On a 7-yard scramble in the second quarter of Atlanta’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, Falcons’ quarterback A.J. McCarron felt something that had never happened before in a football journey that began when he was a toddler.
A season-ending injury.
McCarron tore his ACL on the rush before he was tackled by Dolphins’ linebacker Sam Equavoen. He stayed in the game for one more play, then hobbled off the field, possibly for the last time.
The first quarterback to win consecutive BCS National Championship games spent the autumn of 2021 rehabbing at home, surrounded by his sons.
“Coming home, these kids can work iPads, like it’s unreal,” McCarron said during a press conference on Wednesday.
“My six-year-old, he knows how to get to YouTube quicker than I can pull up a text message. Seeing him on YouTube and watching highlights of me and stuff, coming home one day, (he said) ’Dad, I want to see you play football again.’”
When the St. Louis BattleHawks’ brain trust formed last summer, head coach Anthony Becht along with Director of Player Personnel Dave Boller and offensive coordinator Bruce Gradkowski had a mission.
Find and recruit the right quarterback to lead the hybrid West Coast attack – described by Becht as a combination of schemes used by Sean McVay (Rams), Matt LaFleur (Packers) and Jon Gruden.
They considered the prototype with proven XFL success – young, mobile quarterbacks like P.J. Walker and BattleHawks’ alums Jordan Ta’amu and Taylor Heinicke – and then, decided to buck the trend.
“We wanted to go the other way,” Becht said during a press conference earlier this week.
“We felt like having a guy that’s got some NFL experience, a guy that still has a lot of tread on their tire, even if they were older, and someone that is driven and maybe still has a chip on their shoulder.”
Becht said when he met with McCarron, it was clear the 32-year-old felt he had “unfinished business” on the table, and that included making the younger McCarron’s wish come true.
“Man, do I really need to go somewhere (in the NFL) and sit this year and just be another back-up? Or can I take this opportunity to go play, create memories for our family and friends, and have my boys be a part of it.”
McCarron’s performance in camp revealed how critical his knowledge and decision-making will be to the BattleHawks’ success on offense.
“Let him use his football IQ at the line of scrimmage so he can get us in and out of things,” Becht said. “He can change things, he can speed up the tempo, he can slow the tempo down – having that extra coach on the field, he’s got a live arm, he can make all the throws.”
Linebacker Lakiem Williams, the leader of the BattleHawks’ defense, says McCarron poses a problem for the opposition, and it showed when St. Louis scrimmaged Orlando during camp.
“I see him slinging the rock, for real,” Williams said. “He has a good arm, good precision, nice accuracy. I see him throwing for a lot of yards this year.”
“For a defense, (playing together) always clicks a little faster. I was surprised to see the offense click fast as well. When we had that scrimmage, we were all hitting on so many levels.”
The BattleHawks fly into the Alamo Dome in San Antonio on Sunday afternoon to open the 2023 XFL season and the former All-American will take center stage as the biggest household name the league has on offer.
A.J.’s sons will be there too, just as they have during BattleHawks’ camp where the younger McCarrons serve as ball-boys on the sidelines.
Little about the game worries McCarron, an eight-year NFL veteran that shined under the hottest spotlights in college football – except for one thing.
The XFL plans to allow the television audience to experience, let’s say, intimate moments on the field.
“The only thing I’m kind of dreading is if they have a mic on me – listen, inside the white lines, I can’t control some things. I feel bad for my mom because I know I’m going to get a text after the game – you shouldn’t have said that bad word!”
As for the boys, A.J. doesn’t need to worry – iPads have mute buttons for a reason.
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505