AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Coach Marvin Lewis saw Andy Dalton in the white cinderblock hallway as he made his way to the interview room. When they passed, he noticed that something about the quarterback has changed.
A little more comfort and confidence, maybe?
"He looked a little different walking by me just now in the hallway coming out of here than he used to," Lewis said. "You know what I mean?
"He used to have that deer-in-the-headlights look a little bit. I think he knows there are certain things that are asked of him. We've all collectively got to do better, and I think he's excited to lead us in that direction."
How the Bengals fare this season will have a lot to do with how Dalton develops in his third season. He helped the Bengals get to the postseason as a wild card team each of his first two years but had dismal performances in two playoff losses.
The second-round draft pick from Texas Christian knows it's one of those pivotal seasons for him. Will he grow enough to be considered one of the elite NFL quarterbacks? Or will another disappointing finish leave the Bengals considering whether it's time for a change?
By the third year, quarterbacks usually are headed one way or the other.
"I don't know if there's a number of years that you have to play to consider yourself 'not a young quarterback' anymore," Dalton said. "It probably comes down to age and all that kind of stuff. But year three is big."
His first two years have surpassed expectations with a franchise that's had very low ones for so long. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the longest current drought and the seventh-longest stretch in NFL history. They've reached the playoffs four times in Lewis' 10 seasons with Cincinnati, going 0-4.
It's noteworthy that they made the playoffs in each of Dalton's first two seasons. It's only the second time in club history that they've made consecutive playoff appearances. Dalton is 19-13 as a starter, the best winning percentage for any Bengals quarterback with at least 10 starts.
He accounted for 31 touchdowns last season, second-most in club history, and finished with an 87.4 passer rating that was slightly above average in the NFL. Then came the playoff game at Houston.
Dalton had a horrid time. He was 4 of 10 for 3 yards in the first half. He finished 14 of 30 for 127 yards with one interception, two sacks and a passer rating of only 44.7. With 2:57 to go, he overthrew A.J. Green, who got behind two defenders and was open in the end zone.
That one overthrown pass on third-and-11 from the Houston 36-yard line became the lasting memory from another disappointing ending.
"A great player is going to get those things and hit some of those," Lewis said. "That's how you get to that status. If not, you're never going to be looked at as that. You have to win big games -- which he's won -- but you have to win playoff games and then, obviously, win a Super Bowl to be looked at as an elite quarterback in the NFL."
Last season, Lewis challenged Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to assume more of a leadership role on the team. They responded so well that Lewis designated them team captains and put a small "C'' on the front of their jerseys.
He's pleased with how Dalton is applying himself in the offseason.
"He's spreading his his wings, we all feel that," Lewis said. "He's a different guy. He's maturing. A lot was cast on him as a young guy, which was kind of the same thing in college, and he just kept growing into it and kept getting better and better. That's the same thing now."
His challenge -- in addition to hitting those long passes -- is to take tighter control of the offense. The Bengals added tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in the draft, giving him two more targets to complement Green. Now, Dalton has to get better at adjusting.
"I think the biggest thing right now is just to make sure that I've got full control of everything, whether it be changing plays at the line of scrimmage or whatever," Dalton said. "I think I did a little bit more of that last year than I did in my first year, and I expect to do more of that this year than I did last year."