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Should the Bengals Keep A.J. McCarron or Jason Campbell?

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Should the Bengals consider keeping A.J. McCarron as the team’s backup over veteran Jason Campbell. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As of yesterday, the Bengals cleared rookie quarterback A.J. McCarron for practice just as his time ran out on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list.

Per league rules, when the Bengals originally placed A.J. McCarron on the NFI (non-football injury) list this off-season, it meant McCarron couldn’t practice with the team for the first six weeks.  Then, again per league rules, the team had five additional weeks to evaluate him.  Yesterday was the deadline for the Bengals to decide what to do with him.

The Bengals made the obvious choice by declaring McCarron eligible for practice.  They now have three more weeks to evaluate and decide what to do with him going forward.  At the end of the three weeks, the Bengals can either place McCarron on the I.R. list (ending his year), waive him, or place him on the active roster, which would mean they’d have to simultaneously waive another player to make room for him.

Waiving A.J. McCarron would be pointless considering the team could retain his rights by placing him on I.R.  When deciding between the I.R. list and activation, many people will rightfully assume that McCarron will be used as extra quarterback insurance for the next three weeks in case of injury as he doesn’t count against the 53-man roster for this time period.  They will assume that, barring injury, it’s only a matter of time before he’s placed on the season-ending I.R. list.  These assumptions are a near certainty considering Marvin Lewis’ penchant for “playing it safe.”  But should he continue this trend or give McCarron some extra thought? Should the Bengals consider keeping A.J. McCarron for the remainder of the season?

The Bengals are likely to simplify the argument down to Jason Campbell’s experience and his yearlong participation in practice.  Campbell’s participation all year has undoubtedly allowed him to develop a better rapport with the receivers on the field when compared to the one, if any, that McCarron has with them.  Yet, despite this rapport and any understanding of Hue Jackson’s offense, Campbell has looked inadequate this year.  Here’s a look at Campbell’s 2014 performance thus far.

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Clearly Campbell’s performance leaves much to be desired.

The other reason the Bengals sought out Campbell’s service this year was his experience.  The Bengals wanted him to impart his NFL experiences on Andy Dalton in hopes of helping Dalton develop.  The NFL season is now 11 weeks old, so there’s been plenty of time for Campbell to do so.  The results of Dalton’s season have been characteristic of him, so it seems uncertain how more of Campbell’s knowledge can really help going forward.

More than this, Campbell doesn’t have any playoff experience, so he won’t likely have much knowledge to bestow upon Dalton down the stretch.  In fact, Jason Campbell has only seen the playoffs once and that was from the bench.  The 2007 Washington Redskins made the playoffs, but were only 5-7 when Campbell was under center.  Todd Collins replaced Campbell once he was injured (patellar ligament) and led the team to a 4-0 finish.  This put the Redskins in the playoffs, but they were promptly ousted by the Seattle Seahawks on Wild Card weekend.  Campbell’s lack of playoff experience will likely keep him for offering more than he already has down the stretch and in any potential playoff situation.

This leads me to my next point.  A fourth consecutive playoff appearance is far from inevitable.  The Bengals have been incredibly inconsistent this year, so it’s anyone’s guess how the rest of the season will play out.  If the Bengals are to make the playoffs, it will likely be due to a solid running game and defensive effort.  Throughout 2014, the Bengals have wanted to decrease the onus on Andy Dalton and rely more on the running game and defense.  This means that the quarterback won’t have the bulk of the onus on him regardless of who that quarterback is.  And if Andy Dalton is hurt down the stretch and the Bengals make the playoffs, is anyone really confident that Jason Campbell can lead this team to playoff success.  Is anyone really more confident in Campbell than in any potential McCarron may have.  The Bengals won’t ask much of their quarterback no matter who’s under center and this reality would only help if forced to start a rookie quarterback.

On the flip side, if the Bengals are pushed out of the playoff picture with any number of games to go, wouldn’t it be beneficial to get A.J. McCarron some snaps down the stretch?  It would help him become a better quarterback heading into next year and may even help build his value in case the Bengals choose to try and trade him at some point.  If the Bengals miss the playoffs, it’s likely the Bengals would want to give McCarron a look considering Andy Dalton’s performance would undoubtedly have something to do with them missing the playoffs whether the focus of the offense is on him or not.

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The Bengals’ future is in the hands of Andy Dalton the next year or two based on his contract.  But if things go poorly in the near future, the Bengals may be forced to reconsider their commitment to him.  This means getting every look they can at their options can only be a good thing.  Yet if the Bengals play well enough the remainder of this year to make the playoffs, will it really be because of the quarterback they relied upon?  Or will it be the defense and the running game?  If Dalton is hurt, are the Bengals really in better off in the hands of Jason Campbell?

The Bengals made an intelligent decision when signing a veteran quarterback to help mentor Dalton.  Regardless of whether Campbell was the best they could’ve done, the intention was correct.  But now 11 weeks into the season and knowing what the team knows about itself, choosing to stick with Jason Campbell as the backup due to yearlong practicing is oversimplifying the decision.  A.J. McCarron has been allowed to be around the team during his time on the NFI/PUP list.  He’s been allowed the time to develop relationships with teammates, study the playbook, and be a part of team meetings.  And, most importantly, he’s been able to observe from the sidelines and learn from this experience like many young quarterbacks.

Over the next three weeks, McCarron has an opportunity to prove his merit during practice.  Regardless of what many people may assume, if McCarron performs well, then it would be prudent for Marvin Lewis and Bengals to consider moving forward with him rather than “playing it safe” the way this team so often has done.

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