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AJ McCarron has franchise QB potential

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Despite throwing only 119 career passes, the third year quarterback believes he deserves a chance to start somewhere in the NFL. Here’s why he might be right.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

AJ McCarron recently hinted that he’d like to start somewhere, and he reportedly even said his goodbyes to some members of the Cincinnati Bengals’ staff. But if he does get a shot as a starter, will he be a quality quarterback? We debate in the following video:

If McCarron does indeed become a star in the NFL, it’ll likely be due to one key attribute: fearlessness.

“Fearlessness,” meaning playing your game no matter what the circumstance, and not allowing the pressure of the moment or the play to visibly disturb you. This doesn’t mean being a gunslinger (like Brett Favre) or being nonchalant (like Jay Cutler). Rather, think about guys like Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning. Now, say what you will about the latter two, but they’ve proven to know how to win in the playoffs

Why is McCarron fearless? Well, let’s think about the three biggest games in which he played in 2015: his debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Monday night showdown against the Denver Broncos, and the Wild Card playoff game, again against Pittsburgh.

When McCarron took his first meaningful snaps in Week 14 of the 2015 season, the Bengals were down 10-0, their MVP candidate quarterback Andy Dalton had just fractured his thumb, and their star tight end (Tyler Eifert) had been knocked out on a dirty hit by Mike Mitchell. Add in that the Steelers have had Cincinnati’s number, even when the Bengals were the better team.

And yet, on only his fourth passing attempt of the game, McCarron threw a 66 yard strike to A.J. Green. All of a sudden, fear turned to hope, not because the team scored, but the way they scored. The pass was bold, exciting, and McCarron’s emotional reaction only added to the thrill. Of course, McCarron’s lack of overall preparation showed on his two interceptions later in the contest. But his demeanor and bold style of play were positive takeaways.

Heading into the Week 16 showdown in Denver for the number two seed in the AFC, the Bengals were considered a long shot. The Broncos had shut down opposing quarterbacks regularly, including some of the best in the game. Many thought there was no way McCarron was going to change that trend. But McCarron took off with a great first half, completing 12 of his 17 first half passes, for 119 yards, a touchdown and a QB rating of 109.7. McCarron was able to squeeze the ball into tight spots against a ball hawking secondary, and helped the Bengals grab a 14-3 lead in the process. However, the offense would stall in the second half, and McCarron’s inexperience showed on a game-sealing fumble in overtime when he took his eyes off the ball at the snap.

Of course, it might be his performance in the playoffs that has fans of other teams hoping to see McCarron play for their team. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Bengals had almost no chance of winning. Again, they were facing the hated Steelers. Only this time, they had really gotten into the Bengals’ heads by taking out perhaps the most beloved member of the team, running back Giovani Bernard. So at this point, Cincinnati was down 15-0, in a playoff game (where they have been notoriously bad), in the rain, with a quarterback making his fourth start and playing in his first playoff game.

And the way the two-time national champion at Alabama responded tells you his mental composure will be a great asset to any team moving forward. McCarron didn’t flinch. In fact, he took over, making a number of big-time throws and led the team to 16 point fourth quarter. Here are four of the throws he made:

1. At the start of the fourth quarter, McCarron made his presence known. With 14:43 left in the final period, on only Cincinnati’s second offensive play of the quarter, he stepped back, pump-faked, and threw a bomb to Green that was awfully close to being a spectacular touchdown. Instead it resulted in a 42 yard pass interference call against Pittsburgh safety Will Allen. A 1-yard Jeremy Hill touchdown run shortly after, put the Bengals on the board, 15-7.

2. With 8:00 left, McCarron completed an 18 yard pass to Tyler Eifert on third-and-9. The young quarterback stood tall and fired a tough throw, despite the pocket collapsing and a surefire hit coming his way. The Bengals would end up with a field goal that cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 15-10. This is the type of gutsy play you want a franchise quarterback to be able to make. And yet it wasn’t even McCarron’s most memorable pass of the game.

3. On fourth-and-two, with 2:46 left in the game, Cincinnati’s coaches trusted McCarron with the ball in his hands, and he delivered with a pass to Marvin Jones that went for 9 yards. That set up one of the most memorable plays in recent Bengals history.

4. With 1:56 left, McCarron got a clean pocket, and he took great advantage of it, pump-faking and then firing a pretty spiral high where only Green could catch it. He did so at around the 2-yard line. The Pro Bowl receiver would use his big body to get into the endzone for what should have been the game winning score, and Cincinnati’s first playoff win in 25 years. (Confession time: sometimes I like to watch this play over and over and pretend the rest of the game never happened.)

So, in fairness to McCarron, who would like a chance to start, he has definitely showed some major potential, despite limited appearances. Whether he would take a step forward with more opportunities or regress once teams study his film is something no one knows. But I’m willing to guess that there are a number of franchises (some mentioned here) who are willing to take that risk, largely due to the fact that the man does not back down.