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Bengals' AJ McCarron pick intensifies spotlight on Andy Dalton

CINCINNATI -- Andy Dalton was already gone by the time reporters got into the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room this week. An intentional disappearing act or not, it was just as well.

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The Bengals have gone to great pains to explain that drafting free-falling Alabama product AJ McCarron in the fifth round was not about Dalton. But, of course, everything in the NFL is about the quarterback to some degree. That was clear this week in Cincinnati, even if Dalton is the unquestioned starter and McCarron is installed in one of those temporary lockers teams roll out to squeeze everybody in before the roster cuts begin.

McCarron struck all the right notes during his debut in front of the local media here. He is befuddled by the draft-weekend chatter that he rubbed some teams the wrong way with cockiness, he is grateful that the Bengals did not listen to it. He thinks Dalton is a great guy and is excited to learn from him. McCarron seemed to be a bit on auto-pilot as he answered the questions, walking the fine line between trying to defend himself and trying to cover his great disappointment in his draft circumstances.

There are a few unqualified truths in Cincinnati right now, though. The Bengals are working with Dalton on a long-term contract extension, which they hope he will sign before the season -- the final one on his rookie deal -- begins. And they don't want McCarron to be a backup forever.

So, what exactly was picking McCarron about then?

"We've been fortunate with Andy that he has played so much," said long-time head coach Marvin Lewis, who sat in his office just a few days after the draft ended. "But we can hopefully grow a starting quarterback from the ground up. A capable backup but yet a guy who has the opportunity to start.

"Frankly, you don't want a guy in here that doesn't want to start at quarterback. There's a tension, but also a graduation that can occur. It's happened throughout the league. Guys graduate and they move on. And everybody understands that. But maybe graduation is after three or four seasons. We all have to worry about four years down the road. Hopefully Andy should be, in quick order, under contract for four years down the road. As long as you continue to play at that level, there's never anything to worry about."

Alas, this is a little bit about Dalton after all.

"Well, yeah, we're in a competitive business," Lewis responded. "Andy knows that. I was in a competitive business at Idaho State -- they'd bring a junior college linebacker in every year to take my job."

That offers only a little clarity. The Bengals want to groom McCarron -- either to eventually succeed Dalton if he falters while at the same providing a good backup, or, if Dalton puts an iron grip on the job, perhaps to be a starter elsewhere, maybe giving the Bengals a nice trade chip down the road.

Incredibly, Lewis has never had to manage a quarterback controversy in his dozen years in Cincinnati -- blessed, to varying degrees, with Jon Kitna, Carson Palmer and then Dalton. That, though, has made signing a viable, long-term backup difficult. And that is not ideal for a team trying to avoid an injury-induced disaster.

The Bengals signed Jason Campbell, who already knows how Hue Jackson will run the offense, to be the backup and also to be a mentor -- to Dalton and now McCarron. Grooming McCarron, then, sounds in some ways similar to the New England Patriots' plans for Jimmy Garoppolo. With an eye to what happened to the Indianapolis Colts when Peyton Manning got hurt and there was no backup ready to go, the Bengals and Patriots are trying to insure against catastrophe while also perhaps working on what could eventually become a succession plan -- or not.

The selection of Garoppolo raised eyebrows because it came in the second round, meaning the Patriots eschewed other prospects who might have made a more immediate contribution to the team. But the insertion of McCarron -- who arrives with multiple national titles and a beauty-pageant-winning fiancée -- has caused a stir that it is hard to imagine Aaron Murray, who was taken one slot ahead of him, would have created. And it is hard to imagine it happening if Bengals fans -- if not Bengals management -- did not have such a complicated relationship with Dalton.

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Dalton has taken the Bengals to the playoffs every season since entering the league as a second-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft -- one of just six quarterbacks since 1950 to start a playoff game in each of his first three campaigns. (On the list of others: Otto Graham and Dan Marino.) This is also the first time since the mid-1970s that the Bengals have posted three consecutive winning seasons. Dalton has not missed a start and his 30-18 record is the best winning percentage (.625) of any Bengals quarterback with 10 or more starts. Dalton, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton are the only NFL quarterbacks to top 3,000 yards in each of their first three seasons. Last season, Dalton set franchise records for passing yards (4,293) and touchdowns (33), surpassing Palmer's 4,131 yards in 2007 and 32 touchdowns in '05. Had you shown those figures to any Bengals fan in the 1990s, they would have been thrilled.

The not-too-distant history of the franchise was such that when Palmer was drafted by the Bengals in 2003, Boomer Esiason -- a franchise icon who quarterbacked through a peak of a Super Bowl appearance and a valley of a 3-13 mark -- presented him with a helmet and jokingly invited the No. 1 overall pick to "our dysfunctional family." Then, just before Dalton's rookie season began -- when he was thrust into the starting job abruptly after it was clear Palmer would never play for the Bengals again -- Esiason, assuming that Dalton would struggle, said the same thing to Andrew Luck, who would be the first overall pick the following year.

So while Dalton's performance has far outpaced Esiason's meager expectations, the bar has been raised. And with each first-round playoff loss -- three in a row -- the outside agitation with Dalton has grown. It is not, it seems, shared by those inside the Bengals' building. One team official quietly asked this week how many first-round playoff losses Manning had early in his career. Dalton, though, is a quiet sort, with the personality to let the criticism roll off him. That was a good thing when he first arrived, and the Bengals were coming off several raucous, arrest-marred years. But now Dalton is so reserved, it might be playing against him. If the Bengals are hoping McCarron can learn to be a successful quarterback from Dalton, they might also be hoping that Dalton will assume some of the more overt leadership qualities McCarron displayed at Alabama.

How McCarron will harness his own ambition remains to be seen. In an interview Wednesday, he said he had always thought that learning for a few years behind a starter would be the best scenario for him. He noted how well that had worked out for Aaron Rodgers. Lewis theorizes that the real reason McCarron fell in the draft had little to do with perceptions about his personality but more about perceptions that he does not have a strong arm. That is similar to the knock on Dalton when he was drafted, and the fourth-year pro's ability to throw deep is still a source of concern. Last season, according to NFL Media research, Dalton completed just 40.2 percent of passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, although 13 of such completions went for touchdowns. Lewis went to Alabama's pro day in part because he wanted to see McCarron throw for himself -- and he noted that McCarron, unlike many other college quarterbacks, threw downfield, the way the Bengals' offense works.

McCarron's job for now, though, is to throw no bombs on or off the field. Lewis said he told McCarron that even if he participates in a reality show based around his upcoming summer wedding, it would not be allowed in the Bengals' facility. McCarron said Wednesday, "There is no TV thing going on. It's a little crazy when that report came out." He made a point to say that photos of him partying didn't pop up on websites when he was in college. He wonders if it would have pleased teams more in pre-draft conversations if he had said he expected to be a mediocre quarterback and to go in the middle rounds.

It surely will require a bit of a mental adjustment for McCarron to go back to being a backup, a role he has not played since 2010, when he backed up Greg McElroy in Tuscaloosa. Not that he thinks he'll be a backup forever -- or maybe even for very long.

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"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I'm going to go out there and compete. Just because somebody doesn't expect something doesn't mean things can't happen.

"I want to be supportive to Andy. He's an unbelievable guy. He deserves that. I want to be a good teammate to him and a good friend. What did Aaron wait, four years? I think if you trust and believe in yourself, it will all work out. If I have to do that, I have to do that. I have no problem with that."

Nor do the Bengals. At least for now.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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