Andy Dalton is not supposed to be here.
He is 35, on his fourth team in four seasons, playing on a modest $3 million contract.
The mindset Sunday was to leave everything on the field, to be bold, to find a spark on a team that had dropped two straight.
“I think we just need to cut it loose. Why not?” Dalton said after the game. “For us, I felt like there were some things we did today like maybe earlier in the season we wouldn’t have done. I think that’s a big reason why we are standing here with a win today. I think being aggressive is something that we came into the game knowing what we can do. You can look at the (second) third down of the game and throwing the ball down the field on third-and-1. I think that is just the mentality that we have to have.”
Down 14-10 at the half, Dalton led the Saints on back-to-back touchdown drives, first a 7-yard throw to receiver Jarvis Landry and then a 53-yard strike to rookie Chris Olave. Alternating sometimes every play with the versatile Taysom Hill, Dalton executed the offense without turnovers, just enough to hold on for a much-needed win.
“(Dalton) is a veteran player. He’s been in this league for a long time. He understands how things operate,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said Sunday. “We all know as a football team, all of us understand, that when you’re not having the success that you want to have that everything is going to get evaluated. I think he’s handled it outstandingly. I think our whole group has handled the pressures of the season and not probably living up to the expectations we had for ourselves. I think they all handled that well, and it all showed out there today.”
Dalton’s best play Sunday was the touchdown to Olave, as he stayed in the pocket to heave a long pass between two defenders, even as Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald was bearing down on him. He took the hit and was on the ground when the catch was made, getting up to hold his arms high in signaling the touchdown, taking in the cheers from the home crowd with a big smile shining through his bushy red beard.
How rare is a day like Dalton’s on Sunday? In the last 28 years, the Saints have had two quarterbacks pull off a game with 80 percent completions, at least three touchdowns and no interceptions. Drew Brees did it 13 times in a Hall of Fame run with the Saints, and nobody else had done it since Jim Everett in 1994 until Dalton on Sunday.
With 14 touchdowns, he has matched his best total in his post-Bengals tenure, wandering unremarkably from the Cowboys to the Bears to the Saints. He has the highest completion percentage of his NFL career, better than three Pro Bowl seasons in Cincinnati, and he has the second-best passer rating of his career. Prorate his current stats and add in six more starts, and he’d have a respectable 3,183 yards with 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
The only quarterback in the league who is older than Dalton and has thrown more touchdown passes is the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. Dalton has more than Tom Brady, more than Matt Ryan and somehow twice as many as Denver’s Russell Wilson, a year younger at 34.
The Saints, as much as any team in the NFL, have a complicated quarterback room. Hill, who took 24 snaps at quarterback in Sunday’s win, has a fully guaranteed $9.9 million salary in 2023, but he’s primarily a runner when he’s at quarterback. He’s four times more likely to run than throw this season, with just 13 pass attempts for 115 yards and a touchdown, compared to 52 runs for 396 yards, on pace for a career high there.
The decision to start Dalton on Sunday was a controversial one, as he stepped in as starter when Jameis Winston was sidelined by a back injury after three games. Winston had recovered enough that he dressed as a backup for five games before Sunday without playing a snap, and Allen’s decision to stick with Dalton last week was understandably disappointing for him.
“It hurts my soul,” Winston said Friday. “I lost my job due to injury. And the policy has always been that you don’t lose your job because of injury. … I’m going to support Andy, I’m going to support this offense, I’m going to support everyone on this offensive staff the best I possibly can, and that’s it.”
Winston is due to make $12.8 million next year, but the salary isn’t guaranteed, so the Saints could move on from him, though doing so would mean $11.2 million in dead money against the 2023 cap. No team in the league is more cap-strapped than New Orleans, which is already about $54 million over the projected cap. They would have a top-10 pick to use on a new quarterback, but they sent that pick to the Eagles in trading up for Olave last season.
Could that mean that Dalton returns as a short-term answer at quarterback, not as inexpensively as this season but still cheap by starting quarterback standards? He could be paired with a second-day draft pick, easing the transition to a rookie at some point.
That’s a question for the spring, but for now, Dalton is coming off his best game in years. The Saints will have their hands full going to San Francisco on Sunday to play the surging 49ers, who have won three straight and have averaged 30.3 points in those games. They follow with games against the two teams ahead of them in the NFC South standings — at the Bucs and home against the Falcons, having already beaten Atlanta and played close to Tampa Bay before a disastrous fourth quarter in Week 2.
Even at 4-7, the Saints are only a game and a half out of first place in the division with seven weeks remaining, so there’s a relative confidence, both for Dalton and his team, eager to see if they can pull off another win.
“For us, we have to carry the momentum over to this week,” Dalton said. “It’s the most important thing that we can do. We can enjoy this win today. Moving forward, we need to continue to do the things we did well and make corrections. That is the nature of this game week in and week out. We have to correct the mistakes, but it is easier to correct the mistakes off a win. Everybody understands that. The feeling in the building after a win’s very positive and the best.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more