Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) passes in the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. The Saints won 27-10. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)
Rogelio Solis
November 20, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) One of AJ McCarron's early throws in practice was so far off the mark that it deflected off the wall of the University of Cincinnati's bubble-covered field.

Didn't dent his mood at all.

The fifth-round draft pick hadn't done anything with the Cincinnati Bengals until this week, when he returned from a sore passing shoulder that sidelined him since the start of training camp. McCarron spent the last few months strengthening his right shoulder and waiting to be declared ready.

He finally got to practice with the team on Wednesday.

''I had a smile on my face the whole day,'' McCarron said on Thursday. ''I could have messed up the whole practice. I was just having fun. I felt like a kid again out playing the game in the backyard. I was just excited to play football.''

McCarron led Alabama to national titles in 2011 and 2012. He went 36-4 as the Crimson Tide's starter and set school records for touchdown passes, yards passing and completion percentage. The Bengals took him with the 164th overall pick, looking to develop him into a reliable backup to Andy Dalton.

The sore shoulder sidelined him at the start of training camp. The Bengals put him on a strengthening program that involved throwing from short distances at the outset and building up to longer throws as the shoulder allowed. He was finally cleared to join practice this week.

The Bengals moved their practices on Wednesday and Thursday to Cincinnati's covered field - the Bengals are the most northern NFL team without one of their own. It took McCarron a little while to settle in and start completing his throws.

''I haven't thrown to receivers,'' he said. ''Getting the timing with the guys at first was different at first. That was the first time I had thrown in shoulder pads since (the Sugar Bowl). That's almost a year.

''I completed the first one, sailed the next two. I could have messed up 100 times, I was just so happy to be playing football.''

The question is how the Bengals will handle him for the rest of the season.

Dalton has been one of the NFL's most durable quarterbacks, missing only half of a game due to injury during his four seasons. Veteran Jason Campbell is the backup. The Bengals envisioned McCarron growing into the backup role, but the injury has prevented him from making much progress.

If Dalton continues to struggle in big games - he's 0-3 in the playoffs and 2-6 in prime time games - the Bengals could make a switch at quarterback in a couple of years, which would provide an opening for McCarron.

The Bengals have a three-week roster exemption for McCarron. They'll have to decide whether to add him to the active roster for the rest of the regular season - and bump someone off the roster - or leave him on an injury list the rest of the way.

The Bengals (6-3-1) lead the AFC North heading into their game on Sunday at Houston (5-5).

''I just want to go out and have fun and then be ready to go whenever they need me, whether they call on me this year or next year,'' McCarron said. ''The old saying you don't realize what you have until it's taken away? It really is true. Being out that long, it felt like it was taken away. Being back, I felt like a kid again. I was having fun.''

Notes: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was held out of practice again on Thursday, an indication he'll miss his fourth consecutive game following knee surgery. ... Defensive end Margus Hunt was still walking with a boot on his sprained right ankle Thursday. Offensive lineman Mike Pollak sat out practice with a sore knee. ... Running back Giovani Bernard fully participated in practice for the first time. He's likely to be active on Sunday after missing three games with a sore shoulder and hip, although rookie running back Jeremy Hill is expected to get the bulk of the plays.

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