Of all the storylines surrounding Saturday night’s playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, here’s one that is significant but does not involve the trash talk, cheap shots and bone-breaking hits that so often have defined this intense AFC North rivalry.
Tuesday afternoon, Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron was recounting a face-to-face encounter that happened the last time these teams met.
That was Dec. 13 at Paul Brown Stadium and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton — who was leading the NFL in passer rating — suffered a broken thumb on his throwing hand. McCarron replaced him and got his own rugged welcome from the Steelers, who won 33-20.
Afterward, McCarron, 25, said he met his Steelers’ counterpart, 12-year pro Ben Roethlisberger, on the field:
“What’s funny is that I told (this story) to Big Ben after the last game. I said I was a young kid, I can’t remember how old exactly, but I remember going to the GMAC Bowl in Mobile (Ala.) and watching Big Ben play when he was at Miami of Ohio.”
That would have been 2003 — McCarron was 13 — and Miami trounced Louisville in his hometown stadium.
“After the game I went under the stadium to the locker room,” McCarron said. “I met his mom, his dad, his sister and him. I just remember he gave me a wristband and all this other stuff and how cool it was.”
When asked where that wristband was now, McCarron looked a bit sheepish, shrugged and started to laugh:
“Yeah … I don’t know. I’d be lyin’ if I said I put it in a trophy case or had a great story behind it.”
So what’s the significance in this story?
Just as he didn’t hold onto that old memento, neither is McCarron carrying around the heavy postseason history the Bengals have made since 1990.
Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in 25 years, the NFL’s sixth-longest postseason drought.
The team has lost in the first round the past four years with Dalton at quarterback and is 0-6 in the postseason under coach Marvin Lewis.
Asked about all that dubious history, McCarron, the second-year pro put of Alabama, shrugged again:
“The way that’s treated around here, it’s so much of a negative. It kind of reminds me a little of Alabama, as in living in the past.
“(There it was) how many national championships we had as a university and it’s how many times we lost in the postseason here.
“But it’s a different team every year.
“At the same time it’s hard to get to the playoffs, period. In this league it’s extremely hard to win a game. But that’s not the reason to live in the past and I don’t think this team does by any means. Last year was last year and the year before that was then. I just try to live in the present moment.
“If we play the game the way we’re supposed to play and play with all-out heart and leave it out there on the field, the chances are good for us.”
He said he knows fans hold onto those glory days in the 1980s and “want to see greatness again.” He said that pushes his teammates and him to play not only for themselves and each other, but “for the city.”
“It’s pressure, but you gotta love it,” he grinned. “It’s awesome.”
A history of violence
Over the years the Steelers have not been kind to Bengals quarterbacks.
One of the first and most fabled incidents came during a Monday Night Football game at Riverfront Stadium in 1983. That’s when Steelers defensive end Keith Gary took down Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson with one of the most vicious facemask tackles in NFL history.
Dave Lapham, now the Bengals radio broadcaster but then a starting offensive lineman, remembered the incident Tuesday:
“It was an up-field rush and (Gary) reached out and grabbed (Anderson’s) facemask as he went by and wrenched his head all the way around. The way his head turned, it looked like The Exorcist, man!”
Afterward, Bengals coach Forrest Gregg was still livid and told the press Gary’s play was inexcusable: “He could have broken Kenny’s neck!”
Anderson was carted from the field to the hospital wearing a brace around his severely strained neck and would miss the next three games.
Meanwhile, Turk Schonert, Anderson’s replacement, also was clobbered by Gary, who received his second 15-yard penalty for his excessive actions. In all, Pittsburgh would sack Bengals quarterbacks nine times that day and return two interceptions for scores.
In 1992, Bengals rookie quarterback David Klinger made his NFL debut against Pittsburgh was sacked 10 times in the loss and complained of a severe headache afterward.
The most infamous moment involving a Cincinnati quarterback came in a January 2006 playoff game. On his first passing attempt, Carson Palmer was hit in the knees by defensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen. His left knee was destroyed and required extensive surgery.
When the teams met last month, Dalton suffered his broken thumb while trying to tackle the Steelers’ 313-pound defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who had just intercepted his pass.
When McCarron came in he was intercepted twice, one of the picks being run back for a score.
Although he eventually settled down and played pretty well, McCarron won’t forget what it was like at the outset that day.
“The first couple of snaps kind of reminded me of my first high school game when we played Carver-Montgomery,” he said with a smile. “I jokingly came to the sideline after two possessions and asked my offensive coordinator, ‘Did they have more than 11 people on the field?’ ”
He said he’s seeing the game a lot better since then, and it shows. Since the loss to the Steelers, he’s had his first three NFL starts and won two. He’s thrown for 832 yards and six touchdowns and not been intercepted.
Although Dalton just had his cast removed, he admitted Tuesday he hasn’t started throwing.
While there is some speculation the Bengals might try to start Dalton against the Steelers, Lewis tried to deflate it and said the team is going ahead with McCarron at the helm. He praised the way his young quarterback has assumed the starting role and led the team:
“He knows the hat’s on his head.”
No stranger to chaos
At Alabama, that hat became a crown as McCarron led the Crimson Tide to back-to-back national titles in 2012 and 2013.
“He came from a big-time program at Alabama and he’s accustomed to winning,” said A.J. Hawk, the veteran linebacker from Centerville High School and Ohio State. “He’s been around a culture like that his whole life and he brings that with him for sure. Obviously his confidence is very high and he’s a winner.”
While McCarron stressed there is a big difference between college football and the NFL, he admitted there are some similarities from the postseason:
“I feel like I played in some big college games, for sure. There was a lot of chaos there, too, when it comes to media and getting down there a week before the championship game. There were all the distractions in Miami and (the previous year) in New Orleans.
“Actually this is comfortable. I get to go home to my house every day and see my wife and the little dog and sit on the couch and watch film … and make her watch some, too. It’s definitely fun.”
McCarron said he’s trying to embrace the experience as much as he can and he seemed to look forward to another reunion with Roethlisberger.
He said when he told the Steeler quarterback about their first meeting in Mobile all those years ago, Big Ben “started dying laughing.
“He said he remembered. I don’t know if he really did, but at least he made me feel good.”
That’s something few Bengals quarterbacks have been able to say about an encounter with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So maybe AJ McCarron finally will be the guy to rewrite history, even if he doesn’t always hang onto it.