When AJ McCarron got the sudden call vs. the Bears in the preseason and he responded, it boosted his confidence.
Hey, you can't say the karma isn't great.
When AJ McCarron makes his first NFL start Sunday in San Francisco (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), it will
be 45 years to the day a backup quarterback came off the bench in the 1970 finale and helped navigate the Bengals into their first postseason.
If the 10-3 Bengals survive in a city where they haven't won in 41 years, they qualify for the playoffs for the fifth straight season in a No. 2 QB post-season script not just reserved for Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, and Earl Morrall.
The Bengals have their very own playoff backup story in in the man that turned out to be their future Super Bowl head coach. Samuel David Wyche. He relieved starter Virgil Carter and turned a 14-0 lead into a 45-7 win over the Boston Patriots to close out the first year at Riverfront Stadium. At the time it made the three-year-old Bengals the youngest pro sports team to ever qualify for a postseason.
Reached Wednesday night before walking into a basketball game at his alma mater of Furman University, Wyche's advice to McCarron is as clear as the ride off the field that the Bengals gave Coach Paul Brown on Dec. 20, 1970 after securing a divisional play-off berth against the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts.
"When you go to bed Saturday night say, 'I can't wait to get up in the morning.' This is better than Santa Claus is coming when you're six years old," Wyche said. "I think AJ McCarron is this way. I used to look forward to the chance I might get into the game. Some quarterbacks are scared to death they might have to play. And if you figure that out as a coach, you have to replace him.
"But I always thought I could hold a lead or get us some points if we needed to come back. If you go in there thinking, 'I don't want to mess up. I don't want to let them down,' the other guys pick up on that. I think that's why I hung around awhile."
McCarron, who so far has only been afraid of missing lunch during Tuesday's off-day marathon prep, is Wyche's guy. After overcoming last season's shoulder tendinitis that wiped out his rookie year, McCarron is anxious to show the draft nicks they whiffed on him until the fifth round and the joy of game-planning is back for the original gym rat.
He even sounded like Wyche's kid at Christmas when he was asked if he could recall his first start for St. Paul's Episcopal High School in Mobile, Ala. Instead, McCarron responded with a Pee Wee story.
"It was toward the end of the game and we called a QB sneak, and literally the whole line and the defensive line created a horseshoe. Just like a big 'U' and no one was going anywhere," McCarron recalled Wednesday. "And I was just standing there, running like this (in place). I turned and looked around, and my running back is standing behind me, and he's just looking at me.
"And we were little kids, so I decided to run out of the horseshoe backwards, and everyone just stayed right there, and no one ever saw me, and I ran down the sidelines. Then, the fastest kid in the park league caught me. I was 40 yards in front of him, and he hawks me down, catches me at the one-inch line. I'm like, 'You're not going to let me score?' I remember that."
McCarron prides himself on his energy and prep, so he's been all over Paul Brown Stadium the last couple of days.
On Tuesday he put in a full 9-to-6 day on his off day.
Usually on those off days in the morning, the quarterbacks meet with a couple of offensive linemen while the receivers meet elsewhere. McCarron asked his Big Three receivers to join them and starting quarterback Andy Dalton, while the afternoon was reserved for taping a radio interview and then closeting himself with his new backup, Keith Wenning, to go over protections and formations.
"I was really proud: I had a bunch of receivers up here yesterday watching film with us," McCarron said Wednesday. "Guys really sat in there for a while and took notes and took notice of what I was saying and what I wanted on certain plays. Guys are dedicated. We'll definitely work our tails off. I felt like we had pretty good chemistry during the game, just to be thrown in like I was. I thought we threw the ball pretty well on them, and it's a pretty good defense. We just have to build off that and keep progressing, and we'll be fine."
Marvin Jones and the Big Three receivers sat down with McCarron on Tuesday.
Add Wyche to the list that liked what they saw from McCarron in last Sunday's 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh when he came off the bench to pass for two TDs, two interceptions, and 280 yards after Dalton fractured his throwing thumb.
"Very impressed . . . He's used to a big-time atmosphere," Wyche said. "He had the one bad pass (for a pick-six), but he had a guy right in his chest when he let it go and he didn't have much stuff on it and it died.
"He's doing the right thing. The starting quarterback has to meet with the offensive line. They can help with the audibles and checks in protection schemes . . . That's one thing I prided myself on. Every week I prepared like I was playing. I figured if I went in and fell on my face, they'd cut me and just get another guy."
Cincinnati Bengals host Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in week 14 of the regular season.
It wasn't a big deal for wide receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu to alter their Tuesday schedule. Usually they meet with Dalton on their own at some point during the week, but they've worked with McCarron before.
Remember, it was Jones that gave his 31-yard TD ball to McCarron back in the preseason the night he was summoned cold off the bench against Chicago when Dalton suffered a twisted neck sneaking for a touchdown. It was Jones' first TD since missing all of the 2013 season. Just like McCarron. But after McCarron sifted his first six passes and finished 12 of 17 for 149 yards, Jones called him "a bad man,' and gave him the ball as the Bengals began to think they had something.
"It's something that didn't just come up . . . He's always been that way," Jones said after Wednesday's practice. "He's been here for a couple of years now. He's always very studious. You would expect him to do that. It's not brand new. It's been like that. . . .He's just trying to be great. We all are.
"We've got some experience with him in camp...It's not like we don't have (chemistry). It's there. He's followed Andy's lead all the way. From watching Andy, he knows what throws he needs to make and where to put them. I'm not saying we're going to have the best chemistry ever. It's looking good. We expect a lot from him and he expects a lot from us and help him and through this. The sky is still the limit. We're still going to be rocking."
It was that pre-season game that proved to him he could do it for real.
"Chicago was just kind of relieving for me," McCarron said. "It's like I realized I can play this game. Myself, I have confidence I can play at this level, and you do it in practice. To do it in a game is totally different; to get in there and to see it happening and see the throws that you always dreamed of and always pictured yourself doing. To see them actually being real throws was definitely a confidence booster for me."
In the meeting the idea is to talk about coverages and how the individual defenders respond to different routes. That way quarterback and receiver are thinking the same thing if, say, the corner presses and offers inside leverage.
"You've got to be very observant," said Wyche of the No. 1 quality a backup must have. "The defense is a very talkative group. They talk with body language. If they bend at the waist, it's probably zone, if they're bending their knees, it's probably man. If it's inside technique it's probably man. If it's outside technique, they've probably got help inside so it's more than likely a zone."
But like a former Alabama teammate says, it's not always what it seems to be in the NFL.
"This is a disguise game. In college it's more line up and go play,' said cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "This is more like, 'See what you don't see.' It's all about him being composed, studying, making sure he's 100 percent on what he sees."
To a man, everyone seems to like McCarron's brassy, outgoing personality. Kirkpatrick calls it "cocky, but in a good way. I'm the same way. It doesn't bother me. That's the best thing about being a two-time champion."
The other corner, Adam Jones, calls him a winner. But both say everyone has to play better in all three phases to aid that first NFL start.
Old college teammate Dre Kirpatrick likes McCarron's confidence.
"We like to put it upon (the defense) to take this team as far as it can go," Kirkpatrick said. "We can't look for AJ to win the game. He has to put us in good situations to win the game."
Or as Jones said, "On offense all the other guys got to step up. A.J., Mo, (Tyler) Eifert. Just to make it a little bit easier for him. If we don't let anybody score we win. Paulie's (Guenther) talked to us. We know what it is. We expect the offense to keep doing what they're doing, but the defense has to step it up a level if we want to do what we got to do."
When it comes to the baptism of a backup QB in an NFL huddle, there's no gulf of 45 years.
"If he plays as well as he did, I think the rest of the team is going to play up," Wyche said. "They're all going to play knowing they've got a guy that hasn't taken every snap. But they've been in practice with him. They know him. He's been with the team, he's been in the meetings. That's a big plus."
Like the Bengals, Wyche, who hung around the league as a backup for eight years, was in his third year and since they were dealing with Greg Cook's shoulder injury, Wyche and Virgil Carter were both playing early in the '70 season. Then the Bengals got hot with Carter and won six straight to get to 7-6 heading into the finale against the 2-11 Patriots needing a win to make it.
As Wyche remembers it, Carter severely bit his tongue in Houston the week before and nearly lost it when he got hit in the head. Like they did several weeks that season, Wyche thinks they took about the same amount of reps in practice. Carter hit all three of his passes for 96 yards and that included a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chip Myers to put them up 14-0 on Boston.
Wyche remembers going in when Carter was apparently having trouble calling the plays and they were afraid the cut would re-open with him bouncing around. Wyche promptly put the Pats away with a 23-yard TD pass to Paul Robinson that made it 21-0 and the lead ballooned to 45-0 while he threw for another and rushed for another. He hit seven of 14 passes for 91 yards and didn't get picked.
But there was no controversy the next week when the Bengals started and they got blanked, 17-0, by Johnny Unitas' Colts.
"None," Wyche joked. "When I came into the huddle, at least eight guys turned their backs."
But he got them there and Wyche is rooting for McCarron to do the same.
"Brett Favre is my favorite quarterback of all time. It's not just because of all his decision-making, but the way he played the game," McCarron said. "It always looked like he was that four-year-old kid that just won the starting job by raising his right hand and his left hand, and getting it correct and being the only one. That's what I love about the game, because it's a game."
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals game 12/13/2015