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Senior College Football Columnist

Tide's McCarron takes 'game manager' role to new level

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For all the excellence that oozes from this place, there is no sign, plaque, trophy or museum labeling Alabama "Home of the Game Manager."

The term typically refers to a limited quarterback with limited skills in a limited offense. The Don't-Screw-It-Up Guy. You see them all over these days, but the argument can be made that the term and all it implies took root here under Nick Saban. The system quarterback perfected, if not invented.

John Parker Wilson. Greg McElroy. AJ McCarron. Two of them have national championship rings. Wilson owned the school's single-season record for touchdowns (18) until he was surpassed by McElroy (20) and tied this season by the current GM, McCarron.

Those accomplishments kind of rub against the label. If this were the corporate world, the label "game manager" would be the equivalent of getting that promotion without a raise. Translated to the club scene, the job title wouldn't impress the ladies -- ranking somewhere between mall security guard and executive assistant.

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"To me, you can't be a good quarterback unless you are a good game manager," Saban said this week during the run-up for the LSU game. "I don't think it's fair to AJ because I've said he's a really good game manager for us. ... It's like, that means he doesn't do anything. He does everything. I don't think you can be a good quarterback unless you are a really good game manager. That's the ultimate compliment to me."

McCarron just happens to be the latest in the line of these mall cops, er, game managers. Time will tell if he is the best here in recent years, but his consistency has been mind-numbing. That, it should be noted, is a compliment. McCarron is one of only two quarterbacks in the country -- in the top 100 as rated by the NCAA -- who has yet to throw an interception. Just last week he ascended to No. 1 in pass efficiency, the mathematical formula that takes into account accuracy, production and turnovers.

McCarron hasn't committed one in his last 262 throws, the second-highest streak in SEC history. His name is starting to show up on Heisman lists. In a program that prides itself on being the People's Socialist Republic of Saban, there had to be some star power. Mark Ingram won the 2009 Heisman. Trent Richardson finished third in the voting last season.

"Even if he does throw a few picks, it's not the end of the world," center Barrett Jones said of his quarterback. "I just think he's more than a game manager. He's making so many plays right now."

We knew this was possible since at least Jan. 9. That night, the wraps were taken off McCarron to a degree. His downfield passing, particularly on first down, kept LSU off balance in the BCS title game. McCarron started eight drives with passes that night, completing six for 95 yards

"AJ kind of came in [to the program], he was a slinger now," said the man who ran the offense that night.

Jim McElwain was the Tide's offensive coordinator who may have hit the pinnacle of his career in the Superdome. Immediately after guiding McCarron to a 234-yard performance, he jumped on a private plane bound for Colorado State. McElwain is 2-6 in his first season as the Rams' head coach.

"AJ had a great arm but didn't quite understand the importance of taking care of the ball and studying the game plan," McElwain said. "[In that game] he knew it inside and out. I still haven't seen the game, [but] it looked like everything was in slow motion for him."

The process of changing a slinger into something more productive was the hardest task. McElroy's arm strength was shaped into the game plan. McElwain and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier were able to use the whole field with McCarron's throws.

"There wasn't a deep ball he never liked," McElwain said. "It was like a shooter in basketball. He never met a shot he didn't like. I can't tell you how much he grew up."

That doesn't change what happened a year ago in Game of the Century I. In a stultifying offensive display, neither team could get in the end zone. LSU won 9-6 in overtime essentially because it was less bad on offense. McCarron led the Tide offense inside the LSU red zone once, Alabama kickers missed four field goals, and there's your ballgame.

Given a second chance in the rematch, McCarron's blossoming may have been the difference. He hit seven different receivers in that 21-0 win.

"Coach Mac always told me, 'Take what the defense gives you, they'll eventually give you the game,' " McCarron said.

In a league where quarterback play in general doesn't stand out -- to be polite -- McCarron does. Perhaps the SEC's best NFL quarterback prospect, Tyler Wilson, plays for disappointing Arkansas, his season rocked early by a concussion.

Florida's Jeff Driskel and Georgia's Aaron Murray combined for seven turnovers Saturday in the Cocktail Party. Take away McCarron's 18-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the rest of the league pales. The 13 other SEC teams have a combined 1.85-1 TD-to-interception ratio.

LSU's Zach Mettenberger, expected to be an upgrade this season for the Tigers, has been a disappointment. One guess as to who Alabama's D is going to single out and try to make a thrower on Saturday night. Sometimes it's a small victory in this league to stay upright. Bama Nation freaked when McCarron went down in the sixth game at Missouri. What turned out to be a bruised knee had the Tide's composed, rational fans back home (#sarcasm)ready to hurl themselves off the top deck of Bryant-Denny.

The quarterbacks behind McCarron -- Phillip Ely and Blake Sims -- have thrown a total of seven passes this season. This week McCarron is nursing a bruised back.

Jones is reluctant to go into detail, but it's the things we don't see that make the fourth-year junior from Mobile, Ala., so effective. McCarron has free reign to change plays at the line. Run-to-run, pass-to-run, run-to-pass.

"We do that [change plays] quite a bit,'' said Jones, who has to make all the line calls. "AJ and I are constantly talking."

The rebuttal might be that it's easy playing behind what might be the best offensive line in the country. The opposite would be a guy throwing it to the other team, at receivers' feet and fumbling handoffs.

Saban said, "We have an old saying that I'm sure our fans don't like this either: 'If every offensive series ends with a kick, whether it's a punt, a field goal or an extra point, that's pretty good -- could be worse."

Bland game managers usually don't have McCarron's interesting ink. There is a tat on each wrist that reads "Truly Blessed." A tattoo on his chest is splashed with the words "Bama Boy," an image of Jesus, a dove and the names of his stepbrothers.

McCarron is truly blessed. A wave runner accident when he was 4 led doctors to tell his mother that he might lose an eye and/or have brain damage. The kid came through it with even stronger love for wave runners.

"I own the fastest one Yamaha makes right now. It tops out at 89," McCarron said before January's national championship game. "My mom doesn't like me talking about it, period, but I'm crazy on them."

Alabama tradition seems to dictate this is the way it's going to be. The most passes Joe Namath threw in a season under Bear Bryant was 145. Ken Stabler threw 178 in 1967. Jay Barker won a national championship in 1992 throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.

Different times, different coaches, different schemes. All they care about here is the ring McElroy left with and a second one McCarron can win. It was about 13 months ago that AJ locked down the full-time job. It was after a Penn State game last year we learned that it's "AJ" without periods. Mother DeeDee Bonner just happened to prefer it that way for Raymond Anthony McCarron Jr.

It's hard to imagine DeeDee's boy -- 20-1 as a starter -- turning pro after this season, but it's not hard projecting McCarron as an NFL quarterback one day.

And if that happens it will be confirmed: Someone will be convinced an Alabama game manager is a pro difference maker.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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