AJ McCarron secured the shotgun snap and pivoted on his left foot, saturated by another beautiful Cincinnati afternoon. It was the movement of a quarterback conducting a play-action pass, but there wasn't a running back; perhaps the idea was to catch unaware second-team linebackers and defensive backs to account for his movements. Once McCarron spun around to survey the field, he found the speedy Mario Alford sprinting across the field to haul in the 24-yard touchdown.
The second-year quarterback followed up an impressive 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with another possession that led to a field goal prior to "half time", completing passes of 20 and 17 yards to Alford and Greg Little respectively. According to reports, McCarron completed seven of nine passes for 76 yards during the first half of the 2015 mock game. Despite being heavily favored as Andy Dalton's eventual successor, McCarron's performance during the annual "mock game" is being viewed as a "coming of age" moment.
Initial reports during training camp provided a picture that McCarron was struggling, and those reports were mostly true. McCarron and his receivers appeared to be applying different playbooks; when receivers ran one route, McCarron anticipated another. Drills featuring quarterbacks and receivers were noticeably problematic, especially during the NFL Network's coverage last Sunday, showing McCarron overthrowing many of his receivers during simplistic routes without any defenders in coverage.
McCarron wasn't worried, "I feel like we've gotten a ton better the last week. Our timing is I good," he said on Saturday, via Bengals.com.
It's difficult to remember that McCarron didn't work last year during training camp, rehabilitating a shoulder injury at Alabama and didn't practice until being activated off the physically unable to perform list last December. Even then, his repetitions were insignificant because Andy Dalton and the Bengals were facing an intense regular season run to qualify for the postseason. Last Sunday's showing on the NFL Network was only his third practice this season, and first with shoulder pads.
"This is almost like my rookie season," McCarron said via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "That's the way I'm taking it, because I didn't do anything last year. First time throwing in full pads since senior year Sugar Bowl. It was going to take time. I stayed confident throughout the whole thing. I never panicked. Our guys never panicked."
There have been some alarmists categorically concluding McCarron's struggles earlier this week. These perspective always fall into traps, ranging from ridiculous overreactions to applying unsubstantiated (if not unqualified) alternatives. McCarron has struggled, but that's hardly reason to overreact into a state of panic, applying alternative scenarios approaching an equally struggling Josh Johnson into the fray. Training camp is a time meant for players to improve, build and develop... that's what McCarron is presently accomplishing.
In fact, the team's actions counter any perspective beyond the belief that Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron will be the team's only quarterbacks this year.
"I thought he was even better than last night," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said about McCarron working with the first team offense, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Every time he completed a ball his confidence skyrocketed. It's a good opportunity for him to continue to grow. As we go he understands the reps become few and far between. Now is the time to do this stuff so we can evaluate him in this environment."
In addition to his improvements on the field, McCarron is working overtime to develop chemistry with his receivers and showing powerful leadership qualities. McCarron and Alford, who had a drop and false start on Friday (does that mean he's in trouble?), have been studying together.
"He's tried to quiz us every now and then, call us out, and then he'll let us write up the formation," Alford said via ESPN. "If we get it wrong, he'll be like, 'This is how you do this.' And then he'll come back maybe five minutes later and he'll ask me to write the same play. It's all really helpful."
Players will struggle but it's not reason to overreact, especially before the first preseason game is played and an entire month remains before the regular season opener in Oakland. McCarron, who is, as he says, essentially a rookie, will struggle. It's not how bad someone performs that dictates their participation; it's how much that person improves and learns from those mistakes that matters.
And according to most reviews, he's succeeding at that excellently.