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Breaking down AJ McCarron's impressive season

There have been a lot of mixed opinions about how the Bengals' well known backup quarterback played in relief of Andy Dalton this year, but all-in-all it was a pretty good performance.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a crazy ride for AJ McCarron in the NFL so far from seeing his stock drop drastically in the draft due to being "cocky" and "overconfident" to getting his chance to start in his second season due to an injury to franchise QB, Andy Dalton. Maybe it was the chip on his shoulder, but you've got to congratulate McCarron for what he's accomplished so far in the NFL.

It's not often that a fifth round draft pick has the chance to make his mark on a team with an established franchise quarterback. The most famous example is, obviously, Tom Brady stealing the Patriots' starting job from Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Interestingly enough, in his first press conference after the Week 14 game against the Steelers, during which McCarron saw his first meaningful snaps due to Andy Dalton going down with a thumb injury, McCarron brought up Brady's story when asked about his expectations for the rest of the season.

Given the way that the Bengals operate, on top of the way Dalton played this year, it would be a complete shock if McCarron were to threaten Dalton for the starting job. But, it's hard to deny that he has earned consideration for any starting job in the NFL. Through the Bengals final four games this season, and three quarters of the Week 14 game against the Steelers, McCarron racked up 1,044 yards, seven touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Had he played like that for 16 games, those numbers would be around 3,300 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. That's comparable to the job that Andy Dalton did in 13 games and the first quarter of the Week 14 game (3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns, seven interceptions).

There were some growing pains.

McCarron first pick

AJ McCarron throws his first interception against the Steelers.

He put up some impressive stats when in the games, but he did throw two picks against the Steelers in his first game action. This one, in particular, is just plain bad. He's dealing with a pass rush, so he defaults to a receiver that he's already picked out - leading to an easy pick for a William Gay who saw the throw coming a mile away. McCarron managed to help pull the Bengals into a manageable position after taking over for Dalton, down only nine points at the half. But, this pick-six that was thrown less than a minute into the third quarter brought the score to 23-7 and really made it tough to see the Bengals climbing back into the game.

McCarron second pick

AJ McCarron throws his second interception against the Steelers

It's hard to tell exactly what he was thinking on this one. This seems to be another case of McCarron picking his target before he throws the ball, because Sanu wasn't even close to being open on this throw. The only way you complete this pass is if McCarron telepathically tells Sanu to stop exactly where he is when the ball is released and then McCarron puts it right on the money. Otherwise, you've got a safety who is playing pretty good coverage, a linebacker who is covering the middle, and a Robert Golden who is just waiting for a pass that would have been pretty good if it was single coverage. The Steelers ended up getting a touchdown on the ensuing drive and the 33-13 scoreline pretty much made this game out of reach for the Bengals with less than five minutes left in the game.

Clearly, McCarron wasn't ready to start in Week 14. As much as you can say about the guy that is positive, it is evident that he didn't do his homework leading up to Week 14. A backup quarterback is expected to be able to stabilize a team in relief of an injured starter, but he just looked lost out there. He received a passer rating of 90.6 for the whole game, but I honestly think that masks how out of place he really was.

For the rest of the season, he earned his keep.

All growing pains in the first game aside, McCarron's response to adversity in the NFL was about as good as you're ever going to get from a fifth round quarterback who never expected to have a chance to start. For the next three games, he didn't throw a single interception. All he did was this:

McCarron's touchdown against San Francisco

And this...

AJ McCarron Touchdown Pass to <a class='sbn-auto-link' href=A.J. Green" data-chorus-asset-id="5907001" />

And some of this...

AJ McCarron Tyler Eifert Touchdown 1

Don't forget this...

AJ to A.J. 2

After looking lost and out of place for his first game action in his career against the Steelers in Week 14, McCarron put in extra hours with his receivers after practices just to make sure that they were on the same page. He did everything that you hope to see out of a backup quarterback and everything you expect to see out of a great one. Three games later, the Bengals were 2-1 under McCarron and finished the season 12-4. He never posted a passer rating under 87.1 and gave the Bengals a chance to win every game they played.

Well, except for this...

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A lot of people blamed Russell Bodine for this play when it happened - given the fact that he hasn't had the best season and has a history of bad snaps. But, this one was McCarron completely taking his eye off the ball and not paying attention. As great as the guy played through his time starting for the Bengals, despite going into it without any real practice, you've got to give him credit. But, this particular play may have cost the Bengals a chance at a first round-bye and, if executed correctly, could have saved the fan base from yet another heartbreaking ending to the season.

Speaking of heartbreak...

McCarron does not deserve to be blamed for the Bengals' seventh consecutive playoff loss under Marvin Lewis and second playoff loss to the Steelers in that span. Sure, he did do this...

AJ McCarron interception against the Steelers in the WC round

But he also did this...

AJ McCarron game "winning" touchdown

To be fair, there was a lot of this...

Steelers sack McCarron WC

Granted, that was the only "true" sack of the game, but the Steelers getting pressure on McCarron was something that the Bengals struggled with throughout most of the first three quarters.

The Verdict

You've got to give McCarron credit for coming into a starting position that he really shouldn't have been in and doing a good job. Obviously, with how well Dalton knows the offense and with how well he played this year, there's just no replacing him. But, McCarron proved his value to the team and performed like the best backup quarterback in the NFL. His play could genuinely earn him a starting spot on another NFL team. The last time Hue Jackson was a head coach, he traded the house for a quarterback that he coached with in Cincinnati. Could he do the same in Cleveland? It wouldn't be great for Bengals fans, but McCarron has earned it.