After last year's struggles, AJ McCarron says he's "in a good place."
If anyone knows anything about the "It," factor, it is the Bengals' irrepressible Adam Jones. Jones may exude more of "It," than anyone on his team and he shedded plenty of "It," during the spring practices that ended Thursday with him as one of the top defensive players.
But at cornerback, Jones was also available to scout the backup quarterback spot and in his first extended work against AJ McCarron, the Alabama icon caught his eye.
"McCarron looks really good. The other guys have their spurts, but he's got the 'It,' factor," Jones said before practice one day this week. "The kid's a winner. You can tell he's been working on his ball strength from last year and this year. You can never underestimate the 'It,' factor regardless of what anybody says. It's the difference between winning some games and being champion. That's my opinion."
The Bengals must be of the opinion that McCarron has got something. Thursday's release of quarterback Terrelle Pryor a few hours after the Bengals ended their spring workouts seems to reflect their comfort level with McCarron as Andy Dalton's backup.
Pryor, still searching for mechanics that would make him a more consistent passer, put his immense athleticism on display the past four weeks of practice. An Ohio State legend and 2011 third-round pick of the Raiders, Pryor couldn't stick with his fourth NFL team after coaches watched him work against McCarron and Josh Johnson, Dalton's 2013 backup.
"I've really been pleased with his progress,' said head coach Marvin Lewis after Thursday's practice. "I'm pleased with his ability to handle the huddle, to handle the team. These nine practices have been awesome for him. He got to first base, now he's going to have to continue."
Spoiler alert: McCarron's good performance this spring doesn't mean he's anywhere near playing in front of Dalton this year. What they're looking for, at the moment, is a solid NFL backup. And right now they're cautiously optimistic after McCarron finished what amounted to his first pro camp of nine voluntary workouts and this week's three mandatory practices that ended the spring session.
It looks like the 2014 draft scouting report is holding up. The one that convinced the Bengals to take McCarron in the fifth round. He knows what to do with the ball. In fact, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham says he manipulates the defense well enough that he "has an uncanny ability to wait and put the defense between a rock and a hard place."
But the No. 2 spot won't be decided until McCarron and Johnson hook up in the pre-season games, where Johnson has played well enough to remain in the league six seasons and where McCarron has never played. And it's looking more and more like that is going to be the last quarterback slot on the roster.
"He did a good job when we finally got the Jack LaLanne stuff out of the way and that's not to belittle the rehab process,' said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "It was just great to finally get our hands on him.
"He's got a feel for the game and he anticipates. We're seeing the things we saw in college. Each day he shows awareness. He has to do it live. If he does what he's doing now live, that would be a nice step because from there he'll get better and better live."
For those born closer to the era of Jane Fonda workout videos, Jack LaLanne starred in the first physical fitness TV show in 1953 and while Zampese is physically fit himself, he just likes it better when his quarterbacks are throwing instead of rehabbing. And Zampese knows it is the rehab that built back McCarron's right shoulder after he was shelved most of last year with tendinitis.
"Better than high school. Better than college,' said McCarron, when asked how good his arm feels. "I'm in a good place right now. The offense is coming naturally. I feel like (the spring) has been good. I don't want to (grade) myself, but I think I was consistent. I didn't really have any turnovers. Two I think."
Three, but he'll fight you on that. Another example of the scouting report holding true so far. Besides accuracy and smarts, the Bengals also knew McCarron brought the confidence of a two-time national champion from Alabama's pressure cooker. He's got some swag. He won't back down.
On Wednesday, he got intercepted by rookie safety Derron Smith reading his eyes in a cover two when McCarron tried to squeeze it into wide receiver Brandon Tate on a route to the sideline. Those that watched the tape Wednesday night said Smith stayed in-bounds, but McCarron was having none of it.
"That was no pick. He was out of bounds. I looked at it, too," McCarron said Thursday. "Before his foot came down his hand was out of bounds."
That's what makes McCarron go, too. He doesn't have a laser up his sleeve but he's burning with competitive juices everywhere else.
"That's what I am," McCarron said and he was also candid about throwing it into double coverage. "That's my fault. I held it a little too long. I thought we were going to release past the corner a little faster. But I have to get off him. Next time I'm going to pump him outside and work inside since he likes to play outside more."
McCarron made the right throw in Thursday's 7-on-7 in the red zone when he jammed the ball into wide receiver Marvin Jones driving past cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to the front right pylon for a touchdown.
"Marvin was my outlet, so that was good for us to get our third choice,' McCarron said. "I thought the tight end was going to sit in the middle, but that didn't happen, he saw something else."
As he has been prone to do this spring, McCarron quickly got out of the pocket. There was no one rushing here, but he knew the clock was ticking. If McCarron is going to hit his third option, which Jones was on that play, Zampese doesn't mind the moves.
"He sees things and creates things that are fun to watch. That's his game," Zampese said. "Look right, look left, move around, find a guy. He feels a pocket presence, feels the rush, slides to the open spots and makes plays from there. Your feet tell you when you gotta go. You can't block them forever."
This spring is the first time Marvin Jones has hooked up with McCarron since both were hurt last season and he was the beneficiary of another McCarron ball on Thursday, a 20-yard high one with some mustard over the middle that Jones jumped up and hauled in.
"He excited us," Jones said. "You can tell the maturity, the way he moves in and out of the pocket. He had a good spring. That's what sticks out. The command of the huddle. Sliding in and out of the pocket. Extending plays."
Last year at this time, Lapham and other media were on the sideline gaping at how little arm strength McCarron had. The rehab has changed all that, but his brains are going to go in the box above arm strength.
"His short and intermediate passing looks real good. I think his deep ball still needs some work," Lapham said. "He's got a good football mind."
The scouting report is holding up. But if anyone knows how important games are, it is McCarron and his 36-4 record at 'Bama. The only difference is he knows these pre-season games count.
"Keep getting better every day,' McCarron said. "If I do that, I should be OK."