FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s been eight years since AJ McCarron last threw a pass for the Alabama Crimson Tide. A native of Mobile, Alabama, McCarron helped lead the Tide to two national championship victories, threw 77 touchdowns and lost only four games as a starting quarterback.
In the eight years, McCarron, 30, has floated around the NFL as a starter and a backup. Drafted by the Bengals in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, McCarron also has played with the Raiders, Texans and, as of this offseason, the Falcons.
For the first time since his Tuscaloosa days, McCarron feels at home. During the first week of Falcons training camp, he was met by his wife, kids and other family members after practice. He loves being close to home, especially after spending his NFL career in the North and the West.
McCarron was brought in to back up Matt Ryan and be a helpful presence in the locker room and on the practice field.
“I think (coach) Art(hur Smith) and (general manager) Terry (Fontenot) and the rest of the staff, the atmosphere they brought has been awesome,” McCarron said. “Eight years in the league, I’ve been a part of a lot of different atmospheres, but this is very relaxed but do your work. It’s always great to come into work with a group of guys.”
In the 17 games played in his career, McCarron has started four. He has thrown only 55 passes since his rookie season in 2015. With Ryan getting the night off, McCarron started the Falcons’ exhibition opener Friday night. He played the first half and was 5-of-12 passing for 36 yards, and he threw one interception. He worked behind an offensive line that was missing four key players.
His role has shifted since he was leading Nick Saban’s near-perfect teams in the early 2010s. Gone are the days of playing in front of sold-out college stadiums with a national championship or an SEC championship on the line. No longer is McCarron expected to throw for 2,000 yards a season with a shot at a Heisman Trophy.
But he’s fine with backing up Ryan and doing what he can to help his new team win football games.
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
“(My job) is to help the starter and prepare them to the best of my ability,” McCarron said. “At the same, I have to get the defense ready during the week, with scout team and stuff like that. And at the same time be ready to play if my number is called. I’ve done this role for quite some time. I’ve started, I’ve backed up, so I don’t care if they need me to fill up water coolers. If it helps us win, it helps us win. I just like being a part of a team and winning.”
Smith praised not only McCarron’s efforts, but the position of backup quarterback as a crucial part of a team’s success.
“The thing is when you get into the season, you are one play away from being the starter,” Smith said. “That is a very tough role in the NFL because you don’t get a lot of reps, and you’re expected (to be ready to play). It could be the first play of the game or the last and the game is on the line, and you’ve got to be ready to roll.”
McCarron’s job of working with Ryan and rookie quarterback Feleipe Franks has been made easier because of the two vets’ relationship. McCarron said that he and Ryan know a lot of the same coaches, players and personnel in the league, which has lent itself to more natural chemistry building.
Though he’s been on an NFL roster for eight more seasons than Franks, Smith said that McCarron still has to earn the No. 2 job. That competition, both in game scenarios and with his fellow quarterbacks, helps fuel McCarron.
“Anybody that has been a part of a team at this level can tell you that you only go as far as your scout team,” McCarron said. “The guys that are giving you looks help tremendously during the week, to get you prepared, see exactly what tendencies the other team is doing. That’s big. The whole mindset is doing whatever we need to do to win.”
That team-first mindset was instilled before his Alabama days, but playing with some of the best recruits and coaches in college football definitely strengthened McCarron’s work ethic and desire to be great.
“Just because you get the best players doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best team,” McCarron said matter-of-factly. “It’s the effort, the time, the sacrifices those guys make and put in to master their craft and prepare for the whole season. You play the game and see where the cards fall.”
So his repetitions probably will be limited after the Falcons’ exhibition schedule, and he’ll be satisfied with his role as Ryan’s backup. McCarron is still proud to be on an NFL team and living less than six hours from home.
Just as crucial as his role of backup quarterback, McCarron never loses his sight of his role of family man. Ask him his favorite play of his college career, he doesn’t say a moment from his championships, nor any of his touchdown passes.
Instead, it was a three-yard pass to his brother in a 49-0 Senior Day victory against Chattanooga.
“It was awesome,” McCarron said.