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The Bengals were coming off a four-win season when Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011. As a rookie he replaced Carson Palmer and helped Cincinnati back to the playoffs. In fact, Dalton played an important role in the franchise’s five-year postseason run. But that all changed in 2016, when the Bengals limped to a 6-9-1 record, and continued this past season, when they finished 7-9.

As the losses increased, Dalton’s numbers went south; in 13 starts in 2015, when the Bengals went 12-4, Dalton ranked No. 2 in value per play among all quarterbacks, behind only Palmer. Last season, Dalton was 25th, well below replacement level and behind names like Tyrod Taylor and Josh McCown. So naturally, the conversation in recent weeks has been about the direction of Dalton’s career.

Can the 30-year-old rebound from back-to-back disappointing seasons? Or are his best years behind him? According to new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL quarterback who arrives in Cincinnati after four years in Green Bay, Dalton will be fine.

“I got a chance to come in and watch all the tape from the last two years,” Van Pelt told the Bengals’ website this week. “I wasn’t quite as in tune with Andy as I was when he came out in the draft. Obviously I evaluated him then and had a high opinion of him then. See the same exact things on tape. I think he’s a very, very good quarterback and a playoff-caliber quarterback. He does a lot of really, really good things. The more tape I watched, the more excited I got. I think this guy has potential to be an elite player in the league. It’s our job to challenge him to get to that next level.”

In Dalton’s defense, the offense ranked 22nd last season; two years prior, the unit ranked second. Part of the issue is the offensive line, which allowed 40 sacks, part of the issue was the lack of downfield playmakers (the Bengals let Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones walk after the 2016 season) and, of course, Dalton.

The team can address the offensive line and wide receivers in free agency and the draft, but it will be up to Dalton — and Van Pelt — to get this offense back on track.

Soon after his epic, 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd that sent the Bills into the playoffs for the first time since 1999, Andy Dalton checked his phone. The Bengals quarterback, still high off the big win to end his season, noticed something funny.
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“I got on Twitter after the game and everyone in my mentions were Bills fans,” Dalton told NFL Media over the phone Friday. “And a couple were like, ‘We’re going to donate to your foundation, we’re going to donate!’

“I didn’t think much of it. But man, that thing just took off kind of out of nowhere. It’s just been amazing to see how generous people have been.”

What happened was Dalton went viral. On the field, yes, that clip of his fourth-and-12 touchdown toss clinching the Bills’ berth was everywhere. But really, his charity went viral, too.

Bills fans, thankful for Dalton sending their team to the playoffs and ending the draught, flocked to The Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation in droves. Endless donations. Endless thanks. Endless publicity. Donations in $17 increments for every year out of the playoffs.

As of noon Saturday, the total was just shy of $345,000 from a whopping 15,000 donors, according to Sarah Sampson, an account manager at PR agency Vehr Community that does pro bono media relations for his foundation.

“The generosity of an opposing team, a fan base that’s not even ours — a team we beat this year, amazing,” Dalton said. “It puts it all into perspective. I mean, they made the playoffs not just because we won but they also had to win to get there. But it’s a crazy story — the impact a football game has on people. They were willing to donate to someone else’s charity. That shows you how big the game is, how you can use it for good.”

Dalton’s charity aims to provide support and resources to families, using daily help and experiences to assist those with seriously ill or physically challenged children in his hometowns of Cincinnati and Fort Worth, Texas. A big focus, Dalton said, is the “Pass it on Fund,” which provides assistance to families struggling to pay medical bills.

Since 2012, the Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation has impacted 3.5 million people.

Dalton realized something was really up when he heard from Amy Floyd, the executive director of his foundation. She gets emails on her phone every time someone donates. And she got a lot of emails.

“Amy literally had to turn off her phone because she couldn’t even use it,” Dalton said. “She was getting 10 emails a minute. Like, this thing is taking off! The number was getting higher and higher.”

With no advertising, Dalton’s foundation was suddenly huge news. And the recipients will benefit — as will the Bills.

“From a social media standpoint, you can use it for something negative or positive,” Dalton said. “Obviously this has been a huge positive.”

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