McCarron hopes his Love of the Game helps Bengals to Field of Dreams

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Another day at the office for Andy Dalton in a pressure-packed play-off week.

Nothing much has changed around the McCarron home this week even if Raymond  Anthony McCarron Jr., is trying to become the first Bengals quarterback since Norman Julius Esiason to win a post-season game in Saturday's Wild Card Game (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12)

against the Steelers.

"If it's one of the longer days at the stadium, he'll come home and chill out and watch a movie or play X-Box," says his wife, Katherine Webb, the former Miss Alabama and future mom. "If it's a regular day, he'll watch his practice and he'll try to get me to watch some of his best throws from the practice.  And it's been a short week and it's so intense because it's the playoffs. There have been some long days."

Tuesday was one of those long days, but McCarron breezed through his weekly news conference like a guy that, well, won two national titles at Alabama. If there's pressure, it's all in the football.

Here's guy who waxed poetically about meeting Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he was a kid and then quoted the prose of grizzled pro Billy Chapel from one of his favorite movies.

 "He loves anything with Kevin Costner. He loves all his baseball movies," Katherine Webb says. "Anything with Denzel Washington, Matt Damon. Mark Wahlberg. All the greats."

But lately the movie has been "The Education of a Play-off Quarterback," with McCarron playing himself. When he's watching the tape at home, sometimes he gets her to watch.

"Honestly, I really don't know what I'm looking at," she says. "I understand the basics, but I couldn't talk about all the details."

She certainly understood enough that when he walked out of the locker room after admirably holding the fort the last time against the Steelers back on Dec. 13 when he was thrown into the fire from the bench, she greeted him with, "I'm so proud of how you played. But what about the two picks?"

"I said, 'What, you're supposed to be on my side,'" AJ McCarron said.

She took the words right out of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's mouth. And, if you notice, there hasn't been an interception since. Not in his three starts.

"He's done a really good job of not turning the football over. I think in that game we had two turnovers, and that led to our demise a little bit. That put our defense in a tough spot," said Jackson, who says McCarron's poise is the biggest difference between now and then. "There's no question that playing in a tough game at Denver on a Monday night against a really good team helped him as well. I'm sure that he stepped up a little bit. I don't think that any environment is too big for him. He played in a lot of big games at Alabama. No, this is not Alabama. This is the National Football League – the best of the best. There's a lot of pressure and anxiety that comes with these games. I think he's handled the pressure very well and he'll be ready to play."

 He's certainly handling the external pressure like you think he would.

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Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese (right) and Hue Jackson are urging patience.

"There is a lot of media getting down there before national championship games," McCarron said. "There were distractions in Miami and New Orleans. I feel like this is comfortable. I get to go home to my house every day and see my wife and little dog. I get to sit on my couch and watch film. It's definitely fun."

He's got a Yorkie named, "Mac," and a bunch of Costner movies. He's trying to make Saturday night a "Field of Dreams," but on Tuesday he quoted "For Love of the Game," when he answered a question about trash talk.

"Kevin Costner (as Billy Chapel) says, 'Clear the mechanism.' It's kind of like tunnel vision," McCarron said. "He blocks everything out. It's a great movie."

They could make a great movie about the first time McCarron met Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was a dozen years ago and McCarron, 25, was just starting his career at St. Paul's Episcopal High School and watching Big Ben's Miami of Ohio team play in the GMAC Bowl in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. After the game, McCarron went under the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and met him, his sister, and his parents.

 "I remember him giving me a wristband and how cool it was. He started dying laughing when I told him how I remembered that," McCarron said. "That's what is crazy about this. A young kid from Mobile, Ala., watched the GMAC Bowl, and later he's playing against one of the best quarterbacks in the league. It's awesome."

If it sounds like McCarron is having fun, he is. It's football. Even though that first game against Pittsburgh turned into a 33-20 loss with some ugly lessons the only way the Steelers can teach them.

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Cincinnati Bengals vs Baltimore Ravens game 01/04/2016

"The first couple of snaps reminded me of my first high school game playing Carter-Montgomery," McCarron said. "I jokingly came to the sideline and asked my offensive coordinator if they had more than 11 people on the field. It definitely helps to have had the time and experience in between. I feel comfortable in the way we are playing and the way we are taking care of the football. I feel fine."

McCarron was born on Sept. 13, 1990, when the Bengals were 1-0 in the last season they won a post-season game and he hears the buzz around and it is a familiar one in the halls of the Crimson Tide.

"The way that it's talked about here is so much of a negative. It reminds me of Alabama, of living in the past and how many national championships we had as a university. How many losses we had in the postseason," McCarron said.

"They want to see greatness. That's what I love about this fan base. Both fan bases (Alabama and the Bengals) strive for perfection. I feel like that's what makes you play your best game possible each and every day. It's because you don't want to let not only yourself or your team down, but also your city. It's pressure. I love it. It's awesome."

So even the pressure is the same for him even though he's trying to join Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason as Bengals quarterbacks who won their first home play-off start. What is significantly different from back on Dec. 13 is that while Andy Dalton (thumb) has his cast off, McCarron has the game plan. The fact he has the plan for the Steelers now and not Dalton's game plan that was shoved upon him late in the first quarter last month should help him immensely.

"It's a factor in your favor," says quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "You have a chance to prepare for all the things that are going to be put upon you."

Zampese likes what he sees. Yes, there needs to be improvement in making more plays and seeing more down field. The numbers tell you that. Under McCarron, the Bengals are averaging one fewer touchdown (27.2-21.7 points) and 101 fewer yards (377-276) than they were under Dalton.

But that's to be expected with Dalton having 77 NFL starts and McCarron three. They will take the lack of turnovers over a few more yards.

"There are certain things, experience-wise, but you can tailor the system in a way to make things easier," said Zampese, who says they haven't cut much out of the system. "We're not overly complicated in the first place. We have our wrinkles. They'll change and we'll have some new ones this week.

"We need to make more plays when they present themselves," Zampese said. "We need to see them better. But he sees more than he did the last time out. Progress from last week goes a long way in this game. He's getting better each week. He's done really well."

But it's just another week at the McCarron home. The wife, the dog, and a TV.

"He's non-stop football," Katherine Webb said. "I've got the TV all day and he gets the TV all night when he comes home."

 

Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.

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