GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 01: AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts a pass during a game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on October 1, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Saturday night in Gainesville was the Trent Richardson show by just about any measure. He rushed for a career high 181 yards with an average of 6.24 yards per carry. The rest of the team averaged just 4.24 yards per play when Richardson didn't touch the ball. All three of Eddie Lacy's non-garbage time drives ended in punts after just three or four plays even. The only thing that could have stolen some attention from Richardson's offensive brilliance was Courtney Upshaw's defensive brilliance. Well, that and some big injury news.
We all knew Richardson was going to be the star of that offense, though. I picked him as a Heisman finalist and prior to the season pointed out that he's more explosive than his Heisman-winning predecessor Mark Ingram. On the season, Richardson is averaging 7.2 yards per play on his rushes and receptions combined; the rest of the team is averaging just 6.28 yards per play. He's a superlative talent who should be a top five or ten pick in next year's draft.
So while Richardson was predictably the story of the night, the more interesting subplot for Alabama's offense was QB A.J. McCarron. This was just his second road start overall and his first one in SEC play. It also was his second game against a good defense, following his road appearance against Penn State. That one went reasonably well, with him posting a low 116.3 passing efficiency but without any turnovers.
Initially after watching Saturday's game, I was not impressed with McCarron at all. He overthrew all of his deep passes, had a number of throws batted down, and got hollered at by Nick Saban for acting like a five-year-old after his touchdown run. I remarked during the game that I actually relaxed when McCarron faked handoffs on play action, the reason being that it meant that Richardson probably wouldn't be getting the ball.
While the stat above about yards per play in the game validated my feeling about the value of Richardson getting touches on a given play or not, it wasn't quite as bad a performance by McCarron as I had initially thought. I rewatched his plays prior to garbage time (before Alabama had a 21-point, fourth quarter lead) and came out feeling a little better about his potential.
First, here is a chart of his targets. Again: this doesn't include garbage time, so these numbers won't match the box score.
His passing efficiency here computes to just 95.04, which is quite frankly an awful figure. If you take out the drops, it improves only to 108.00, which again is not good. It's not an end-all, be-all stat though. It doesn't take into account what a coach wants his quarterback to do. With Richardson carrying the load quite well, Alabama didn't need McCarron to do more than this. Plus, you usually have to throw for touchdowns to get a good score. To illustrate that effect in the formula, recall that Marquis Maze took a screen pass one yard short of the end zone on one of these drives. Had he made it that extra yard, the non-drops passing efficiency jumps from 108 to 123.
But while Alabama's coaches didn't need more from McCarron on this particular night, they did want more from him. Jim McElwain understandably called for some longer throws given Tyler Bray's success on that very field two weeks prior against Florida's very young secondary. Upon further review, McCarron still did overthrow all of those deep balls. In fact, only three of his 12 completions were caught beyond the line of scrimmage. Alabama also had to call two timeouts in the first quarter when crowd noise prevented him from being able to change a play at the line of scrimmage. He very much looked like an inexperienced quarterback in a tough road environment.
The good news is that his decision making wasn't bad. He did have some passes knocked down, but they generally were just on good plays by the Florida secondary. He didn't throw an interception, and he wasn't ever close to one either. He also didn't launch any dying ducks, with most passes having a nice, tight spiral. His accuracy wasn't always there, as evidenced by his 54.5% completion rate even with drops removed, but that could come with time.
Through five games, McCarron stacks up well against the previous two Crimson Tide starting quarterbacks. They aren't perfect comparisons, of course. John Parker Wilson was running Mike Shula's offense in his first year as starter, while Greg McElroy was a junior and not a sophomore. Plus McCarron has seen two stiff defenses in Penn State and Florida, while the other two only saw one each in their first five games. For the record though, here's how they stack up:
McElroy comes off the best here, though Wilson didn't have anything like the run support that Ingram and Richardson provided the other two with. McElroy also had the supreme luxury of throwing to Julio Jones, though Jones essentially missed two of the first five games of '09 with a bruised knee suffered early against FAU. McCarron's passing efficiency is held back versus his peers' by his much lower touchdown count, though Wilson almost makes up for that with his higher interception count. Also, McCarron's lower yards per attempt is almost entirely a factor of him having faced two top-15 defenses instead of just one like the other two did. So while McCarron was mediocre against Florida, he's overall been par for the course for a first-year Alabama quarterback in recent seasons.
The real point of concern for McCarron, based on last Saturday, was his inability to get his best two wide receivers the ball. Maze and Darius Hanks only caught a third of the balls thrown their way, and neither of the two had any drops to mitigate that fact. The incompletions tossed Maze's way were generally bad throws; the ones tossed Hanks' way generally were batted down. The latter fact speaks more to the routes Hanks runs and his relative inability to create separation from defenders, but that's something McCarron will have to learn to deal with.
McCarron is not there yet as a quarterback. Neither really were Wilson or McElroy after five games though, as both had some real stink bombs yet to come in their first seasons as starters. Wilson got Croomed in November of '06, while McElroy was dreadful while Ingram was having his Heisman moment.
If such a game is still yet to come for McCarron, he had better make sure it's not against LSU. Those Tigers have probably the only front seven capable of slowing down the powerful Bama running game out of the Tide's remaining opponents. At some point McCarron will probably need to make some plays with his arm, and that Tiger secondary is easily the best he'll have faced all year outside of practice.
McCarron will never have to carry a Tyler Wilson-esque load unless both Richardson and Lacy go down to injury. With Richardson literally able to drag defensive tackles around, that's an unlikely proposition. However if it's ever necessary for him to make a bigger contribution than he made against Florida, he'll have to play better than he did in the Swamp.