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Debate: Can A.J. McCarron realistically unseat Andy Dalton?

Andy Dalton has never faced a real threat in his four years as the Bengals' starter. However, A.J. McCarron has created quite a buzz this offseason. Is there any chance McCarron is being groomed as Dalton's successor?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this summer, reports surfaced that Bengals coaches think A.J. McCarron is starting material. And players like Wallace Gilberry, Marvin Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick (see here, here and here) as well as offensive coordinator Hue Jackson (see here), have all heaped praise on McCarron.

Meanwhile, Andy Dalton is getting booed at celebrity softball games in Cincinnati. After arguably his worst season as a pro due, in part, to injuries to some of his primary pass catchers, Dalton now has what Bleacher Report deemed the best supporting cast in the league. His contract is not fully guaranteed following this year. And some fans have already tied their hopes to a certain former Alabama quarterback with a sterling college resume.

Talk about pressure. So if Dalton throws another 15-20 interceptions and fails to impress in the postseason (or even make the postseason), could his time in Cincinnati be over?

My co-host, Dr. Hodgie E. Smodgie, and I discuss this in our latest video:

We also debate this topic below:

Nothing to see here Dalton is doomed

Dadio McDuck

Dr. Hodgie E. Smodgie

I don't think Dalton's time in Cincinnati will be over after 2015. If he keeps playing around the same level he has been, he's by far the best option Cincinnati has. And we know the people at the top of the Bengals' organization are not huge risk takers. For good reason, too. They're building a top notch team in Cincinnati.

A.J. McCarron earned rave reviews in OTAs, but that's a lot different from success on the field. He hasn't played a meaningful snap. He hasn't even performed in the preseason yet. This would not be like the transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young, where the 49ers were able to continue to win. It would probably be more like the Broncos going from John Elway to Brian Griese. In 1999, Denver went from Super Bowl champion to 6-10 in a hurry (while Terrell Davis was injured in the fourth game, the team actually went 0-4 with Davis in the lineup). And even Aaron Rodgers struggled his first year (2008), going 6-10.

The previous year, the Packers were 13-3 with an appearance in the NFC Championship game. So even a future MVP who watched and learned for three years struggled to win games at first. Do Bengals fans honestly think McCarron will jump right into the huddle and be able to lead this team? Do they really want to risk going back to the dark times of the ‘90's?

I know we really want to see this team take the next step, but the way Cincinnati has made the progress it has these past few years is by a meticulous and calculated rebuild. Yes, rebuild. Let's go back to 2011, after Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco left. ESPN predicted that the Bengals would be the worst team in the league. If someone told you back then that the Bengals would make it into the first round of the playoffs by 2013 or 2014, you probably would have been pretty happy. And, they made it into the playoffs that year and for the next three. Let's not let the premature success of this team make us forget how far we've come.

Now maybe some Bengals fans want to save money to be able to pay guys like A.J. Green and George Iloka. But Dalton's contract isn't actually that bad. Some fans think of the six years, $115 million that was first reported. However, since a lot of that money is tied to escalators, Dalton will only have a cap hit of $13.1 million in 2016. To put that in perspective, that's less than half the cap hit Drew Brees' contract will have in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

To breakdown some of those escalators, let's take a look at how Mike Florio reported the incentives in the contract after the signing last year:

If in any year he participates in 80-percent of the regular-season snaps and the Bengals get to the divisional round of the playoffs (via wild-card win or bye), he gets another $1 million in each additional year of the deal. If he qualifies at any point for the conference title game (with 80-percent playing time in the regular season), another $500,000 flows into the base value of the deal, for each additional year. If he wins a Super Bowl he won’t be driving off in a Hyundai; Dalton will get another $1.5 million per year for each remaining year of the deal. So if the Bengals win the next Super Bowl this year and if Dalton participates in 80 percent of the regular-season snaps in 2014, he’ll get another $18 million over the life of the deal, pushing the new-money average from $16 million per year to $19 million. Getting to the divisional round this year pushes the new-money average to $17 million.

Now, if Dalton does hit those escalators, I doubt any reasonable Bengals fan would have a problem with paying him.

I find myself at a loss for words, Who Dey nation.  For the past two years, I've been screaming at the top of my lungs that this man you call "Andy Dalton" is a mediocre backup posing as an elite QB. I've used traditional teaching methods, I've said it in rap, and I've even dressed up as a fish in order to sing it to you. What else can I do?

And I'm not the only one who thinks this. It is now clear to football experts that Dalton is extremely fortunate to be on the Bengals' roster, let alone their starting quarterback. Experts say he's got the best supporting class in the league, and yet, as Rebecca Toback wrote last week, people like Luis Ruiz rank him as the 23rd best QB in the league. Let me use what we call next generation stats to demonstrate Ruiz's thinking. So, according to the advanced stats department at Cincy Jungle, Dalton threw 14 fewer touchdowns, 3 fewer interceptions and 895 fewer yards in 2014 than he did the previous year. If this trend continues, his 2015 numbers will look like this: 5 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 2,503 yards. Not exactly Pro Bowl numbers (though Dalton will probably get in again, because he's just that lucky).

In a word, it's time for Dalton to step aside and let A.J. McCarron take this team in a new direction. I say that knowing firsthand how hard it is to acknowledge someone else is more qualified to do your job. You see, when I was six years old, on my home island, we played a game that involved a goat, a rock, and a stick.  It was called, appropriately, "stick-ball," even though the ball was actually a rock. Oh, how we all loved stick-ball!  As you chased the goat around the town, whacking your friends with the stick, you thought of yourself as a Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. I always insisted that I would be the "milker," which was basically the equivalent of a quarterback in American football. Because I was bigger and louder than all the other kids, they would acquiesce. One day, however, I heard some teammates whispering by the old cauldron. "Hodgie's the reason we keep losing." "He always has to be the milker, even though his huge hands can't squirt far enough." "If only Raulio could start--he's so much better." I was devastated.  But I bucked up, and realized that I was in the wrong. Not they.

When I look at Andy Dalton, I see my young, stubborn self. Dalton's hair is louder than A.J. McCarron's hair. His paycheck is bigger. And he's thrown 2,111 passes while McCarron has yet to take a snap in the NFL. But that doesn't mean Dalton should be the quarterback.

Friends, have you ever heard of effort justification? It's a damned good term for understanding why Bengals fans stand by their man. It basically means that, once you've put great effort into something, you find it hard to let it go, even if you overvalue that thing. We've put a lot of effort into Dalton. We drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011 (about six rounds too high, I might add), groomed him, massaged his ego and, as a result, seen him start every game he's been in the league (with the help of some sort of leprechaun immunity potion, I'm sure). We've put a lot of hope into the little red gremlin too by refusing to draft Teddy Bridgewater and instead giving Dalton that huge deal last summer.

But it's time to wake up and smell the mediocrity, which smells like a rubbery ring we've been wearing around our finger for too long.

A.J. McCarron is blowing people away with his potential. He's completely rehabbed his shoulder and he's learning the system. The man was one of the greatest players at the college football level we've seen in a long time.

I come from a generation that never loses hope. Let's not be the Cincinnati that does something because it has always done that thing. Let's be the Cincinnati that lets fireworks of new opportunity burst over the riverbank sky.