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.
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.”
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.
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