters the most. This year, Dalton boasts a league-high passer rating just below a perfect 158.3 in the fourth quarter. Four of of his eight total touchdowns have also come in the fourth. Meanwhile, the Bengals are 3-1 and looking to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1981 and '82. Back then, David Stern had not yet taken over as NBA commissioner, "E.T." was nominated for best picture, and Dalton was still five years away from actually being born.

Perhaps his favorite target, fellow 2011 rookie Pro Bowler A.J. Green -- who just happens to lead the AFC in receiving right now -- said it best after Cincinnati's 27-10 week 4 victory in Jacksonville.

"I said it from Day 1, Andy is going to be one of the best ones,” Green said. “Once he gets into rhythm, he’s one of the best in the league."

Dalton and Green are quickly becoming one of the game's most lethal quarterback-receiver combinations. Ironically, for a guy that wasn't known for his deep ball entering the draft, Dalton's yards-per-attempt -- particularly on vertical routes -- is 8.82, the second best clip in the league. This comes on the heels of a rookie campaign where he ranked 10th.

While it remains much too early to fully understand or forecast Dalton's future, such early success in the game's most challenging position to learn is undoubtedly impressive. Still just 24 years old, he is simultaneously helping to lead the charge of young signal callers starting directly out of college and alter the culture of an entire generation.

It would seem that The Red Rifle is merely one of many other nicknames to come.

Ed Note: A previous edition of this article stated that "ET" won best picture. It actually was only nominated for the award.

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