Four years ago at this time, AJ McCarron was being projected to go in the second or third round of the NFL draft. He had been told by some teams that he could go as high as 15th overall. He went in the fifth round to the Bengals.
McCarron was the 164th player selected, the ninth quarterback, one pick behind Aaron Murray, who never played a down in the league. So he learned never to assume anything about the NFL's "annual selection meeting."
"The draft is a crazy deal," McCarron said Tuesday in the media room at One Bills Drive. "All the people who say they can predict it are lying to you. I promise you that."
So if everyone assumes the Bills will take a quarterback high in the draft next week, a gunslinger who can be their franchise guy for the next 10-15 years, McCarron isn't obsessing about it. He finally has the chance to be the No. 1 quarterback on an NFL team, and he intends to make the most of it.
"Listen, I can't worry about that, because it creates mental clutter for myself," he said. "So if I create mental clutter for myself, I can't become the best player, the best teammate, that I need to be for this team.
"For me to worry about the ifs and what could happen, it's just not a part of my DNA. I've never been that way and won't ever do it."
McCarron is already talking as if this is his team, his offense. He's always been known as a confident – his critics said cocky – player. It was easy to be confident when he won back-to-back national titles at Alabama in 2011-12, while courting a woman (Katherine, now his wife) who was a model and beauty queen.
There was speculation that McCarron's cocky attitude turned off teams before that '14 draft. But if cockiness was a disqualifying factor, Josh Rosen wouldn't be going near the top of this year's draft. Oh, and the Bills' last true franchise QB, a guy named Jim Kelly, was as cocky as they came back in the day.
"Well yeah, I'm confident in myself," McCarron said. "I've never been boastful. If people want to say cocky, that's fine. I was always taught – by my dad, my mom, the great coaches I had coming up – that whenever you're inside those white lines, you can bring your different personality out.
"I trust in myself. I have self-confidence. That's what makes people successful. And I worry about what my teammates and coaches think. I just go from there. So I don't worry about labels."
It wasn't attitude that made him slip in the draft, or to sit behind Andy Dalton for four seasons. It was the usual reasons: A lack of arm strength, an inability to make throws down the field, the perception that he was a game manager, an average player who was lucky to play for the nation's top college program.
Now he has a chance to prove he was better than his perceived limitations, that given a chance he'll show that he has the intellect, leadership and skills to thrive in the NFL. That assumes, of course, that he beats out Nathan Peterman (also a fifth-round draft pick) and whatever highly touted rookie shows up in camp.
"If you look at any of the quarterbacks – good ones, great ones that have won in this league – they've all been a game manager of some sort," McCarron said. "Like I said, I don't worry about labels. I go out and play my game and let the wins do the talking. That's what we're here for, to win ballgames.
"Personally, I think a lot of people get sold on big arms," he said. "You look at the history of quarterbacks in the NFL, there's been a lot of great quarterbacks who didn't have crazy strong arms. How many times do you drop back and actually throw the ball 60 yards? Very rarely. The game is played with timing and accuracy."
People who watched McCarron closely in Cincinnati believe he has the makings of a solid NFL quarterback, given a shot. They felt he had the intangibles, that he had the confidence and commanding presence you needed at the position.
"As a quarterback, you got to have that confidence," McCarron said, "because if you don't, you're already a step behind. It's the way I've always done it, even in Cincinnati. I knew how to do it and not step on Andy Dalton's toes."
He's the sort of guy you can root for. But you could say the same about Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Hard work, personality, command, leadership ... they all matter, but not as much as the rare athletic ability to read defenses and make all the NFL throws under pressure.
McCarron started four games for Cincinnati, including a wild-card loss to the Steelers, after Dalton broke his thumb in December of 2015. He had his moments, but in two games against top defenses (Pittsburgh and Denver), he averaged a sorry 5.4 yards a pass attempt and didn't have a completion longer than 25 yards.
Over those four starts, he averaged 191 yards passing. Granted, it was an emergency situation, but it's the statistical resume of a game manager. The numbers look suspiciously like Tyrod Taylor's.
McCarron became an unrestricted free agent after winning a grievance against the Bengals. He was available for anyone. But he languished on the open market and finally went to the Bills for two years, $10 million with performance bonuses. That's the modest pricetag of a bridge quarterback.
He still has a lot to prove. But at least has a chance to do so. Teams make mistakes in drafts. Johnny Manziel went 22nd overall in 2014. Derek Carr lasted until 36th overall. It's good to remember, however, that quarterbacks generally last until the fifth round for a good reason.