Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese confers with AJ McCarron during a break in Saturday's action.
On Family Day at Paul Brown Stadium, head coach Marvin Lewis let the kids run the show and allowed the veterans to relatively kick back in a Saturday practice that was a tune-up for the Giants rather than a giant tune-up.
With about 40 plays backup quarterback AJ McCarron got the bulk of the snaps in a practice that focused on situations pitting the first team and second team and he delivered with a confident, fiery performance they envisioned when they drafted him in the fifth round in 2014.
After gathering the second team together for a brief pep talk before the practice began, McCarron connected with rookie wide receiver Mario Alford for a 24-yard touchdown to cap an 11-play drive. Then he used a 20-yard throw to Alford to engineer a 31-yard field goal by rookie Tom Obarski in a one-minute drill as the Bengals ready to make him the No. 2 quarterback.
"The thing I love about him is that he's a very confident young man and that's what we knew when we drafted him,' said offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "He likes to play. That's what I love about him. He has a fire and he plays that way…It's a process…He had more command today than he did yesterday."
Jackson liked the way all his quarterbacks played and all four got snaps Saturday. That's because there were no turnovers against a defense that knows what's coming. With McCarron completing 10 of 16 balls, Andy Dalton hit nine of 12 throws in about 25 snaps as his main man continues to be tight end Tyler Eifert.
Eifert began Dalton's double-digit play touchdown drive with a leaping catch over the middle for about 26 yards. He ended it when Dalton muscled through a tight window a three-yard touchdown pass to him, a ball that Eifert secured diving to the ground as he fended off linebacker Marquis Flowers.
Once Lewis saw that, the starters were basically done. Standard bearers like left tackle Andrew Whitworth and cornerback Leon Hall didn't even play on a day that used to be reserved for the Mock Game.
"It's not the way it used to be. Oh my. That wasn't a Mock Game," said Jackson, who was here at the height of the Mock Game 10 years ago. "That was a Game. Times change. And that's a good thing...You've got to get these guys to the game with enough exposure to game-type environments." With the 2011 collective bargaining agreement basically turning training camp into a string of regular-season practices, paring back workouts and contact was the only way to go.
"It was a war," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther of back in the day, another veteran of the old Mock.
But like Lewis said, they got in all the work they needed for their quarterbacks and honed their game mechanics in preparation for Friday's 7:30 p.m. preseason opener against the Giants at PBS. They'll also practice against the Giants Tuesday and Wednesday on the PBS practice fields.
"It's where our football team is," Lewis said of a very veteran group.
Maybe what was more important was what happened before practice and after quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese went over the game plan with the second team. McCarron, who never had this chance as a rookie last season because of a shoulder injury that shelved him until November, clearly had adrenaline flowing.
"I just told those guys it's a pride thing when we're matched up like this," McCarron said. "We have something to prove. It might not be this team, it might be another team. We all want to be ones eventually. There should be some pride. I don't want to be a two. I have something to prove. I tried to challenge the guys. I felt like they responded really well."
McCarron also has some salt in his neck and doesn't mind challenging the media, like he did last week when his accuracy was questioned. Once he got behind the first offensive line Friday and Saturday, completions started coming.
"I feel like we've gotten a ton better the last week. Our timing is I good,' he said after practice Saturday. "After y'all blew up the Internet Kim Kardashian style about accuracy and everything. Good Lord. Like I said then. Relax. It's going to take time . I feel like it showed today. I'm in sync with those guys."
When the Bengals scouts and Zampese went through the 2014 quarterback prospects, they kept coming back to McCarron's gym-rat-feisty-game-on-the-line makeup. He led Alabama to back-to-back national titles with more than numbers. Alford, the seventh-round pick from West Virginia, has seen it firsthand.
Alford and Dez Lawrence, a rookie pickup the day before camp started, are two of McCarron's big receivers on the second team and he's been meeting with them after lunch every day.
"It's really helpful," Alford said. "He breaks it down. What he's got, what we've got. What to look for on this route and that route."
McCarron, who will probably secure some coaching jobs before he reaches his goal to become a high school athletic director back home in Mobile, Ala., goes through every play on the script and has Alford and Lawrence draw it up on the board. Then he compares them and they talk it out.
"They've both come a long way," McCarron said.
Cincinnati Bengals host Family Day inside Paul Brown Stadium 08/08/2015
McCarron started the same way at Alabama when he was running the scout team as a freshman and driving head coach Nick Saban nuts.
"Every night I'd order pizzas for the scout team and we'd watch film," McCarron said. "Even though we weren't running our offense, I would have the (opponents') cards from that day and I'd say, 'Listen, they're running a post and sail. I want you to run it like this when we see this coverage in practice.' It not only made us better, it made our defense better.
"Our scout team had Eddie Lacy, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell," McCarron said. "We had guys that ended up playing really well for us. We were true freshman just playing, running around, slinging it and Saban would lose his mind. Those were fun days for sure."
McCarron is certainly having fun with the 5-9, 180-pound Alford, owner of one of the top 40-yard dash times at the last NFL scouting combine. The speed made the touchdown happen since Alford slipped when he faked a move back to the middle before setting sail for the left corner with rookie slot man Josh Shaw in pursuit.
"He's a real slippery, quick guy," McCarron said. "I tried to buy a little time. He slipped faking the over (the middle route). I knew I had time to move to the left a little. Stayed poised in the pocket and let him get back out of it. Any time you got the kind of speed like he does, just lay it in there so he doesn't have to stop and can catch it on the run and take it in."
Which is exactly what happened. McCarron hit Alford just as he was running through a zone and turning up the left sideline. Then McCarron found him down the middle in the one-minute drill to set up Obarski's field goal, a play he thought Alford would have broken in a game situation.
But Alford was just happy to get his hands on the ball. Coming out of a simple West Virginia offense, everyone from McCarron to wide receivers coach James Urban has been on him to get in his playbook. McCarron tells Alford if he breaks the huddle and isn't certain, just ask.
"When I first got here, it was pretty tough on me. I didn't have any concepts. All we had was hand signals" Alford said. "They threw us one hand signal and we knew what it meant. Here it's kind of hard. They call a 10-word play and you have to memorize it."
Plus, he only played one position in Morgantown, the X wide receiver. Here, he's only playing the Z, but there are several responsibilities that are tied to it as he moves in and out of the slot. Yet he's clearly picking up things. He estimates Saturday's TD was a six-word call and he didn't need anybody waving a signal to him.
"Once I learned the concepts I was all right," Alford said. "It really builds my confidence up. To show the fans who that guy is here. I can't stop here. I have to show them what I can bring to the table."
McCarron's already got the confidence. But he knows Giants are waiting.
"We have something to prove," he said.