Blogs

McCarron Looks Ahead After Heroic Effort

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 12, 2016 – 4:53 pm

As he packed up his locker on Monday, AJ McCarron wore an Alabama sweatshirt and hat. He was obviously looking forward to seeing if his alma mater would beat Clemson later that night for college football’s national championship.

“I’m going to be sitting at the house cheering them on and I can’t wait,” McCarron told me. “It’s an awesome opportunity for those guys and it’s going to be a blast. It’s not nerve-wracking to just sit back and watch the game.”

I’m sure he enjoyed watching ‘Bama win another title, but I’m also certain that McCarron would have rather been preparing for a second round playoff game in New England.

McCarron smoky entrance (440x311)

Statistically, the 25-year-old quarterback did not have a great performance in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, going 23-for-41 for 212 yards and a passer rating of 68.3. But in the fourth quarter with the Bengals trailing 15-0, McCarron calmly directed the team on three straight scoring drives to give Cincinnati a 16-15 lead with 1:50 remaining.

“Heck, a fourth quarter comeback like that?” said Kevin Zeitler. “You can’t say enough about it. He was able to deal with everything that came his way and he was fantastic.”

“I’m proud of him and proud of what he did, and I know he’ll be nothing but better next season and that’s good for us,” said Marvin Lewis.

“It’s a great feeling when the guys rally around you and everybody believes,” said McCarron. “The whole game when things weren’t going great, guys stayed calm. It’s just a special group that I get to play with and I love every one of them. I had a blast. It was an honor to get to play with them. I know that AD (Andy Dalton) will be back next season, but it was fun.”

And while McCarron came closer to leading the Bengals to a postseason win than Dalton has been able to thus far, the second year quarterback says he has not created a quarterback competition for next season. Dalton led the AFC in passer rating at 106.3 and Cincinnati had a 10-2 record when he broke his thumb.

“This is AD’s team,” McCarron told me. “I am just going to go out and work my tail off and whatever happens happens. But AD is the quarterback and my job is to push him and help make him the best QB that he can be and let the chips fall where they fall. But I support him 100%. I’ve always said that he’s like a big brother to me and I look up to him. That’s the way that it’s going to stay.”

After sitting out his rookie year while rehabbing a shoulder injury, McCarron completed 64% of his passes this season, with 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, and a passer rating of 89.7 (including the playoff game). As a result, the Bengals will enter 2016 feeling highly confident about their backup quarterback for the first time in several years.

“The best since 2004 or ’05 with Jon (Kitna) and Carson (Palmer),” said Coach Lewis. “We feel pretty good about things.

“At this point a year ago, we weren’t sure about AJ and his development. We assumed and hoped, and it has worked out.”

Unfortunately, the wild card playoff game didn’t work out, as the Bengals self-destructed in the final two minutes.

“It feels like a bad, bad dream and you’re just waiting for somebody to wake you up,” said McCarron. “It’s tough – especially knowing how hard we’ve worked as a group all season long. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to make it to the playoffs in general. There are a lot of teams that don’t have the opportunity that we had. It hurts, but the only thing we can do is look forward and take each day to get better.”

McCarron in playoff game (440x322)

As impressed as I was by McCarron’s play on Saturday night, I was equally impressed by how he handled himself in his postgame news conference. He sounded like a 10-year veteran as he handled a gut-wrenching loss with class and stressed the importance of his teammates sticking together.

He reiterated that message on Monday.

“When things get tough, it’s easy for people to point fingers and run the opposite way,” AJ told me. “In college we always said, ‘Who do you want in your foxhole?’ You want guys that can have your back and have your six. Who do you want in that hole with you? The worst-case scenario would be for the team to divide and take steps backward.”

There are likely to be significant changes on the Bengals roster and coaching staff next season, and McCarron is eagerly anticipating a major change in his personal life as well. AJ and his wife Katherine are expecting their first child – a son – in late May.

“Raymond Anthony McCarron III and we’re calling him Trip,” he said.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1

 


Posted in Heard It From Hoard | No Comments »

Just Once

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 10, 2016 – 3:12 pm

Just once… Can’t we figure out what we keep doin’ wrong. Why the good times never last for long. Where are we goin’ wrong? – From the 1981 song “Just Once” by Quincy Jones and James Ingram.

One minute and 36 seconds left.

The Bengals had the lead and the ball.

The most dramatic playoff win in team history was theirs.

And ours.

After seven straight postseason losses over the course of 25 years, it was total catharsis for the franchise and the city.

“For the 20 seconds after Burfict’s INT, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Bengals fan Ethan Fields in an e-mail. “My heart was fluttering like it was my wedding night and I was on cloud nine.”

The elation actually lasted a little longer than that. From Burfict’s interception to the start of the next play, roughly 90 seconds of real time elapsed.

The agony that followed is going to be remembered for ages.

“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions,” said George Iloka.

In an attempt to run off as much of the clock as possible and force the Steelers to use their three timeouts, the Bengals handed the ball to Jeremy Hill. I honestly believe that every team in the NFL would have done something similar.

But Hill added his name to a list that includes Earnest Byner and Tony Romo for “most costly fumbles in NFL postseason history”.

“I thought I had the ball tucked in there pretty tight, but it came out,” said Hill. “It’s inexcusable.

“I let the fans down, I let the coaches down, and I let my teammates down. It’s on me.”

But not entirely. The Steelers started at their own nine yard line needing to drive roughly 60 yards in 1:23 to give Chris Boswell a shot at a game-winning field goal. Due to his injured shoulder, Ben Roethslisberger was not able to throw the ball deep.

But Big Ben managed to complete five short throws and Pittsburgh drove to the Cincinnati 47-yard line with 22 seconds to go. The Steelers were out of time outs and the Bengals were still in position to win the game.

Cincinnati basically waived a white flag by drawing two yellow ones.

Steelers Bengals Football

A high pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown sailed incomplete, but Vontaze Burfict was penalized for unnecessary roughness for hitting Brown in the head. Then Adam Jones was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for his heated reaction to trash-talking Steelers coach Joey Porter. Thirty yards in penalties moved the ball to the 17-yard line and Boswell’s 35-yard field goal ended the Bengals season.

“You can’t have stupid penalties at times like that,” said Andy Dalton.

“You’ve got to be poised and you’ve got to keep playing,” said Marvin Lewis. “There are just things that you’ve got to pull away from.”

“That’s what coach has been saying to us all year,” said AJ McCarron. “It’s going to be hard to win games when we can’t control that.”

The NFL Network’s Michael Silver has dubbed it, “The Meltdown at Paul Brown.”

As he faced the media firing squad after the game, Andrew Whitworth was grilled on the Bengals lack of discipline in the final 30 seconds.

“How hard is it to maintain composure in an atmosphere and a game like this?” asked The Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty.

“I think if you have discipline it’s not that hard,” said Whitworth. “You’ve got to be disciplined and understand the ultimate goal.”

“Who does the lack of discipline fall on?” asked CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.

“I’m a leader so it falls on all of us,” replied Whitworth. “If any of us have let it slip, or if any of us have not let it be important, then it’s all of our mistake. Discipline is something to me that’s taught throughout the year. It’s not a one-time moment thing. It’s an every-day thing. It’s just like raising my kids. Discipline is something that I have to be consistent every single day with. I have to be consistent on things that are important, and as a leader of the football team it’s the same thing.”

“At the end of the day you’ve got to keep your cool,” said Dalton.

The late collapse negated an incredible comeback. Down by 15 points to begin the fourth quarter, the Bengals scored on three straight possessions and took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to A.J. Green with 1:56 remaining.

Green playoff TD vs Steelers (440x301)

“Everybody was so calm on that last possession,” said McCarron. “It was kind of creepy. It was like everybody has ice water in their veins. Everybody was calm and thinking that we were going to go and make a freaking play.”

“I’m just proud of AJ man,” said Whitworth. “AJ McCarron came in in a tough role – to take on a team that is a contender and have to stand in there and figure everything out in the manner that he had to do it. It wasn’t going to be clean, it wasn’t going to be pretty, we knew things were going to be ugly at times, but the kid just went about it with every bit of effort that he had. I couldn’t be more proud of him for that.”

Instead of getting credit for his first 4th quarter comeback as an NFL quarterback, McCarron watched helplessly as Roethlisberger recorded his 38th.

“This one just really sucks,” said McCarron. “We were so close to bringing this city what it deserves – especially against Pittsburgh. I’m at a loss for words.”

“I can’t fathom it right now,” said Iloka. “It’s déjà vu. It literally feels like yesterday we were having the same talk about losing in the playoffs. Maybe it feels like yesterday because we’ve had this conversation four times. It’s frustrating.”

The Bengals started the season 8-0 for the first time in team history. They finished the regular season 12-4 to tie the franchise’s best record in a 16-game season. Instead of celebrating an AFC North title and what should have been Cincinnati’s first postseason win in 9,135 days, they will face the same old question for at least another year: Why can’t you win a first round playoff game?

“Guys work hard man,” said Iloka. “From top to bottom, everybody in this organization works hard and I don’t know how we keep losing every year to teams that quite frankly don’t have more talent than us. This is a really talented team in terms of athletes and weapons. We’re stacked and the fact that we keep losing in the first round – I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1


Posted in Heard It From Hoard | No Comments »

“The Journey Is Just Beginning”

Posted by Dan Hoard on January 3, 2016 – 11:13 pm

Last Tuesday at noon, just seven hours after the Bengals got back from a physically and emotionally draining loss at Denver, Marvin Lewis sat down with Dave Lapham and me to tape his weekly TV show.

Marvin cold night (440x302)

It was roughly the 80th time we’ve recorded “Bengals Weekly” together and I saw something that I had never seen on the show before – Coach Lewis getting choked up.

It happened when Lap ended our interview segment with the following question: “At this stage of the season, what are you most proud of about your football team?”

“How hard they play and how disappointed we are when we come up short,” Marvin said as his eyes watered a bit. “It’s hurts them. And then they come back to work, tighten their resolve, put their heads down and work harder.”

That’s a coach that is proud of what he’s built in Cincinnati, and Marvin Lewis has every right to be.

While the 2015 Bengals will ultimately be judged on whether they can end the franchise’s 24-season drought without a playoff win, the players and coaches deserve a ton of credit for putting themselves back into a position to do something about it.

The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in two of the last three years. If the Jets had won on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have missed the postseason for the third time in four years. The Buffalo Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years. In other words, getting there is not a given.

But for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years, the Bengals are one of 12 teams to make it through the regular season meat grinder and still have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.

“This is just our first step,” said Coach Lewis. “That’s what our guys know. The journey is just beginning.”

“The playoffs are a brand new season and I think everybody realizes that you have to be at your best,” said Kevin Zeitler.

McCarron vs Ravens (440x293)

The Bengals might not be at their best next week unless Andy Dalton makes a remarkably fast recovery from a broken thumb. The question is, will they still be good enough to win? In his three starts since Dalton’s injury, AJ McCarron has four touchdown passes, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.1. If he continues to avoid turnovers, the Bengals defense will keep them in any playoff game that the second-year quarterback starts.

“We didn’t execute everything the right way, but the good thing is that we won,” said McCarron after Sunday’s victory over Baltimore. “It’s not always going to be roses, but we fought hard and we got the win.”

Cincinnati is 2-1 in AJ’s three starts, but the Bengals’ confidence in their young quarterback might have grown the most from the only one he lost – the overtime thriller in Denver.

“That was a pressure-packed night,” said Lewis. “So that was a huge step in his development to go through something like that where every play was win-or-lose on each and every snap. There was a lot of tension, and he was able to stay calm through that, deliver the football, run the offense, and make good decisions.”

So now, we begin what is going to feel like the longest week in history. I promise you that the days are going to crawl as we eagerly anticipate the third and final showdown this year in what’s become one of the NFL’s most bitter rivalries: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh.

“It’s going to be a fun game,” said Tyler Eifert. “Obviously this rivalry has heated up in recent years – especially this year. It will be an awesome atmosphere here at Paul Brown.”

“We know that they’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Coach Lewis. “So if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

For Michael Johnson, the opponent at this point doesn’t matter.

“Whoever we’ve got to play, put the ball down and let’s get after it,” Johnson told me. “Whoever. Wherever.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1


Posted in Heard It From Hoard | No Comments »