AJ McCarron: The Trait-Based Evolution

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]As the offseason continues, the ebbs and flows of headlines continue to rock the football world. Between the group of free agent quarterback available this year and the very deep 2018 draft class, there is certainly a lot of chatter to go around. Recently, AJ McCarron became a unrestricted free agent in the wake of his arbitration case with the Cincinnati Bengals. Many on the interwebs have questioned his market, namely whether McCarron should demand any real attention? His time in Cincinnati was limited to four starts in three years, all of which were in 2015, as he was stuck behind incumbent starter Andy Dalton. Drafted in the fifth round, his knocks from his time at Alabama (where he was a three year starter) ranged from issues with the deep ball to a lack of mobility and athleticism. This deep dive is an attempt to get a sense of where he is now as a player and understand his strengths and weaknesses. This is an honest attempt to take the bad in with the good, and as usual, the evidence will show that there is much more than meets the eye initially. Many in the media automatically want to label him as a Mike Glennon type, about to receive a “wasteful” large contract. Ultimately, this study will show that there has been marked improvement in many very key aspects of his game, which makes him a very good QB2 candidate and potential QB1.

Let’s jump into the clear negatives first. At the college level, McCarron had one of the more prolific careers a starting quarterback has ever had, and did so while playing for arguably the most dominant college regime in recent time. What was masked a bit by the college game was his lack of timing within the structure of the offense. His mental processing was often fractions of a second to whole seconds late, but completions still came as collegiate defenders were simply not as fast their professional counterparts. Matt Waldman described it as “being a beat off”. At the professional level, an example below shows McCarron being slightly off in his playoff start in 2015 against the tough Pittsburgh defense:

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McCarron is a fraction of a second late here, allowing the quick twitch zone defender Robert Golden to make a play on the ball and the receiver, tight end Tyler Eifert. The ball needs to be out when the receiver turns to give him a chance to make a clean catch and prepare for positive yards after the catch upfield.

There was also a fair amount of chatter on McCarron coming out of Alabama that he would hesitate to receivers that were clearly open at the more intermediate level. Intermediate throws for most quarterbacks require a slightly longer motion and overall processing. The example below is from his first start, against the San Francisco 49ers.

McCarron showed his hesitation on this first down throw in 49ers territory on a drag route to wide receiver Marvin Jones:

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This freezing can show up in a few places. One of the more common examples for younger quarterbacks is to freeze versus a shift in coverage, particularly those that, on their own, are difficult to identify. From the Steelers playoff game once again, defensive coordinator Keith Butler featured a Cover 6 (“Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage) on 2nd and 11.

McCarron freezes with the coverage shift, which results in a sack/fumble by Cameron Heyward.

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Perhaps the most difficult mistake to swallow is the occasional over aggressiveness shown by McCarron, not that far from traits that Vikings QB Case Keenum has shown at times. Competitors want to compete, and staying with the Steelers playoff game in the second quarter, the Bengals were getting frustrated by Pittsburgh’s mix of coverages and zone blitzes. On a 3rd and 13 after two ineffective plays, McCarron attempted a deep go route to wide receivers versus a cover 3 zone coverage. As you can see below, he was a bit late, throwing into a tight window, and ended up with a massive under throw:

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One of the largest issues for McCarron from his college days were struggles with the pass rush and pressure. Pressure often leads to footwork and technical breakdowns that might not result in sacks but often incompletions. Quite frankly, McCarron’s four professional starts were against units that generate a lot of pressure (Pittsburgh, Denver, Baltimore were 3 of the 4), and expectations were probably pretty low. But what showed on film was not an overwhelmed quarterback, but one who routinely fought against the pressure, to some success. Against Denver in Week 16 of 2015, late in the first quarter on a 1st and 10, the Bengals are in 21 personnel with a 2×2 receiver formation out of shotgun. McCarron recognized the defense was showing Cover 2 man coverage before the snap.

McCarron missed or hesitated on the blown coverage at the linebacker level, as he failed to locate the wideout going up the seam. Against cover 2 man, that throw had to be very precise and on schedule going right into the teeth of an over the top safety.

But knowing he should be facing man coverage, he decisively took off to his right and gained 16 yards for a first down.

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Sure, coaches and fans want the next level play, where he would maybe shift in the pocket and extend the play to come back to the seam route. However, staying committed to a plan from the pre-snap phase and producing positive yards was a clear way to help his team that day.

Going back to McCarron freezing or having real issues with pressure at the college level, there has been clear progress made on this front. The Steelers playoff game really showed this, with more than a couple examples against their fire zone blitz where, even when sacked, he was difficult to bring down. In the 4th quarter, on a drive that resulted in a go ahead touchdown, the young quarterback showed some real heart. The first example here was out of an 11 personnel trips right formation, where he avoided pressure from the ageless James Harrison and tossed a shovel pass to running back Jeremy Hill:

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This was merely a gain of three yards, but a great example of pocket presence to backside pressure.  McCarron hung in the pocket to find his checkdown receiver and avoid a sack. It was also a smart and safe play to avoid a turnover, reminiscent of Matt Ryan‘s sneaky ability to make plays in small tight places before getting hit. Look, not all guys who play this position can escape like Carson Wentz, roll out and hit a receiver 40 yards downfield. But this play started off the drive in a positive way.

On the previous drive in the Steelers game, McCarron really exhibited his gutsiest throw of the game on a post route to TE Tyler Eifert.

On a 3rd and 9 out of 11 personnel shotgun, facing a double A gap blitz and SS delay blitz, McCarron gave just the right amount of ground to stay in the pocket and delivered a well placed ball to Eifert for a 18 yard gain

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If you noticed, McCarron had to come off his primary read to find Eifert here. This reaction against a blitz with pressure bearing down was very impressive. His throw was not perfect, but wide enough to make the tight end the only one who could make a play on the ball. This was a big play to keep a drive alive and pull his team closer to a comeback in the playoffs.

One of the under rated and new developments in McCarron’s game has been his mobility. Throwing on the run is a very tricky endeavor at the NFL level, often it leads to inaccuracy or turnovers as QBs try to fit the ball into tight windows. When a play breaks down or goes off schedule, a quarterback often leaves the pocket for greener pastures. McCarron has shown an ability to keep his shoulders level without setting his feet, resulting in strong throws in the short and intermediate range. In the Denver game from 2015 on 1st down just outside the red zone, the Bengals come out in a 21 personnel i-formation look and run play action. Against Cover 4 zone, McCarron’s sixth sense flushes him out of the pocket to his right, where he delivers a strike to Green who has broken off his route.:

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A play combining his pocket presence to find space and make an accurate throw on the run can be found early in the Pittsburgh game on a 3rd and 11. Out of 11 personnel in shotgun, McCarron faces front side pressure, forcing him to climb the pocket, but he sees very little downfield against Cover 3 zone. He continues and rolls right, keeping his eyes downfield and finding his check down TE (who could not convert the first down).

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Some may criticize this example as basic, but the seeds exist for McCarron to continue developing the ability to extend plays with his legs while remaining in the structure of the play. Now this will come up later in the piece, but McCarron needs an offense where that type of quarterback play is encouraged. In 2015 under Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson and QB Coach Zampese, throwing decisively and driving through throws with commitment downfield were both skill sets that were emphasized. On a 3rd and 6 in the Pittsburgh game, McCarron dropped back against a strong safety blitz from his backside and tried to find AJ Green on a deep post.

McCarron drops back and holds the safety in the middle of the field.

This was not a strong example of an intermediate throw, however, the type of miss was both decisive and a read that was not careless.

McCarron makes the throw from a clean pocket, but the ball sails on him and leads to an incompletion.

A quarterbacks missing in a big game is a large tell for his process and attention to detail. But what became clear when investigating McCarron’s deep throws was that were a lot more positive examples than negatives. First off, his motion was solid and compact, and using a lot less space to get the ball downfield than his college tape. Most of his balls did not hang but rather had a solid arc to be both catchable as well as very accurate into some tighter spaces. On a 3rd and 8 against San Francisco out of shotgun, McCarron is up against a 2 deep shell that rotates into Cover 3.

The window for the throw deep to Marvin Jones is tight, but there’s room for the throw to be made.

McCarron delivers, and it’s a 47 yard strike to Jones.

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Keeping that image of throwing from a tighter space in mind, we look at another example from the Steelers playoff game. To give context a bit, the Steelers played a fair amount of cover 2 to cut off the short out routes that Hue Jackson was calling. Due to the rather limited playbook, McCarron was forced to challenge the honey hole of the cover 2, or the soft spot of the zone over the shallow cornerbacks and wide of the deep safeties, often referred to as the “turkey hole”.

His first success against this coverage did not come until the second half, and culminated in the go-ahead touchdown score with 1:56 to go in the game. On 3rd and 7, McCarron dropped back in shotgun as Pittsburgh rotated into cover 2 from a single high safety look pre-snap.

The video shows a pocket that was tighter than many would have initially realized, but he hangs in there to throw the go-ahead touchdown pass.

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McCarron has shown a lot of progress when throwing to his left, a motion that takes a touch longer and is somewhat more demanding technically on the lower body. It sounds a bit Zoolander-ish, but it was something that plagued Chicago Bears rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky pretty aggressively this year.

Judging a quarterback is difficult, and it must be done within the context of the team’s system, surrounding players and play selection. McCarron showed a lot of positive traits and improvements during his time in Cincinnati. Much of his improvement outlined above is thanks to coaches like Hue Jackson and Ken Zampese. Player development often gets overlooked in this league, as coaches are so focused now on the strategic side of X’s and O’s instead of technique. It is often left to the players themselves to either get their own or outside input to improve. That clearly happened for McCarron, at least in part, because of his coaching staff of the Bengals, and he should be lauded for it.

But, this piece draws from games from 2015, and frankly a lot has changed since then.  Hue Jackson is in Cleveland now after one win in two years with six different quarterbacks played, the shine has worn off his status as an offensive mind, particularly in bringing younger quarterbacks further along in their professional development. That statement is a bit unfair, because back in 2008 and 2009, he was the quarterbacks coach for Joe Flacco, and although he wasn’t there for their Super Bowl, he certainly has had positive influences on younger players.

However, his offenses currently rely almost exclusively on isolation type routes, requiring their players to beat the others in a one on one way, in either man or zone. If it’s man, it requires separation via speed or route precision and for zone it requires players to win competition for ball and very strong throws from quarterbacks. Often the first read is a deep fade or a go route, so its very aggressive in nature. On film, the results from the Bengals in 2014-2015 and the Browns from 2015-2016 are stuck in the mud with either short out routes or deep routes being attempted with little or no separation. With McCarron, there was an obsessive like use of mirrored routes (both sides of the formation run the same pattern), gimmicky plays (the author refused to breakdown the Emory and Henry formation/play), and a running game that was just purely ineffective. In film study, its often difficult to show the omitted examples from the majority of plays put under the microscope. The elements can show up statistically at times, but really for the example of Jackson and his offenses, the best effect is watching the sequence of plays and being overwhelmed with what seemed to be a Sisyphean offensive effort.

This is not to be a harsh criticism or Jackson or the Coryell offensive traits that are found in it. The bottom line, though, is that other offensive concepts do not rely on superior athletic ability by thrower and receiver to make plays. These systems, as found in Andy Reid‘s coaching tree, to Kyle Shanahan’s version of the West Coast offense, to New England‘s version of Erhardt-Perkins system, all take large amounts of effort to put the offense in a place to succeed. Jackson’s use of pre-snap shifts is an example of this, but often it does not go as far as these other offensive coordinators/head coaches do.

The point for a guy like AJ McCarron is that he actually succeeded with Hue Jackson, so much so that Cleveland tried to trade for McCarron in what infamously became known as “Faxgate” this year. This reunion may come to fruition this year, as Cleveland searches for its answer at quarterback. The question is, wouldn’t McCarron be better off with his traits shown above, on a team known for cultivating such younger talent? Is the best move for his career to head down south to a place not far from where he grew up in Mobile, Alabama, as a backup for a guy like Drew Brees in New Orleans? This year, they showed much of the football world how to excel with a strong running game and pinpoint laser accuracy on routes less than twenty yards. If not for a poor tackle by a young safety, they would have had a Divisional Round game in Philadelphia. Will McCarron end up somewhere like that? We shall see.

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