Adding A.J. McCarron to your roster is like picking the nicest GoFundMe color scheme you can find. Like health insurance, there’s not a compromise in the backup quarterback world. You either have a good one or you don’t.
Quarterbacks who could actually keep the Texans relevant in the event of a Deshaun Watson injury were off the board early in free agency. Tyrod Taylor has a long history of competent starter play and has the jets to run options and keep a defense off-balance. Teddy Bridgewater re-upped in New Orleans and has a history of overcoming bad offensive lines in Minnesota. Those players cost more money than McCarron, but the Texans aren’t going to use all their cap space anyway at this point.
Another way to get a relevant quarterback is to hit the draft hard and play the Jacoby Brissett game. Use a mid-round pick to try and find a long-term player who could start, targeting someone with some real upside. I happen to think West Virginia’s Will Grier falls into this category, even if your favorite mock draft isn’t putting him in the first round today.
But McCarron is no different than your Cassells or Gabberts or Weedens or Glennons. He’s a tall quarterback who can hit an open first read or a checkdown pass. McCarron got bounced out of a two-year, $10 million contract last offseason. He was bad enough that both the Bills and the Raiders got up-close looks at him and decided they wanted no part of him. So why would a team pay any premium for someone that can be replicated for the veteran minimum?
You’ve heard that McCarron started a playoff game and did not lead the Bengals completely into the abyss when he started games in 2015. These are true facts, but that Bengals team was the pinnacle of the late Marvin Lewis era. Marvin Jones, the third receiver on this team, hit free agency and immediately got $20 million guaranteed. This team had Kevin Zeitler, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Andrew Whitworth in their primes. McCarron was a McCaretaker, with plus matchups all over the field and a dominant offensive line. Andy Dalton finished second in passing DVOA in 2015, and he has never come close to hitting that mark before or since.
To put it into a perspective Texans fans may be more familiar with, the 2015 Bengals are Cincinnati’s version of the 2011 Texans. It was the year where everything came together, a team that should have had a shot at a championship. But both teams were prematurely felled by an injury to their starting quarterback. And, unlike the Texans, the Bengals did not get to face the Bengals when they limped into the playoffs.
When McCarron hit free agency, he wasn’t able to con a team into giving him the Mike Glennon or Brock Osweiler Memorial Contract. This is not because he isn’t tall or handsome enough to pretend he’s a starting quarterback, it’s because he has no deep ball. To jog our memory, let’s look back on a third-and-13 pass that McCarron threw in the first quarter of Cincy’s Wild Card game with the Steelers:
McCarron had great protection. Marvin Jones won handily on the post route, a good throw converts the first down. This throw was not a first down, and, in fact, hung up long enough to dry laundry on it.
Well, okay, but that was one game, right? And it’s the playoffs, Pittsburgh studied him more deeply than most teams. How about we look against the Ravens in Week 17 of that season? What if we get Rex Burkhead lined up on a linebacker and created an easy throw?
It’s a consistent problem for McCarron. Even his over the middle throws sail a bit up. Unless he’s completing a curl route or a deep comeback, the deep ball is not accurate enough to help the receiver out.
One area I haven’t even touched on yet is McCarron’s pocket awareness — in his 131 dropbacks with the Bengals in 2015, he took 12 sacks. Andy Dalton took 20 in 406 dropbacks. If you want a more recent example, in the 2018 preseason with the Bills, McCarron took five sacks in his final game alone. Yes, the one where he mopped up in the final week of the preseason to protect Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman. McCarron is more mobile than a Tom Savage, but that mobility manifests in him sacking himself more often than the tools would warrant.
Listen, I’m not going to tell you A.J. McCarron is holding back the Texans from doing something important. I’m not going to slag on the guy for getting good work, he belongs in the NFL as a backup. I’m not even going to slag you if you heard of McCarron and thought that he was considered good! The national championships sway people. The Browns nearly giving away second- and third-round picks for him is a flash point moment in peak Hue Jackson. Add that to the natural dead news zone that is “quarterback developing,” and it’s hard for a casual fan to tell how good McCarron is. What I can tell you to answer that is that he was a fifth-round pick, an undesirable free agent twice over, and has shown no signs of average NFL quarterback play. None of the facts of his NFL career are pointing to hidden potential.
McCarron’s not a good enough quarterback to warrant this kind of investment. If the difference between his $3 million contract and roster filler was the difference between suiting up Rodger Saffold in Battle Red, it was a grave mistake to me.