CINCINNATI (AP) — Andy Dalton’s first pass with his healed thumb plopped right to the couch. And it felt really good.
The Bengals quarterback had to wait until long after the Super Bowl to start throwing again. He broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13 and sat out the rest of the season, including a first-round playoff loss to the Steelers.
He was cleared to fully work out in March and is back to throwing every pass without a problem, one of the most encouraging signs for the Bengals as they start another offseason of moving beyond their years of playoff angst.
“I’ve never had that much time off from throwing, so I was just getting back into it again and making sure mechanically everything was sound,” Dalton said Monday. “It felt good. It feels like the ball is coming out of my hand well right now, so I’m getting back to where I was.”
He was having the best season of his career — his long-awaited breakthrough year — when he broke his thumb while making a tackle during an interception return. AJ McCarron led the Bengals to a pair of wins in the last three regular-season games and had the Bengals ahead in the closing minutes of the playoff loss before the defense melted down with penalties, allowing Pittsburgh to pull out an 18-16 win.
Dalton had hoped to return at some point during the playoffs. A fifth straight loss in the opening round made it a moot point. He gave the thumb time to fully heal and started lobbing footballs at the furniture as he waited for clearance to resume throwing all-out in March.
“I would randomly just pick up a football and just throw it at my couch or something,” Dalton said. “As soon as I was officially cleared, I was throwing.”
After making a good first impression as an NFL starter, McCarron moves back into the No. 2 spot, where he’ll get very little time to practice with the first team offense.
“It’s pretty much the same because when you’re the backup, you’re still preparing,” McCarron said Monday. “It’s different because you don’t get any (practice snaps) at all. That’s the way we do it here, and certain teams do it certain ways. So that’s the hardest part, but you’re still watching film and preparing the same way.”
Dalton finished with a passer rating of 106.3, breaking Carson Palmer’s club record. He finished second in the NFL behind Seattle’s Russell Wilson (110.1). He completed a career-best 66.1 percent of his passes for 25 touchdowns with only seven interceptions, a career low. That seventh interception led to the broken thumb.
The Bengals’ streak of five straight first-round losses in the playoffs is an NFL record — nobody else has done it more than three straight years. Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-7 in the postseason, also an NFL record. The Bengals gave Lewis another one-year contract extension through 2017 and tried to keep the team intact for another shot at that elusive playoff win.
Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of futility in league history.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have played a lot of football for this team,” Dalton said. “The mentality’s right. That’s the thing the coaches talked about, making sure the mentality is in the right place.”
Lewis told the players at their offseason meeting on Monday that they shouldn’t talk about the playoff futility.
“That’s the end of it,” safety George Iloka said. “That’s what he told us to tell y’all, that was the end of it. Honestly, anything that happened in the past has no bearing on what next year’s results will be.
“I’ve moved on from it. A lot of guys moved on from it like a month or two after the season.”