CINCINNATI — When the conversation turns to memorable Bengals backup quarterbacks during high-profile games in Cincinnati, it doesn’t take long for the list to reach AJ McCarron.
His 25-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green against the Steelers in the 2015 postseason was one minute and 50 seconds away from being remembered as one of the most iconic in franchise history. McCarron nearly broke the franchise’s playoff win drought in dramatic fashion, completing an improbable rise as a fifth-round pick out of Alabama.
McCarron has started only five games in his NFL career but served as a backup for the Raiders, Texans and Falcons after leaving the Bengals.
Last year, he opted to play in the XFL with the St. Louis Battlehawks so that his sons — particularly his oldest, 7-year-old Tripp — could see him play football in person.
His reaction during an interview as they ran up to him after a comeback victory in his XFL debut went viral as McCarron’s emotions hit him.
Turns out, his name coming to mind this week wasn’t just for fans flashing back to 2015. The Bengals personnel department reached out and brought him up, too. McCarron came to Cincinnati for a tryout and the Bengals signed him to the practice squad on Saturday.
He threw 24 touchdown passes against six interceptions in nine games with St. Louis last season.
McCarron represents the ideal remedy for the Bengals’ unique spot. No moment would phase the 33-year-old from Mobile, Ala., where he’s been hanging out and working out, playing the role of flag football coach for his sons since the XFL season ended. He’s a three-time national champion and stepped into the brightest spotlight imaginable eight years ago in Cincinnati with confidence. He’s been there and done that, showcasing every intangible through the process.
He’s been around the NFL and won’t be surprised by anything he sees. Despite all the reasons the Bengals invested in Jake Browning as a backup, he had never thrown a regular-season pass entering this season. If Joe Burrow can’t go on Monday night because of his calf injury, McCarron would be a reliable insurance policy. He had a solid run of football just months ago and has a cool confidence and a point to prove.
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At the very least, he would be a known quantity waiting in the practice squad wings.
I spoke with McCarron on Friday about his path to the XFL with the family, what returning to Cincinnati would mean, plus the most important factors for Browning if he ends up in Monday’s spotlight.
Here are some highlights that emphasize his snug fit with the Bengals’ uncertain situation.
Explain how your journey to the XFL came about and why you did it.
For me, it was coming back from ACL in ’21. I had calls and had workouts and some opportunities to be a practice squad guy, and that’s what it seemed like for a little bit with a couple teams. “Hey, you are going to be our practice squad guy and then possibly work into the backup position.” But for me, it was being away from my family and especially the boys during their sports during that time. It just wasn’t the right fit for me and our family. I came home one day in between trips and my oldest son was watching YouTube and said “Dad, I want to watch you play football again.” (Battlehawks) coach Anthony Becht had been calling me for a while and I reached out to him and said, you know what, I’ll do this thing. Me and (offensive coordinator) Bruce Gradkowski started talking a ton and putting our offense together. I knew Bruce from all the years that we played Pitt. We just had that connection. Really just took off with the offense and kind of putting our own spin on things. It was the same types of things we learned in Cincinnati and he had in Pittsburgh. All the same lingo and everything. It was just a great deal and match for us. It was something that was special for me and I got to go out and play in front of a great city and crowd in St. Louis. And the boys got to experience that. It was just a great time for our family.
The Bengals are in a bind right now. Would a return be of interest to you?
I would love to. I can’t tell you how many times our family has talked about it, just going back to Cincinnati and how awesome it would be to end my career there or retire a Bengal. I loved our time in Cincinnati. The four years were unbelievable. But, you never know. I would definitely love a call and a chance to go back, for sure.
The city still loves you, the Bengals were a minute and and half away from AJ to A.J. (Green) …
… becoming an iconic moment. It still is. How many times does that pop in your head?
It does for sure. Especially during hard times, tearing my ACL in ’21 in Atlanta and thinking back, “Man, if we win that playoff game how different my career could have been.” Whether that was in Cincinnati or leading to another spot that better suited me. It’s definitely a tough one to think about, but it was unbelievable. I can still remember the rain falling and it being cold and hearing the crowd just erupt like I’ve never heard before at that stadium. It was unreal.
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So many similarities now, Jake Browning coming in for a team with Super Bowl expectations, same thing. You came in for a team with Super Bowl expectations in 2015, you had to carry the ship into the postseason. What is the most important part for any backup QB thrust into that situation to survive?
Especially still with Cincinnati’s defense, it’s taking care of the football. They are such a loaded team and have been for the past couple years. Even during my time, I knew we had a really good defense. My main job was to come in and make the plays I need to make in whatever time that is, but don’t cost us the game right now because our defense was good enough. Just give us a chance to win the game. When it came to big moments and your number is called, you got to make those plays. Those were times I loved. The Pittsburgh game was one for sure where just the weather elements and how the game was going, the swings of that game were insane. Guys getting hurt and everything. That’s the biggest thing for Jake coming in, just keep this thing going straight. Let’s don’t go off course and go all over the place. At least give your team a chance at the end of the game to have a chance to win.
In that spot, there’s always a tendency to play scared, but there’s a difference between don’t play scared and don’t play stupid. Is that a hard line to master when you finally get out there?
It especially is if you are a younger guy and don’t have a lot of experience. That’s where I was trying to find a happy medium during that time because that was really my rookie season when I got thrown in because the previous year I was on NFI (non-football injury list), I didn’t get to experience any playing time whatsoever. No preseason or anything. Going into that second year … I only played in the preseason and played well during that time, but you get thrown in all of a sudden versus Pittsburgh one quarter into the game. It was trying to find a happy medium of “I definitely don’t want to come in and play scared and be too scared to turn the ball over and not take chances” but also don’t want to take some of the chances I might in practice where if I turn it over in practice there’s really no punishment to it. But if you turn it over in the game in the NFL, it’s almost a guaranteed three points. It’s definitely finding that happy medium and figuring out where you are best at and what that team needs.
(Top photo: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)
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