If you said Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron would be playing significant time against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14, you likely would have received a sentiment that resembled uneasiness. Though McCarron was one of the best quarterbacks in college football history, particularly in terms of wins and championships, he had only thrown four regular season passes as a professional in the NFL going into Sunday.
Still, what Cincinnati liked about McCarron was his football I.Q. and similar nature to what starter Andy Dalton brings to the offense. In truth, the Bengals have been spoiled in one respect with Dalton and that's in his health in his five seasons. Dalton had only missed one half of football due to injury as a pro, but that changed Sunday due to a weird thumb injury No. 14 sustained on the team's first offensive drive.
There was a lot to like from McCarron in his relief of Dalton--especially against such an emotionally-charged divisional opponent. McCarron was 22/32 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two costly interceptions. He earned a passer rating of 90.6. But, also as expected, there were those frustrating game-changing moments that come with a young quarterback who has limited snaps in both practice and games.
As the game wore on, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson attempted to find routes and formations to accommodate McCarron's strengths, which happened to adapt as the game wore on. For a guy whose arm strength was knocked coming into the NFL Draft, McCarron had a number of quality intermediate and deep throws. The best of the afternoon was his first NFL touchdown--a beautiful bomb to A.J. Green down the sideline.
Touchdown!! AJ to A.J. for a 66 yards https://t.co/XGpfHnjVEZ— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 13, 2015
A type of route Jackson continued to draw up for McCarron was what commentator and former NFL quarterback Trent Green called a "dig route". This is a deep in route across the middle, and McCarron hit Green and Marvin Jones on these types of plays for chunk yardage. It was the type of pass that greatly contributed to his 12.7-yards per completion afternoon.
Unfortunately, with the Bengals attempting an improbable comeback in the fourth quarter, one of those "dig routes" went awry. On first and 20 from their own 18-yard line, McCarron sailed a pass across the middle intended for Mohamed Sanu that resulted in a William Gay interception and subsequent ridiculously long celebration. This can't be placed entirely on McCarron's shoulders as he hit Tyler Kroft for a 13-yard gain which was negated by a phantom Andrew Whitworth holding call.
This bullshit holding call nullified Tyler Kroft's 13 yard reception. https://t.co/1TdkGASQ6o— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 13, 2015
Another one of those "rookie moments" occurred earlier in the second half on a botched screen pass that turned into a pick-six. (Though McCarron was drafted in 2014, he's considered a first year player since he played no games in 2014.) Likely feeling a combination of new-found confidence from the big touchdown pass to Green, and feeling pressure to make a play in an important game, McCarron made a huge mistake early in the third quarter with the team trailing 16-7.
Jackson dialed up a screen pass to Jones, but the Steelers were prepared. It was a safe but predictable play call for an inexperienced quarterback and Gay made the play of the game. Young quarterbacks are told to avoid turnovers and sacks by getting passes out quickly and/or throwing it away. McCarron did neither with pressure bearing down on him and the pick-six was a deciding point in the game.
AJ McCarron throws pick six to William Gay https://t.co/eua9xLTLRC— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 13, 2015
McCarron did show precociousness though by hitting eight different receivers on the day and some of those intermediate throws were made with what looked like great confidence. Running back Rex Burkhead had a late touchdown catch and the Bengals scored all of their 20 points on the day with McCarron under center.
For the immediate future, the Bengals need McCarron to play well as Dalton heals from what's being reported as a fractured thumb. In that vein, McCarron made a lot of plays to instill belief he can get the team some wins before Dalton returns--even with the egregious interceptions against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
After the game, McCarron compared his situation to when Tom Brady was called upon to step up as a backup and promised he would play better next week. He reiterated many times his promise to work hard and play better next week.
"It was an unfortunate thing that a good friend of mine and our quarterback, AD got hurt. I stepped in and I've got to play better. I'm not trying to find any excuses. I'm going to play better," McCarron said in his postgame press conference.
"I will work my tail off this week, finally being able to get some reps and run the offense all week and I will do whatever I need to do to not let them down," McCarron added.
McCarron said teammates said the same things to him that they'd say to "AD". He said no one was panicking and he felt good about what he was able to do. He also referenced his big games in college, but said, "college isn't the NFL. I felt good, no matter how many reps you get in practice, it's all based off of reps you get in the game."
McCarron said he felt the Bengals moved the ball a good bit and that the first pick was a result of swapped coverage.
Down the road, should McCarron continue to have a good showing, it could be an audition for an offseason trade to a quarterback-hungry team. We've seen teams give up small fortunes for exciting, yet unproven signal-callers who flashed in limited games (like Matt Flynn and Kevin Kolb), so this could be something to watch for given Dalton's status as "the guy" going forward.
But that's down the road for the time being. Right now, the focus remains on winning the AFC North, playoff seeding and potential home field playoff games. McCarron will have a big say in those areas over the next three weeks.