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Why Were the Broncos Linked With A.J. McCarron?

And why did John Elway call it “fake news”?

Denver Broncos general manager John Elway Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It’s not easy to read the tea leaves at NFL training camp. Coaches have mastered the art of uttering sentences devoid of meaning so thoroughly that they’re on par with U.S. senators—or Gary Busey. It’s difficult to figure out what coaches really think of their teams in early August.

Sometimes though, they make things clear. Monday, Denver head coach Vance Joseph was asked if last season’s starter, Trevor Siemian, had the lead in the Broncos’ quarterback competition. "No. No. No,” Joseph said. “No, no, no, no, no, guys. No, no, no. No. No. No."

So, the Broncos’ starting quarterback job is still up for grabs. But Wednesday morning, Sandy Clough of Denver’s 104.3 The Fan threw a wrinkle into the battle under center, reporting that the Broncos were trying to acquire Bengals backup A.J. McCarron, a man most famous for having Brent Musburger fawn over McCarron’s then-girlfriend on national television.

The Broncos already have two middling quarterbacks, so adding a third would be an interesting but not necessarily intriguing move. Within an hour of the report, Denver football boss John Elway loaded those rumors into a cannon and launched them over the Rockies.

Broncos and NFL media members were quick to confirm the trade was not happening.

It’s possible that Clough was off-base here. It’s also possible that the conversation was of the benign, routine variety where GMs throw out hypotheticals.

We have no idea what happened here, but Peter Burns’s scenario would make sense. If Elway sees more promise in McCarron than his current quarterbacks, any responsible GM would be open to an upgrade. (And any responsible GM would deny such talks ever took place.) Elway has made his bones as a GM by being unafraid to make a splash. He recruited Peyton Manning to Denver and constructed one of the best offenses in NFL history. When he watched the Seahawks throttle that offense in the Super Bowl, he did a 180 and spent $110 million in 24 hours to construct one of the best defensive units of the 21st century. The man is not afraid to take risks.

Like Siemian, we want the truth, though we may never get it.

McCarron is seen as one of the top backups in the league, which is like being one of the healthiest dishes on the menu at McDonald’s. He is one of the most decorated college quarterbacks ever, winning three national championships in his time at Alabama (one during his redshirt year) and picking up All-American and Maxwell Award honors in 2013. But that success was never expected to translate to the NFL, and he was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft by Cincinnati, where he’s been wearing a headset and patting Andy Dalton on the back ever since. McCarron served admirably filling in for Dalton in 2015, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions in the final three games of the regular season. The Bengals narrowly lost to Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, which spoiled McCarron’s bid to become the next Tom Brady.

Denver could view McCarron as a potential upgrade at quarterback, but it’s hard to see him making a difference in the team’s playoff hopes, especially when he’d be so far behind in learning the offense.

What this story highlights is that the Broncos could be in a lot of trouble this season. Everything about Denver screams contender, except for the most important position in sports. The Broncos have a championship-caliber defense that finished no. 1 in DVOA each of the last two seasons. Key pieces, like Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller, won’t be free agents for a while. Yet they went 9-7 last season, just a year after winning the Super Bowl. Their quarterback situation might cause them to miss the playoffs for the second season in a row.

“There’s always going to be an issue somewhere on your football team,” Elway said on the eve of training camp, and that’s true. But when that “issue” is your signal-caller, it’s more of a “fatal flaw.” What’s concerning here isn’t that the Broncos may have been interested in McCarron, but rather that McCarron could be considered an upgrade at all.