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Having a ball


AJ McCarron had a big night with the first group.

You've got to remember, that ball meant something to Marvin Jones, too.

When Jones ripped up the Bears Saturday night on a 31-yard touchdown pass just like 2013 during the Bengals' 21-10 pre-season victory at Paul Brown Stadium, it highlighted his return from missing all last season after two surgeries. But he gave the ball to the guy who threw it to him, a guy that also never played a game last season with shoulder tendinitis in AJ McCarron.

"After the touchdown, I told him, 'You're a bad man.' I gave him the football. That was his first touchdown. That was a great moment for him," Jones said.

McCarron, who lockers next to Jones, had the ball safely tucked away and the words were already written on the tape around the top of the ball: No. 5 to No. 82 vs. Bears.

"It was unbelievable," said McCarron of the gesture, still moved by the moment a half-hour after the game. "It was special. Like I told Marvin, it's something I'll always remember. It was a special moment."

If Monday night marked McCarron's NFL debut in Tampa, he delivered his coming out party Thursday night with stunning decisiveness. He was summoned cold off the bench when Andy Dalton suffered a twisted neck sneaking for the game's first touchdown and sifted his first six passes with the first team for 87 yards and a perfect passer rating.

Not only that, but McCarron took more hits than Hillary Clinton's server on the way to finishing 12 of 17 for 149 yards and ran the huddle as if it were Alabama in the throes of SEC glory.

"He's played at a big-time program," said the other A.J. on offense, perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Green. "Nothing to him. He's a natural leader."

There may be no periods in AJ McCarron's first name, but he supplied Saturday's exclamation points. The poise and enthusiasm the Bengals have raved about all preseason, first in the scrimmage, then against the Bucs, and now against the Bears bubbling in an emergency situation, were all on display.

"He did a great job. He came in and showed leadership," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He handled the huddle well and competed and that's what you want . . . You know you've got a guy that can come in and compete."

But he gave them even more to savor when he threw strike after strike despite getting knocked around like one of Nick Saban's tackling dummies.

"It was a perfect play call, a perfect throw,' said Jones of his touchdown off a deep-in route. "He put it right there, right over the linebacker's hands and it just dropped into my hands. I had the easy job. I ran the route and he threw it in the perfect place. It was a great way to lead me off into the season."

Jones, just like he did in 2013, muscled his way into the end zone with his underrated physicality. He scored nine of his 10 touchdowns in the red zone in 2013 and when he caught this ball on the 10 running across the field, he kept going until he made a defender miss and then cut it back inside to get it in.

"We know he has that ability coming from the intense pressure games he's come from," Jones said. "Not in the league, but he's been in big situations. He just rose to the occasion. We've been saying from OTAs this guy has it. He did a good job coming in, not wavering it, and delivering it."

They talk about intangibles. They talk about his enthusiasm and leadership and mauling guys after scoring touchdowns and McCarron talks about how his favorite quarterback of all time is fellow excitable Gulf Coaster Brett Favre.

But at some point you have to make some throws and McCarron made them all night.

 Just ask Green, who made the Jones' TD possible when he caught a 15-yarder on the sideline on third-and-13. It was improv on both their parts and McCarron gunned it to Green's back shoulder as Green worked on cornerback Tim Jennings. Too bad McCarron never saw it because he got blown up by Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee as soon as he threw it.

Cincinnati Bengals host Chicago Bears in preseason week 3 08/29/2015

"It was a deep out. I saw the corner driving on the outside," McCarron said. "A.J. got up in his route and I knew I would have to throw it in his back hip, back shoulder area."

"Great throw," Green said.

But maybe a throw that didn't count was better. A few snaps before, he got pressure lofting a 43-yarder down the right side to Jones and Jones leaped over cornerback Tracy Porter to haul in the classic 50-50 ball. A holding call on Whitworth negated the play, but not the memory as McCarron sensed at the line of scrimmage that Porter was out of sorts.

"It was a fast tempo play. I saw he wasn't all the way set," McCarron said. "Take a shot at it. You have to give these guys a chance to sometimes."

Then on the next drive, McCarron hit tight end Tyler Eifert on a 25-yarder as he beat inside linebacker Christian Jones leaking over the middle. Dalton and McCarron had their way against the Bears inside backers in piling up a 12-for-12 passing first half.

McCarron said his progression wasn't even supposed to take him to Eifert.

"Eif got a really good release," McCarron said. "He was on the back side of my read and I just saw him flash. I wasn't even supposed to look that way. If he flashes, I can get it to him."

The throw set up running back Jeremy Hill's one-yard touchdown to make it 21-0 and then it was time to think about the intangibles, too, because, as always with McCarron, there are plenty.

For a guy that won back-to-back national titles and the heart of Miss Alabama, you would think a quick call into the third pre-season game would be whiffle ball in the backyard. But McCarron admitted he was nervous. He threw out the reminder this is only his second NFL outing.

"I got a couple of throws (to warm up) and they looked at me and said, 'You're in,' " McCarron recalled. "I just kind of went in there and wanted to get the guys going. I didn't want to disappoint anybody. I just want them to have confidence in me if, God forbid, something happens. I have to go in there and do my job the way it needs to be done. It wasn't a perfect game by any means. I've got things to work on. The way I look at it it's my second game in almost two years."

Just like Jones. It was McCarron's second game since Jan. 2, 2014. It was Jones' third game since Jan. 5, 2014. But he gave McCarron the ball.

"Every time I threw a touchdown at Alabama, that's what I did," said McCarron of his outburst running down the field and mobbing his receiver. "(Favre) was just having fun. That's the way this game is supposed to be. That's the way it's played. I want the guys to feel the passion I bring and in some way they can feed off it."

As Jones finished up holding court with the media, McCarron moved to the door, but stopped to shake his hand and get in a hug. It was that kind of night.

"Just an unbelievable experience," McCarron said.

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