Bengals serve youth in NFL's backup QB derby

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Two weeks ago Josh Johnson played against the Giants. Now he's headed to New York after signing with the Jets in the NFL's dizzying backup QB derby.

Barrett Jones, AJ McCarron's center at Alabama, congratulates you on your patience.

"I'm just glad it took you at least four questions to get there," Jones said from Rams training camp this week. "You were holding back. It was good."

The question, of course, is about his infamous blowup with McCarron during the BSC Championship Game a few years back. With seven minutes left against Notre Dame and the Crimson Tide holding a 42-14 lead, McCarron erupted Saban-like when Jones didn't snap him the ball in the shot gun formation. When McCarron stormed to the line and got in his mug, Jones shoved him.

"What did he tell you?" Jones asked and when told McCarron recalls getting upset about Jones misidentifying the middle linebacker, he laughed.

"Yeah, it was funny," Jones said. "We just had a disagreement about who the Mike was. It was no big deal. It was the only time it happened in a game. We got along well. Both of us are competitive. We wanted to do things the right way. We both wanted it bad . . . He's such a competitor, man. That's my favorite thing about playing with him. He loves to win and loves doing things the right way."

Earlier this week the Bengals opted to put that competitive streak on the line when they made McCarron Andy Dalton's fourth different backup quarterback in five years even though he made his NFL debut just Monday night in the second pre-season game.

Not an heir apparent, but fresh air for a backup spot that hasn't had anyone 24 years old since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2007.

McCarron comes into a division where Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a combined 200 NFL starts behind Ben Roethlisberger (Michael Vick) and Joe Flacco (Matt Schaub) and where Cleveland reportedly had interest in the man the Bengals cut to make room for McCarron, Josh Johnson.

It just shows you. If you think there is a lack of starting quarterbacks, how about backups? There only seems to be two ways to go for a No. 2 behind an established No. 1.

Take a veteran quarterback who has run out of chances and success, a la Vick and Schaub. Both are on their fourth teams and in their combined last 27 starts they are 8-19. Johnson, who has just five NFL starts and none since 2011, signed with the Jets Thursday.

 Or, you can develop your own No. 2, like the Bengals are doing now with McCarron after going with veterans such as Johnson, Bruce Gradkowski, and Jason Campbell. The Bengals were interested in bringing Campbell back this season, but he informed them he was going to retire. McCarron was drafted in the fifth round in 2014 with the intention of replacing Campbell in 2015 if things went as they thought, but things changed a tad when McCarron missed most of last year with shoulder tendinitis.

Campbell is probably the last of the backups out there who could get you something in a pinch with 32 wins in 79 starts, a .405 winning percentage not far off Mathew Stafford's 35-42. So it's not all that surprising that reports have a few teams reaching out to Campbell as the preseason winds down in a panic, but the Bengals aren't one of them while expressing confidence in McCarron.

"You'd like to have some experience, but you take what's best for your organization,' said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who, ironically, coached Vick in Atlanta the year the Falcons traded Schaub.  "And we drafted AJ, so we think he's best . . . we're content where we are right now . . . Everything is going as planned.

"You just can't think about right now. You have to think about the long haul," Jackson said.  "There's more to it than just today, there's the future of your team."

In direct contrast to the Steelers and Ravens, other successful organizations with established No. 1 quarterbacks like the Bengals are also going with their own youth. The Patriots have tapped second-round rounder Jimmy Garoppolo  behind Tom Brady, the Broncos seem to be grooming second-rounder Brock Osweiler, and the Giants are sticking with fourth-rounder Ryan Nassib.

Of course, this is dicey business whether you go veteran or kid. An NFL.com survey before the season rated McCarron the NFL's 26th best backup quarterback and all he had done in league was get hurt. Which doesn't say much for Nassib at No. 28. Or No. 30 Jimmy Clausen of the Bears, who is 1-9 as a starter since the Bengals beat him in his 2010 debut with Carolina. But it does say there is no formula.

The Bengals have reached out to former backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a couple of times in the Green-Dalton Era. But he's always going to a place where he has a shot to start. Why not? That's a tough sell in Cincinnati, where Dalton is the most durable quarterback in club history with 64 straight starts, three more than Boomer Esiason's run from 1985-89.

So why not develop your own No. 2 for some consistency instead of a year-to-year sojourn? And if starting quarterbacks can come in and play right away, why not backups if there is an emergency? Head coach Marvin Lewis likes how McCarron has constructed a resume with the intangibles that can match up against experience.

"We've got a guy who has a lot of moxie, has a lot of other experience. I think in that situation, you'd have to go in and play to AJ's strengths and continue to do that,'  Lewis said. "When the season rolls around, that second guy doesn't get many snaps. But in AJ, you have a guy who last year, even with being on the PUP list, was pushed to prepare as if he was the starting quarterback and he did that. He welcomed that challenge all the time with Kenny. He stood back there with me in practice all the time, and I told him to play, and he went through everything in his mind, and he talked it. That's what you want."

You also want a guy that can allow Lewis to channel Paul Brown and say after his debut, "It's not too big for him." McCarron hasn't hesitated in taking the second unit under his wing. After Monday night's game, running back James Wilder Jr., couldn't say enough.

"He took charge," Wilder said. "He's not just one of these guys just making plays. He's a leader. We're real tight. That's the thing I love about him. When I'm in there, I'm making sure no one touches AJ. He's that guy who brings everybody in if things aren't going right. 'Everybody huddle up.' That's something you need."

And that was after McCarron thinks he got after Wilder verbally. It wasn't anything like McCarron-Jones, but, then again, McCarron had the adrenaline racing and he's not too sure what happened before he flipped a ball to Wilder that amounted to a two-point conversion run.

"James said I got mad at him on the two-point play when we were breaking the huddle,'   McCarron said, laughing. "I don't remember getting mad.  He just said I scared him because I got fired up real quick. I don't really get mad, but he said I said something for him to get in the right spot or something."

He had to be joking about Wilder being scared since Wilder is chiseled like the Tony Perez statue they just unveiled down the street. But Zampese likes the initiative.

"That's part of the position," Zampese said. "He's the extension of the organization on the field. That's what he's supposed to do and they want it."

McCarron has an edge sharpened by years in the spotlight and honed in the football-mad south. He knows his bluntness has rubbed some people the wrong way and he says he's been working on that.  But Zampese saw good interaction with other players.

"He can relate to all of them," Zampese said of his pre-draft work in Alabama. "That was apparent when we went there to visit with all the guys that walked by."

And he has clicked with his teammates here.

"He's definitely got an edge about him. He wants to get the best out of each player,' said rookie tight end Tyler Kroft, who appears to be McCarron's favorite target at the moment. "He's done a good job taking over the huddle and making sure everyone is on the same page. He's pretty easy going toward me. I feel as a quarterback he should try to get the most out of his players."

This is the way it's always been. Whether he was throwing a football well enough to lure Nick Saban or pitching a baseball fast enough to get some buzz from scouts.

 "I've been that way ever since I started playing football. I play with a lot of passion, excitement," McCarron said. "There's a different side to me when I step inside the white lines. I try to make everybody feed off that."

Barrett Jones, a third-year guy, thinks it can help McCarron in an NFL locker room.

"It could just because in college you more so do what you're told. In the NFL, guys are more independent," Jones said. "They've been around for a while. You really have to earn their respect. I think he'll be able to do that just kind of based on his personality."

Jones admits he's "sick of," people bringing up The Shove on the first reference of his name.  After all, here's a very tough man who played the last five weeks of that championship season on torn ligaments in his foot and still got drafted in the fourth round. But he still keeps in touch with an occasional text to McCarron and he says they'll see each other once a year or so at an event.

"We'd get into a debate or argument about things,' Jones said, "but it was only for the purpose of making the team better, not a personal vendetta or anything."

In the end, Jones appreciated the desire to win.

"He's definitely been a guy not afraid to hold people accountable,' Jones said. "He plays with that edge. Guys know if they're not on their stuff and not doing things the right way, he's not going to be afraid to get after them.

 "He's a great competitor. It's a great quality to have. It's definitely something you want in your quarterback."

The Bengals definitely have it in their backup quarterback, a position where the league really has no formula. They're giving the edge to youth on a youth with an edge.

"That's the way football is," McCarron said. "You've got be able to step on each other's toes sometimes and push each other. If you don't, you're never pushing each other to be the best."

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