Creating a comprehensive list of "positive outcomes" during Cincinnati's 25-11 loss on Monday was difficult. Even Will Hunting shrugged his shoulders before moving onto simpler equations. When starters weren't allowing big plays on defense or turning the ball over on offense, they struggled to maintain basic football principles.... such as blocking, tackling or catching. Unfortunately, Monday night invited meaningless laughs that originated from a wide range of emotions, such as hysterics, disbelief and sports depression.
Yet, there were positives: Notably the progressive rise of quarterback AJ McCarron, who played his first competitive football game since the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
It wasn't the most illustrious though.
During his first two possessions, beginning at the start of the third quarter, Cincinnati went three-and-out. On his third possession from their own one-yard line, Cedric Peerman was tackled for a safety. Honestly, it was just one of those nights.
Eventually, with a 25-3 deficit and 7:43 remaining in the game, McCarron engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive by completing eight of 10 passes for 66 yards passing -- Peerman (4) and Kroft (3) were his favorite targets. Cincinnati's second scoring possession ended with a five-yard James Wilder Jr. touchdown.
"He took charge," Wilder said via Bengals.com. "He's not just one of these guys just making plays. He's a leader. We're real tight. That's the thing I love about him. When I'm in there, I'm making sure no one touches AJ. He's that guy who brings everybody in if things aren't going right. ‘Everybody huddle up.' That's something you need."
"James said I got mad at him on the two-point play when we were breaking the huddle," McCarron said via Bengals.com. "I don't remember getting mad. He just said I scared him because I got fired up real quick. I don't really get mad, but he said I said something for him to get in the right spot or something."
McCarron's encore from Monday's performance will be of obvious interest because Cincinnati needs a reliable backup solution; it was a good start for a de facto rookie from which to build upon. How much will he play on Saturday against the Bears? Based on the team's historical approach during their dress rehearsals (aka, the third preseason game), playing time will probably be similarly balanced with Andy Dalton's first-team unit taking the opening two quarters and McCarron's second-team anchoring the second half. If the first team unit struggles on Saturday, they could bleed into the third quarter.
Dan France, who is taking on the versatility offensive line coach Paul Alexander craves, slightly improved his run blocking last week but mirrored his overall PFF score on Monday. France, who dutifully stepped up for an injured Jake Fisher, has played well. His position is precarious, however, because Fisher, a former second-round pick who returned to practice this week, is expected to become the primary backup along the offensive line.
Wilder Jr., with a rushing touchdown in both preseason games, should receive a bulk of the team's second-half snaps. Wilder has proven to be a capable runner, generating reliable strength and capable vision from the backfield with variable versatility. With Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman virtually locked into the 53-man roster, will Wilder re-join the practice squad this year? Will he look toward other organizations for opportunities? Will another team claim him off waivers if Cincinnati tries to put him on the practice squad? And what about Terrell Watson?
Rookie receiver Jake Kumerow, who snagged a pair of receptions on Monday, including a team-high 16-yard reception, advances his argument to make the 53-man roster; Greg Little and Denarius Moore combined for one catch for 14 yards receiving against the Buccaneers.
On the other side of the ball, Chris Carter and DeShawn Williams are making significant impressions. Due to the competitive nature at their respective positions, it shouldn't surprise anyone if both are destined for the practice squad; nor should it be surprising if either one of them finds a spot on the roster; though it would cause some surprising roster changes.
These are the moments where jobs are earned, and the depth chart is maintained. For many of these players, this will be their final opportunities with the first round of cuts coming Tuesday Sept. 1 (reducing the roster to a maximum of 75 players).