The popular saying is that the starting quarterback on any football team always receives too much credit for the wins and two much blame for the losses. Current Alabama Crimson Tide starter AJ McCarron grew up around a fan who often acted that way. According to McCarron, his father - Tony McCarron - was a rabid Alabama supporter who loved the Crimson Tide so much that he missed the birth of AJ's younger brother in order to see Alabama beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1992 national title. McCarron said his father was the type of fan who would cheer the quarterback one play and then start screaming for him to be pulled the next play.
"I've seen it my whole life," said McCarron, a native of Mobile, Ala. "My dad, he was THAT fan when I was growing up. As soon as a player messed up, he started dogging him."
Yet McCarron certainly is not receiving too much credit for Alabama's success. If anything, in the minds of many observers, he is little more than an afterthought. He is seen largely as the prudent caretaker of an offense that relies heavily on a powerful offense line and a punishing running game.
When USC quarterback Matt Leinart and Florida's Tim Tebow were winning national titles, they both were rewarded with the Heisman Trophy along the way (as well as a substantial amount of national publicity). Nebraska's Tommie Frazier, who won back-to-back titles in the mid-90s, was the 1995 Heisman runner-up. As for McCarron, he didn't even finish in the top 10 of Heisman voting this season.
Much of the dismissal of McCarron comes from the fact that he does not have the opportunity to put up gaudy passing numbers. Alabama is one of the few college football teams these days that truly runs a balanced offense, averaging 224.6 rushing yards per game and 214.5 passing yards. As a result, McCarron ranked 73rd in the nation this season in passing yardage.
But when McCarron did throw the football, he was among the best in the nation, completing two-thirds of his attempts (66.8 percent) and posting a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 9-to-1 (26 TDs, 3 INTs). McCarron's quarterback rating of 173.08 is the best in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. Meanwhile, highly celebrated Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel ranked 17th in the QB rating.
What Manziel did instead was consistently post 300-yard passing games and repeatedly turn in highlight-reel plays. You don't get the nickname "Johnny Football" because of your quarterback rating. Alabama has not needed such theatrics from McCarron, not with two 1,000-yard rushers in the backfield in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and a defense that is ranked tops in the nation for the second consecutive year. Seemingly all McCarron has been asked to do is play smart, not mess up and keep things under control. Many people refer to that as being a "game manager," though it is a term that makes McCarron bristle.
"But I think `game manager' can be so many different things. You can throw the ball 50 times a game and lead your team to victory by throwing it, or you can hand it off 30 times and only throw it 20. . I feel like my coaching staff and my teammates know what I do. That's all that matters to me."
McCarron certainly has the support of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has used the term "game manager" when talking about the junior quarterback. But like McCarron, Saban said he believes that phrase often is misconstrued.
"I don't think you can be a good quarterback unless you are a really good game manager. That's the ultimate compliment to me," Saban said. "You have the ball in your hand every time, and you are making some kind of choice and decision what to do with it. Whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on or where you throw it in the passing game. You have to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions.
"I don't think it's fair to AJ that because I've said he's a really good game manager for us that it's like that means he doesn't do anything. He does everything."
Actually, McCarron simply is following in a long line of championship quarterbacks at Alabama who were appreciated much more within the crimson walls of Tuscaloosa than they were nationally. The school's most famous quarterbacks - Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Bart Starr - played a half-century or so ago and are known largely for their NFL accomplishments. In fact, Namath is the only one of the three who actually won a national title at Alabama as the starter (in 1964), and even then he missed part of the season with an injury.
Many of Alabama's national championship teams over the years have had a game-manager type at quarterback. The Crimson Tide's list of title-winning QBs since the 1970s is a virtual "who's that?" of championship-level football: Gary Rutledge, Jeff Rutledge, Steadman Shealy, Jay Barker. In 2009, Greg McElroy led the Tide to the title, and now he is largely stuck on the bench for the New York Jets. Not exactly Broadway Joe.
It also didn't help McCarron's national stock that he was kept off limits to the media by Saban for almost all of Alabama's title run last season. On the few occasions when he was allowed to talk, McCarron usually didn't say much. He came across as quiet and reserved, not exactly the vocal leader one might expect from a national championship quarterback. But McCarron stepped up big in the 2011 championship game, abusing LSU's hyped-up cornerback Tyrann Mathieu with several pinpoint passes. According to center Barrett Jones, McCarron has been a different player ever since.
"AJ grew up more in the past year than any other player on the team," Jones said. "He became more of a vocal leader and more confident in his checks (at the line of scrimmage). . He's had a lot of poise in big situations."
The two biggest situations for McCarron occurred in the come-from-behind victories over LSU in the regular season and Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Against LSU, McCarron completed passes of 18, 15, 11 and 28 yards in a five-play, 72-yard game-winning touchdown drive that ended with less than a minute to play. Then after struggling most of the game against Georgia, McCarron hit Amari Cooper in stride for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 left to give Alabama a 32-28 lead and the victory.
Those are the moments that enabled the Crimson Tide to make it back to the BCS title game yet again this season. And while they might not have been enough to generate much national buzz about McCarron, they certainly gave Alabama fans reason to cheer. At least until the next play.