John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE



Let us get the joke out of the way first: AJ McCarron's "Heisman Moment" last year, if you wanted to cut one slice out of the season, MAY have been a screen pass to Alabama. This is mentioned two ways. The first is satirical, and insinuates that AJ McCarron's role in Alabama's success is so prescribed and mechanistic that he's little more than a gifted, punctual functionary. To salute him for this is like saluting the mailman for delivering your taxes to the IRS, or thanking the medical coder for successfully entering your insurance information following a successful open heart surgery.

The second way is to be very serious about this, i.e. to say that in his role, AJ McCarron is asked to be a controlled, anti-volatile, and dependable part of a machine. This is something you seriously don't appreciate enough because this, like most things on a football field, is very difficult to do. McCarron takes snaps from the best offensive line in college football, hands off to the best running backs available, and then, on roughly sixty percent of his snaps, dutifully gets out of the way. The Alabama offense is his trust fund, and just as you would/should, he coasts atop it happily when allowed to do so.

If you know any lucky trustafarians, however, you know that the forty percent of the time you have to show up can go disastrously, and that fortunes can be squandered in seconds of utter foolishness. You invest in a few shady juice shops. You throw a few picks against a conference opponent, and fumble away a few in a crucial road game. You miss a few throws against Florida in a title matchup, or against LSU in a game a decade ago. You're now working at that juice bar, wondering how you got here, dishing out wheatgrass to odiferous vegans in Tom's shoes, someone like an Oklahoma quarterback who, through a few small margins, squandered a fortune of talent through just a few mistakes.

Jason White's not working at a real juice bar, but metaphorically that is exactly where Nick Saban put him, and where all the sad trustees of offensive talent go when they melt in title games, positions of extreme pressure, and other cauldrons of intense psychological and physical stress. You can in fact screw up AJ McCarron's position. Actually, AJ McCarron nearly did against A&M last year by throwing sixty-six percent of his total interceptions in a single season in one disastrous game.

McCarron threw two picks in that game, meaning he threw three all season, and that's the impossible curve we're grading on here. Since John Parker Wilson's 2008 season, Alabama starting quarterbacks have thrown 17 interceptions. Texas Tech's Seth Doege, Ole Miss's Bo Wallace, and UNLV's Nick Sherry each threw 17 interceptions last season alone. We're not even counting fumbles here, since they're poorly accounted for by stats, but McCarron's a part of an offense that only turned over the ball 15 times total in 2012, and happens to be the most important cog in that stingy, mashing machine.*

*Informally, McCarron had something like seven fumbles, and lost two of them. One of them came against Mizzou on a play he was injured on, and had to hobble to the sideline. Remember when you injured A.J. McCarron, Mizzou! Way to go, bros. 2012 wasn't all shards of glass and poop rain for you.

He is efficient, but clarify that point: he is more efficient than Greg McElroy, and that in itself is absurd because McElroy was a nimble accountant of the football who never threw more than five INTs in a season, and who scrambled out crucial first downs with uncanny precision. Go back and watch and see if McElroy ever takes a hit he doesn't have to: if he bailed out of 100 planes, he would escape unscathed from 100 flaming wrecks, probably with perfect hair and sparkling teeth.

McCarron has been even cleaner, and without McElroy's occasional shocking scrambling to bail him out of imploded plays and other accidents of football. He has a better arm, and more of a willingness to boom out play-action nukes downfield than McElroy ever did. Unlike his predecessor McElroy, McCarron even seems dangerously human for an Alabama quarterback: emotional after the LSU win, covered in a shoulder-pad shaped array of chest tattoos, and even admitting in public that yes, it is difficult sometimes to be a very famous person in a very small space like the state of Alabama. He doesn't even have the right hair, and wears--gasp!--glasses off the field. He is, in every sense of the Alabama printing press of generic Crimson Tide quarterbacks, a bit of an outlier in terms of style.

To wit: McCarron even shoved Barrett Jones when Alabama was busy steamrolling the last wrinkles out of Notre Dame's perfectly flattened corpse. At this point in the game, we would remind you that Alabama is leading by four touchdowns, and that Notre Dame very much wants to leave the building and go home and perhaps eat some delivery pizza in the hotel.

The entire school of personality-dependent discussion in sports is repellent, but especially so in a team sport where everyone by definition is trapped by context. Manziel 2012 does not exist in that particular degree of blinding radiance without Luke Joeckel. Tim Tebow doesn't become the dangly cat toy for bored, stupid sports felines if he doesn't have Percy Harvin taking safeties and terrified linebackers away from the line of scrimmage with him. Reggie Bush was utterly brilliant, and he did it within the framework of one of the best-structured college offenses ever.

If we were forced to pick someone, Ndamukong Suh might be the one player--the one--you could take from the last decade and call something like a sui generis terror, something that created itself, and lived as independently of its football context as possible. Ndamukong Suh would have been a plague wherever he was. The only thing that would have changed would have been the uniform, and the degree of pain inflicted on outmatched offensive linemen and skill players.

This is not the case for someone like the Enabler Mage of the Alabama offense. AJ McCarron does not exist outside of that Alabama Success Bubble. The trick, however, is that no one does. Vincent Smith's helmet doesn't become a low-flying object in the 2013 Outback Bowl if Michigan's offensive line and tight ends don't miss a line call, and thus allow Jadeveon Clowney the moment when we forget he is a player in a multifactorial game, and assign him a kind of status somewhere between murderous land creature and avenging demigod.

Football in action isn't mythology: it is hard, complex chemistry, and it's easy to confuse the catalyst for the entire reaction. In this case study, for instance, Amari Cooper to the endzone is the end result, but only as an eleven-part chain reaction with one very key element being everything that happened before it: the zillion straight runs to facilitate the call, the mansome bear-blocks by the offensive line, the volatility of something like Amari Cooper, and the flowing, almost shotput-style bomb delivery of a categorically perfect play-action pass over the top.

That's a context you want to be trapped in as a quarterback: throwing brilliant passes in brilliant positions with a high probability of success. AJ McCarron does not get in the way of anything, and conveys his parcels on time, accurately, and with precision. That is a kind of superpower, and if you don't understand how rare a power it is, consider the sad, gifted chain of quarterbacks who came this close to doing it, and then faltered at the last second. It is a long list of brilliant individuals, and AJ McCarron's name appears nowhere on it.

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