A.J. McCarron was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama. After being recruited by a number of SEC programs, the football quarterback elected to stay in state and move to Tuscaloosa to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Despite accepting a red shirt his freshman year, his college career was solid, and he was even considered a potential long shot for the Heisman Trophy. His college accolades include being a three-time BCS national champion, two-time second-team All-SEC, and first-team All-American. Expectations were that he'd be a second- or third-round pick, but pre-draft interviews saw him fall to being selected 164th overall in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
The NFL Didn't Take to A.J. McCarron
His first season with the Bengals was a wash. A shoulder injury landed him on the non-football injury list, missing at least the first six weeks, but there was never intention that he would see significant time. It wasn't until Andy Dalton went down in his second year that McCarron saw any real playing time. He started four games after Dalton went down, including a narrow loss to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs. And so began the team carousel.
The Bengals attempted to trade McCarron to the Browns in 2017, but Cleveland botched the trade by not getting paperwork submitted in time to the NFL. He signed with the Buffalo Bills, but a preseason injury sidelined him and he never saw regular season time. He was traded to Oakland in 2018 but only managed to throw three passes. When he got to Houston in 2019, he had one start and played only four times over two seasons. He finally landed in Atlanta in 2021, but a torn ACL in the preseason ended his NFL dreams. In eight years in the league, he only managed to play in a single season's worth of games, starting only four regular season and one postseason game.
And yet, despite barely seeing the playing field, he signed contracts that could have ultimately set him up for life if they were fulfilled. He saw out the $2.4 million rookie deal with Cincy, but the $10 million he signed with Buffalo was moot.
So the question became, does he add the football knowledge as a backup to another NFL team, or does he hang 'em up? Well, there's another option — because McCarron wants to play.
Enter the XFL and the St. Louis Battlehawks
McCarron was drafted by the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL in November 2022. Two weeks into the XFL season, that move has paid off. McCarron said in a postgame interview that he could have taken another NFL job as a backup and made more money. However, at this point in his career, he just wants to play. He has finished back-to-back comeback wins to start the season, against the San Antonio Brahmas and Seattle Sea Dragons. During those games, McCarron threw 40-62 for 374 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He's the only starter in the league to keep the ball solely in the hands of his own team.
"My 6-year-old loves watching tape of me on YouTube. That's a big reason I chose to return this way ...," the emotional QB said after the game. "I probably could have tried to come back with an NFL team and had a chance to probably make more money, but no one knows what the future holds. I'm enjoying this, and it's a great way to create some memories for me and my boys."
This is a stark contrast to his time in the NFL, where he threw 109-174 for 1,173 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions over eight years. It seems that giving McCarron some time under center may have behooved an NFL team without a long-term starting option. But, that aside, it seems the XFL was the right place for McCarron to land.
It was always going to be difficult to compete with the NFL. The Alliance of American Football fell on its face, but the USFL and XFL are trying to make waves. Maybe with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson behind the XFL, the experiment will actually work this time. But it's not just the money behind it. It's guys such as McCarron who make the choice to come play in a league that will guarantee playing time over a fat contract.
Could his play, and others following suit, be what the sport of football needs? Maybe. Only time will tell. But I'm keeping my eyes on them for sure.
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