The Cincinnati Bengals are circling the wagons after losing Andy Dalton during their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Or, they may be going about business as usual, and that includes the offense that's now at the control of AJ McCarron. Though the second-year quarterback doesn't even have as many career snaps (61) as Dalton has NFL starts (77), McCarron has done enough in his career thus far that the Bengals are ready to start him for as long as Dalton is out.
It's a tough loss for Cincinnati as Dalton had accounted for 3,398 passing yards and 28 touchdowns this season to go with a 106.8 passer rating. McCarron has completed just 25 passes in his career, 22 of them coming this past Sunday in a losing effort to the Steelers. He also threw his first two NFL passing scores, though his two interceptions proved to be too much for the Bengals to overcome a 33-20 loss.
Despite McCarron's mistakes, the Bengals don't plan to coddle him nor limit what they ask of him. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told the Cincinnati Enquirer as much, stressing that the Bengals' offense will look the same with McCarron as it did with Dalton, whether that means beating teams on the ground or through the air.
"So if it means run it 100 times, we'll run it. If it means throw it 100 times, we'll throw it. It's whatever it takes," Jackson said Monday. "Everybody says 'that takes the pressure off the young guy.' Well, maybe the team is good against the run."
Jackson also made sure to point out that even with McCarron playing practically the whole game, Bengals running backs only carried the ball 13 times while McCarron dropped back to pass 37 times.
"Did he start out (Sunday) being a manager?," Jackson asked. "He threw it all over the field, right? That gave us the best chance to win. It didn't work. I'm not going to tell you I'm going to start with him being a manager. He's going to start off doing what we need him to do to win.
"That's what we pay him for. We pay him to win games. So whatever it takes for him to win, that's what he's going to do. If you guys think he's going to turn around and hand it off 70 times to win a game, then you guys are mistaken. That's not going to happen. That's not going to happen."
The best example of this came during the second quarter when McCarron fired a deep shot to A.J. Green, who'd beaten Antwon Blake right off the line, and McCarron floated it perfectly to Green for the score.
But perhaps even more impressive was that McCarron had hurried up the Bengals to the line after a first-down run by Giovani Bernard in hopes of catching the Steelers off guard, which led to the easy score. That kind of awareness by McCarron and willingness by Jackson to let him run the hurry-up offense is a good example of McCarron not being held on a leash as he takes command of this offense.
Another example of Jackson not holding McCarron back came toward the end of the first half with the Bengals backed up at their own 1-yard line. On 1st-and-10, this seemed like a guaranteed run call, but not so. McCarron dropped back into his own end zone and fired a quick-hitter to Green for about five yards.
Another example of McCarron and Jackson not holding back came on a 3rd-and-9 play in the third quarter at their own 32-yard line. This is a spot where more coordinators would have called for his QB to make a safe short-to-intermediate pass on a quick dropback, try and get the first down, but be willing to punt the ball and try and pin the opposing team deep in their own territory.
Instead, McCarron took a deep five-step dropback and gave the Steelers a better chance to get a blitz home while he fired a deep pass into the middle of the field to Green with two defenders near him and a safety bearing down fast.
Later in the third quarter, the Bengals once again called on McCarron to make a big pass in a situation that dictated a play for a shorter gain be called. It was a 2nd-and-18 play coming after McCarron had just taken a sack, and instead of going with a run or a short pass to get to 3rd-and-manageable, McCarron once again fired deep in the middle of the field for Green, this time in between three defenders:
While it's still not clear how good of a quarterback McCarron really is, it is clear the Bengals offense isn't going to look any different with him under center, at least, not if Jackson has his way.