CINCINNATI – All AJ McCarron wanted was a chance to be a starting quarterback -- to show that he could handle the moment like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers did when they finally got their turn, or Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Foles.
Whether McCarron can do that or not remains to be seen. But he and we are finally going to find out.
“To get the chance to be able to show what I can do and get out there and compete, that’s really all you want as a player,” McCarron told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com on Thursday. “I’m just so glad the waiting is over and now my family and I can get on with the next chapter in our lives.”
Unless you’re Mike Brown, you have to cheer the arbiter’s decision that made McCarron an unrestricted free agent and gave the 27-year-old his freedom from being stuck behind Andy Dalton on the depth chart. Freedom from being stuck in the Franchise from Hell.
It must have been a punch in the gut to McCarron, who led Alabama to two national championships, to stand on the sidelines and chart plays during Dalton’s ups and downs these past four seasons. It must have nearly killed him to watch Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones rob him of his one shining moment and the team’s only playoff victory under Marvin Lewis.
But McCarron never complained – not publicly anyway. And when the arbiter set him free, McCarron went out with the same class he has always shown here. Not bitter. Not complaining. Grateful to have had an apprenticeship. Grateful for his one big moment in the spotlight.
“It was just business,” McCarron told Hobson, referring to the grievance he filed last season that sent his case to arbitration. “They (the Bengals) had to do what was best for them and I had to do what was best for me. It was never anything personal. I loved the city, loved the fans, loved everything about it. It’s an awesome place to play.”
When Bengals fans see McCarron again, he’ll be wearing a Browns uniform or playing for any of 10 or so NFL teams looking for a new QB in the offseason. Despite the open market, though, McCarron’s timing isn’t the greatest.
McCarron is entering a free-agent pool swimming with quarterbacks, at the same time the draft is loaded with enticing prospects. But even though he has a small NFL sample – only four starts, seven TD passes and four interceptions, a regular-season rating of 93.6 – McCarron showed enough skill and smarts and leadership in that four-game stretch at the end of the 2015 season to make other teams take notice.
He took over when Dalton broke his thumb in a Week 13 loss to the Steelers and produced wins over the 49ers and Ravens with a three-point overtime loss to the Broncos in between. By the time the Steelers came to town for the Wild Card Game, McCarron appeared comfortable with the pressure, but he struggled and the Bengals offense went nowhere. Pittsburgh led 15-0 in the fourth quarter. Then the Bengals rallied.
With 1:50 left, McCarron threw a 25-yard scoring pass to A.J. Green that put the Bengals on the brink of their first playoff win in 25 years. Jones' punt return had given the Bengals a short field for the go-ahead TD, and Burfict's interception with 1:36 left seemed to seal the victory.
You know how the Bengals imploded after that, but you may not realize this:
McCarron never started again, played in just four games, threw just 14 passes over two seasons. When the Bengals' five-year playoff run ended and a streak of losing seasons began, fans tried to create a quarterback controversy on sports talk and social media. But Brown and Lewis never seemed inclined to bench Dalton for McCarron.
That doesn’t matter now. Some team will roll the dice and make McCarron a rich man. Will it be the Browns and lame-duck coach Hue Jackson, who likes McCarron from his offensive coordinator days here?
Jackson tried to trade for McCarron last season, but the Browns general manager - since fired – either botched the last-minute deal or deliberately sabotaged it by not notifying the league office by the trade deadline.
However, the Browns have the No. 1 pick this year, and four of the top mock drafts have Cleveland picking a QB. The Browns probably won't spend big on a No. 2, and McCarron won’t sign there to chart plays for a rookie.
As history would have it, the big losers in this are the Bengals. The arbiter’s ruling not only left them without a true No. 2 or even a healthy No. 3 (Jeff Driskel is nursing a broken hand), it left them without any compensation for losing McCarron.
None. Zero. Zilch.
They don’t get the second- and third-round picks that Jackson offered last year. They don’t get a high draft choice they would have received if the arbiter had ruled a McCarron a restricted free agent and he had signed with another team.
So McCarron’s gain is the Bengals’ loss. Where have we heard that recently?
Oh yeah, when Andrew Whitworth made the playoffs with the Rams last season. And when Rex Burkhead played in the Super Bowl this month. And when Mohamed Sanu played in the Super Bowl two years ago and the playoffs last year. And when Marvin Jones made the playoffs two years ago.
All of them left the Bengals in free agency. How many others will go when they get the chance?
Hobson thinks the Bengals will go shopping for a new No. 2 in the free-agent market. They just have to cross McCarron off their list.
It's a shame the Bengals' playoff meltdown prevented McCarron from adding his legend to Cincinnati sports history. Here's hoping for legendary moments in his next NFL stop.
Greg Noble is a Web Editor at WCPO, former sports editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer and has 43 years of experience covering Cincinnati news. This column represents his opinion.