McCarron Sheds Game Manager Tag
By Brett Beaird
"Alabama wins BCS National Championships in spite of mediocre quarterback play," noted a national college football writer in 2011, describing Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
Another writer believes McCarron benefited from great protection provided by one of the best offensive lines in history of the SEC and college football. Former All-American linemen Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack are now playing in the NFL with lucrative contracts.
Other pundits say McCarron’s success is linked to head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier putting McCarron in a pro-set offense known primarily for running the ball and play-action passing in order to limit his turnovers.
Alabama’s assembly line of strong, talented running backs such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy garnered many more headlines for their punishing style of play, controlling the clock and wearing down opponents. McCarron had elite talent at wide receiver such as freshman sensation Amari Cooper (59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns) who could make adjustments to catch any errant pass.
Defensive stars such as Dont’a Hightower, CJ Mosley, Mark Barron and many others usually could make crucial stops, bailing out any offensive miscues by McCarron. In other words, AJ McCarron has been the offensive architect of back-to-back BCS National Championships because he is still labeled as a “game manager”.
No one knows about the maturation process of McCarron better than Saban.
"AJ has been trained to be a good leader and the players love him," Saban said. "He’s now the best leader on our football team. Football's important to him. He learned well. Last year he threw 30 touchdown passes and only had three interceptions. He's come a long way."
Early in the 2012 season, McCarron began to assert himself more as an overall leader and the results have been incredible. He has a sparkling 25-2 overall record as a starting quarterback.
His career stats of 5,956 yards, 49 touchdowns and eight interceptions in two seasons are impressive on any level. On the biggest stage in college football, McCarron has performed admirably. He is a combined 43 of 62 for 498 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back BCS National Championship wins over LSU and Notre Dame by a combined score of 63-14.
Game Manager Label Stuck In 2011
Most pundits agreed the strengths of the Alabama team in McCarron’s sophomore year were a strong running game led by Trent Richardson and one of the best defenses in Alabama history.
Six times during this season, Alabama held opposing offenses without a touchdown, including a shutout of LSU in the BCS National Championship game. The Tide defense only allowed 191.2 yards and 8.8 points per game. Opposing offenses scored just 43 first-half points in 13 games.
It became evident early in the 2011 season offensive coordinator Jim McElwain would center the offense on a solid offensive line and talented running backs Richardson and Eddie Lacy. McCarron did not perform well in two key games: a 9-6 loss to LSU and a 24-7 win over Mississippi State, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns.
McCarron came to Alabama with a gun-slinger reputation. He was labeled as a risk-taker.
A lot of this misconception fueled itself with the infamous “spanking” Saban gave McCarron. Saban was furious with McCarron following a fourth-quarter possession in November 2009 during the 30-10 win over Mississippi State. Saban chewed out McCarron for not taking what the defense was giving him and forcing a pass to Julio Jones. To reinforce the lecture, Saban gave the then-redshirt freshmen McCarron a slap on the rear end. McCarron realized he had to tone down his aggressive play some.
“I had to learn how to scale back how I play my game,” McCarron said. “It was polar opposite, now to when I came in here.”
LSU Provides Litmus Test
No question McCarron has benefited from big halftime leads and No.1 recruiting classes. But last season McCarron was given the opportunity to see how he would react to adversity and he passed most of the tests. Coming from behind to win on the road in a nationally-televised game in November against a national power is a dream of all quarterbacks. It was McCarron’s dream too. A come-from-behind, 21-17 win against LSU in Baton Rouge provided a positive litmus test. Before the final drive, McCarron had a miserable second half, completing only 1-of-7 passes for 0 yards. LSU’s defensive coordinator John Chavis called a perfect game plan in the second half, blanketing Tide receivers with tough man-to-man coverage and allowing his defensive front to frequently pressure McCarron.
However, in the stadium where LSU coach Les Miles famously remarked “opponent’s dreams come to die,” McCarron and his teammates had to compose themselves, trailing 17-14 with 94 seconds remaining. Before the final drive commenced, Barrett Jones suggested to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and Nussmeier maybe a screen pass could offset LSU's relentless pressure. McCarron then hit wide receiver Kevin Norwood with three key first-down passes. After another pass to Norwood in the end zone failed, on second-and-10 from the LSU 28-yard line, Nussmeier remembered Jones' suggestion and called a screen pass to running back TJ Yeldon. The Tide executed the play perfectly as Yeldon scampered 28 yards for the winning touchdown.
After doing nothing right for 28 minutes, McCarron could do nothing wrong on the final drive as he completed 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards. After the game, an emotional McCarron talked about the pressure of being the starting quarterback for an elite program such as Alabama.
"With all the tradition at Alabama, sometimes it can be a lot of pressure playing to win,” McCarron confessed. “But coming back and winning a game like that, we will always be a part of history of Alabama. I learned a lot about myself and my teammates."
Ball Security: One Of McCarron’s Biggest Assets
McCarron’s 291 pass attempts without an interception represent the second-longest streak in SEC history. His record against Top-25 opponents is 10-2 with a 3.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-4). He’s thrown just eight interceptions in 690 pass attempts and 27 career starts.
McCarron will not wow NFL scouts with his running ability, but he moves well with good fundamentals and footwork. He has a ‘bunny hop’ in his release, but throws one of the most accurate deep balls in college football. McCarron completed an impressive 85.7 percent of his passes from 35 to 39 yards in 2012. He led the nation in passing efficiency last season, and it didn’t come from easy dump-off passes in the flat. There also were 46 completions of 20-plus yards.
He ranks second in winning percentage in Alabama history (92.6) and fifth in total wins (25). McCarron is third in career completions (460), fourth in yards (5,956) and fifth in pass attempts (690). His completion percentage of 66.7 leads all Alabama quarterbacks, and he owns the lowest interception percentage of them all at 1.16.
McCarron In Control Off The Field Too
While daily national stories of Johnny Manziel receiving cash for signing autographs and memorabilia have permeated national headlines, McCarron exhibits control on and off the field. He turns down a lot of requests to make personal appearances, electing to stay on campus to work out with his teammates.
He threw out the first pitch at a Mobile BayBears (AA baseball) game because of his allegiance to his hometown. Being a long-time NASCAR fan, he served as the honorary pace car driver May 5 at the Aaron’s 500 Talladega race.
“I could have been out doing all sorts of stuff, but that’s not me,” McCarron said. “I don’t need to do that. My job is playing football, not being a celebrity off the field.”
Alabama starting right guard Anthony Steen appreciates McCarron’s leadership and uses it to raise his game to another level.
“Me and AJ, when we’re out on the field together, just being out there with him, it brings my game up to the next level,” Steen explained. “I just don’t want to disappoint him and that makes me work that much harder. AJ is a good guy and knows what’s wrong and what’s right. That’s why I like having him as my quarterback. He won’t purposely do something wrong. He knows how bright his future can be. He’s not going to mess that up.”
Steen appreciates the leadership ability his quarterback started displaying last season.
“When we came in together, we were both quiet guys, but for AJ, I’ve seen him grow up,” Steen said. “He’s the type of guy who will stand up in front of people, try to motivate them and say what’s on his mind. I like that about him. He’s turned into a well-respected leader on this team and the players follow him without question.”
Thanks to ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger, McCarron’s love interest has gained national attention. Musburger repeatedly singled out McCarron’s girlfriend Katherine Webb on camera during the TV broadcast of Alabama’s 42-14 thrashing of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game. Webb, the 2012 Miss Alabama, is an Auburn graduate.
When asked during SEC Media Days for his opinion on the lack of respect he receives from some national writers, McCarron shrugged his shoulders.
"It's odd to me," he said. "Normally if any other quarterback in the country wins two national championships, he the best in college football. However, because of the system we run I'm still labeled a game manager. As long as we keep winning, I don't care."
McCarron knows success comes in time with his steady approach. Can McCarron win an unprecedented fourth BCS national championship ring? If he does, it will not be as a game manager, it will be as a playmaker.