One of, if not the biggest performers this offseason for the Bengals has been backup quarterback AJ McCarron.
Drafted out of Alabama in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, McCarron spent most of last season rehabbing an elbow injury before making it onto the 53-man roster toward the end of the season. Just as he did as his rookie season ended, McCarron is expected to open 2015 as Andy Dalton's backup.
That doesn't mean though that McCarron hasn’t made big strides this offseason, which may have possibly made him a QB the Bengals can rely on if Dalton gets hurt. McCarron was repeatedly praised by coaches and teammates this offseason for his performance in workouts and OTA practices. The coaches are reportedly so confident in McCarron that they're willing to have just he and Dalton as the quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, making McCarron the primary backup. That means he'll be just a snap away from becoming the full-time starter if something were to happen to Dalton. Having that kind of confidence in McCarron is very telling and reinforces all of the praise he's gotten this offseason.
But what's led to this sudden rise? Was it simply McCarron getting healthy, or has someone aided in his development to make him look like a competent NFL QB?
If the latter is the case, the key to McCarron's rise may be QB Guru Tom House.
House, a former journeyman major league pitcher, has turned into the NFL's most popular offseason QB tutor. House's contributions are more known in baseball, where the 65-year-old spent eight years pitching in MLB, compiling a career 3.79 ERA. His greatest contribution to MLB was as a pitching coach for Hall-of-Famers Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan, among others.
Later, House began studying football throwers by collecting data on the throwing motion of elite QBs like Dan Marino and Joe Montana. Then came House's big NFL break in 2004, when San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron recommended that his QB, Drew Brees, see his friend House to get help with his mechanics.
While it may seem strange that a former MLB pitcher would know so much about NFL mechanics, he says they're actually two very similar motions. In an interview with NFL.com, House said:
"I'm a rotational-athlete evaluator. Pitching, quarterbacking, tennis, golf, hitting ... all rotational athletes have the same timing, the same kinematic sequencing -- hips, shoulders, arms and implement. And depending on the verbiage, the same mechanics as each other. It's all the same, in order of importance: timing, sequencing and mechanics."
Today, House and Brees are California neighbors, and Brees works out with House just about every offseason. Brees' workout opened a new line of opportunity for House, who also has a Ph.D. in psychology, and now tutors the likes of Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Joe and Alex Smith. Jameis Winston, and Andy Dalton, among others.
As House said in an interview with Fox Sports, one of the big mistakes QB coaches make is getting too caught up in trying to make all their QBs throw exactly the same way.
"They're wired differently. What you need to do is identify the critical variables. And do you have a fix for the variables that aren't efficient? Then, if they're efficient and effective and they're repeatable, they play. And we do as well with quarterbacks who are just trying to get better to go to college as we do with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, who just want to get 1 or 2 percent better."
McCarron is one of House's most recent new clients, and McCarron is hoping House can help him to be a starter in the NFL one day. The starting job in Cincinnati is Dalton's for now though, and after he enlisted House for help last year, McCarron began doing the same this offseason.
Dalton and McCarron actually shared several of the same weaknesses coming into the NFL, one of which being a lack of consistent accuracy. Dalton spent last offseason working on that issue with House, and it was clear at times in 2014 that he had improved in that area.
"Arm strength isn't the issue. I just wanted to fine tune the accuracy and get the most out of every throw and when you're doing it right, it just becomes effortless when the ball comes out of your hand... One of the big things is getting all your momentum and all your force of throwing the ball right at the target, rather than having any kind of swinging motion that can make you inaccurate. A lot of that stuff is making sure my shoulders, hips and everything else are going at the right time."
Dalton would go on to finish 2014 with a career-high in completion percentage (64.2), despite playing with arguably his weakest group of pass-catchers since joining the Bengals in 2011. Between Green missing the better part of five games and Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert missing the whole year, save one quarter for Eifert, Dalton really didn't get enough credit for the improvements he did make.
McCarron is now looking to make improvements of his own, and by all indications, he's done just that this offseason with the help of House.
"With my old throwing motion, my hips and shoulder were moving at the same time. Now my hips go first and my shoulder reacts after that. I’m keeping my shoulder in longer. That creates a lot more torque…All these mechanics, by changing them and putting them in sync more, that will definitely let me play the game a lot longer…I’m able to get my hips out before my shoulders. When I turn my hips, my shoulder isn’t back behind my hips. It feels effortless."
While it's still unclear as to how good McCarron will actually be in the NFL, don’t forget, he has yet to take even a pre-season snap, if he's even good enough to be the backup and only other QB on the roster other than Dalton, it will say a lot as to how House helped another Bengals QB for the second straight offseason.