- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Say the words "game manager" around the University of Alabama and wait for the backlash that follows -- the shouting, the wincing, the shaking of heads. No one around here wants to hear those two words, the dishonorable distinction that's been thrust upon their quarterback.
By now, the hope is that AJ McCarron's dubious title would have gone by the wayside, put to rest by a junior campaign that saw him throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. A second championship ring as a starter should have been the final nail in that most unnecessary of debates: Is McCarron one of the best quarterbacks in the country, or is he a system quarterback on one of the best teams in the country?
Oh, the vitriol that question has inspired.
But the genesis of the "game manager" title begins and ends here in Tuscaloosa. And it was never meant to be a bad thing. If McCarron wasn't a good manager of the game, he never would have seen the field in the first place. If UA head coach Nick Saban couldn't implicitly trust McCarron with the playbook, then he never would have won the starting job in 2011 and we might be talking about Phillip Sims as the Tide's quarterback. There was, after all, very little distinction between the two passers after Greg McElroy -- another supposed "game manager" to lead Alabama to a national championship -- left school and was taken by the New York Jets in the final round of the NFL draft.
Today, McCarron is trusted completely by the coaching staff, Saban included. That much was evident against Texas A&M on Saturday when McCarron was allowed to opt out of basically any play that was called in from the sidelines, run or pass. McCarron called it a "check-with-me" game in which he was asked to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and go one of two routes.
"[Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] would send me the formation and a certain play and if I felt like they were playing one defense, I checked into a pass," McCarron said on Monday. "I did that numerous times. Sometimes they didn't give me a check to a pass, so I felt like we could run it and I check to either side running the ball. Everything in the last game was based off of what I felt like would help us."
In other words, McCarron managed the game under center. He was, as no one wants to hear around these parts, a "game manager." He just so happens to have developed into one of the best at it in all of college football, culminated by a nearly flawless performance against Texas A&M on Saturday that put him squarely back into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
McCarron threw for a career high 334 yards and four touchdowns in the win over the sixth-ranked Aggies, passing Brodie Croyle for second all-time in passing yards (6,400) and John Parker Wilson for second all-time in completions (490). It was the first time in his career that McCarron threw touchdown passes to four different receivers, the final throw coming on a series in which he audibled to play action and found a wide open Jalston Fowler in the flat for the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
It was arguably the best performance in McCarron's already illustrious career. All four of his touchdown passes came against a rush of five or more defenders, as he out-dueled a prolific Texas A&M offense. Alabama's +28.8 offensive expected points added -- the number of net points contributed by the offense, taking into account their performance on every since play they were on the field -- was one of the highest of any team versus a BCS automatic qualifier this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
But on Monday, McCarron awoke to more talk of him being a "game manager." Why? Well, it certainly didn't help boost his reputation when his coach's first comments about him after the game were encouraging only in the sense that they weren't critical. "AJ did a great job of implementing the plan," a professorial Saban said, grasping for his reading glasses later in the post-game news conference to read the final stat sheet. Columns in publications around the country instead clung to the heroics of Johnny Manziel and the resurgence of Alabama's offensive line, while very few pitched the idea of McCarron making a name for himself on the national stage.
"You don't don't want to be viewed as a game manager, AJ ..." a radio host said to McCarron on his way to class Monday, a question implicit in his trailing voice.
"I really don't care what people view me as" McCarron responded before being cut off.
The host interjected: "You're OK with that label? It sounds like a negative with what you do with that offense."
"If that's the way other people view me, it's fine," McCarron said. "I know the way my teammates view me, and I think my teammates feel like I'm an important player on the field for us at all times."
Cyrus Kouandjio, the man charged with protecting McCarron's blind side at left tackle, knows his quarterback's worth. He saw the type of leader McCarron is, watching him work the huddle and get in and out of plays on Saturday.
"We had to have that type of focus in that type of environment," Kouandjio said. "We practiced for two weeks. Everything just clicked. He’s been here for so long and he’s done so much for this program, you know, he has that trust factor. He knows what he’s doing."
Said tight end Brian Vogler: "The style of offense we run, you put a lot of confidence in the quarterback to make the right decisions, make the right calls, audible if he needs to. I really think that last job, he really took over the offense. He honestly said in the huddle, ‘Put the ball in my hands.’ So I think his confidence and his leadership really help out this offense. When we were down 14-0, he said, ‘Look guys, we’re only hurting ourselves. When we’re all on the same page and we’re all working together, we do really good things. We’re getting a lot of push on the ball, we’re getting the ball downfield … in the passing game.’ Just his leadership and the confidence the coaches have in him really helps out our offense."
Everything McCarron does, for better or worse, is viewed in the context of Alabama's offense, unlike, say, Manziel, who is viewed as the proprietor of Texas A&M's offense, the narrative wrapped around his ability to improvise and make plays out of thin air. In other words, Manziel makes things happen while McCarron has things happen for him.
For McCarron, though, the "game manager" title may linger until he leaves for the NFL, but coaches and players around the game understand his worth.
On Saturday, the Aggies dared McCarron to put the ball in the air, and he did. "We said going in AJ was going to have to beat us," Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. And what did McCarron do? "He caught fire," Snyder said after the game, lamenting how his secondary was torched for big play after big play.
Maybe if McCarron catches fire a few more times, he'll be able to finally break free of his dubious reputation as a game manager. But for now, the title still holds some traction.
His coaches are fine with it, his teammates are fine with it and maybe everyone else should be, too. The numbers, the wins, the championship rings; at the end of the day, those will speak for themselves. Saturday's win may not have extinguished talk of his being a game manager, but it certainly helped cement his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks in the school's history.