How pride and joy helped A.J. McCarron inspire the Bills to victory

A.J. McCarron celebrates his touchdown run with Logan Thomas and others in Chicago.
A.J. McCarron celebrates his touchdown run with Logan Thomas and others in Chicago.

He's won a pair of national titles at the collegiate level. He's started an NFL playoff game. None of those experiences however, matched the pure exhilaration AJ McCarron felt leading the Bills 25-point fourth quarter barrage en route to a 28-27 come from behind victory in the team's final preseason game Thursday night in Chicago.

"Final game together not knowing who's here tomorrow as part of the business," said an emotional McCarron. "I'm just super proud of the guys. It was awesome to battle with the guys and probably the most fun I've ever had."

His take on a night that began with him throwing a pair of interceptions and often running away from oncoming pass rushers might come across as strange. But if you know how much joy the 27-year old gets just from playing the game, you'd understand why for AJ McCarron Thursday night was special.

In the preseason finale there was no competition. Nate Peterman and Josh Allen were not going to take the field. Thursday night would be just McCarron leading the offense.

Outside observers saw it as a sign that he was no longer a candidate for the starting job, a contention that head coach Sean McDermott refuted. As of Thursday night, McDermott said he had not yet decided who his starting quarterback would be.

For McCarron however, Thursday night was an opportunity to let it all hang out with largely young and inexperienced players who would be doing the same in a last ditch bid to make Buffalo's roster.

So he decided to call a meeting with the guys who would be participating in the Bears game on the field.

"I had met with everybody that was playing (Wednesday) night," he said. "I had a special message for them and tried to create a little highlight tape that I made for them. I just love this group. It's an awesome group to be a part of. I kept telling everybody to trust the process during the game and not worry about the end result. It's not always going to be perfect. That's the game. There are going to be bad plays, things that don't bounce your way, but just stay focused. It was awesome."

Things couldn't have looked much worse at halftime. Buffalo was down 20-0, they had one series that crossed midfield and McCarron had a passer rating of seven.

But the players kept at it and McCarron had a feeling. That feeling only intensified after the Bills had cut the lead from 20 to five after McCarron's touchdown pass to Malachi Dupre with three and a half minutes remaining.

After the defense forced the Bears offense three and out and gave the ball to McCarron and the offense with three minutes left, the quarterback shared the feeling he had with the rest of the huddle.

"It was just one of those feelings you can't explain," McCarron said. "I looked at the guys and Wyatt (Teller) is who I remember the most just because of the look on his face it looked like he never heard it before. I told them, 'Watch this we're going to go down and win and you're going to remember this for a long time. It's going to be legendary for us and our group.'

Twelve plays and 84 yards later, McCarron and his teammates were celebrating a six-yard touchdown pass to Keith Towbridge that gave them the lead and the win.

"It's just a good group of guys," said McCarron. "It's awesome to be a part of them. It's fun playing the game with guys who just love playing. I love being a part of a group like that. It makes you feel good as a quarterback and as a person.

"I didn't want to let them down, so I wasn't going to give up. I've never given up. It's just the person I am. I just wanted everybody to trust that we were going to keep battling and give us a chance to win."

“He’s a winner. Having a quarterback like that you just go fight for him. That’s what the guys on offense did and we ended up winning.” Rookie wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud

"He's a winner," said Ray-Ray McCloud. "Having a quarterback like that you just go fight for him. That's what the guys on offense did and we ended up winning."

"I thought he brought our football team back and showed great leadership," said McDermott. "He led one heck of a comeback out there. He did a great job."

Now comes the hard part. The waiting to see what the quarterback decision will be from McDermott and his offensive staff. McCarron's shoulder injury at Cleveland may have cost him his best chance at a starting job in his NFL career.

Of course, it was also the main reason he played in Thursday night's game from start to finish. That's why he wanted to be sure to get his message across to his teammates that the time they've spent over the last several months meant something to him.

"It's not a secret. Some of the guys who played (Thursday night), me, we might not be here (Saturday) or whenever they make the final cuts," McCarron said. "I just wanted everybody to know that they were special to me. We had been through a long process to get here and I wanted to take it upon myself to show my gratitude to them and what it means to me for them to be out here every day working hard. It means a lot."

It was understandable that McCarron didn't want to answer any quarterback competition questions in the postgame interviews with the media. He didn't want to think about what may or may not happen for him in the next 24 to 48 hours.

He had just had too much fun playing and clearly wanted to savor a night that felt a lot like the backyard football days of his youth in Mobile.

"I understand you all want to talk about the quarterback competition," he said. "But we're blessed to be able to play this game for a living. It's a game that we get paid handsomely for and it's fun. I'm enjoying the game."