CINCINNATI - On Wednesday afternoon, AJ McCarron will be at his locker in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room and having to, again, answer questions about why he is, well, at his locker and not at a press conference being introduced as the newest Cleveland Browns quarterback.
The Enquirer communicated with six league sources with knowledge of the broken deal between the two AFC North rivals, first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and the unspectacular crux of it is this: the clock ran out.
And both teams missed out.
The Enquirer learned the Bengals would have received second- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft. After compensatory picks were handed out for departed free agents, the Bengals would have likely had 12 total selections and six in the first three rounds.
McCarron would finally get his chance to play regularly and compete to land a long-term starting job and the Browns would have gotten a quarterback their coaching staff was familiar with and believed in.
"It's not a good situation," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday. "AJ's a very valuable member of this team and I told him as such (Tuesday) after everything. Frankly, I was relieved. So I don't have to go through those gymnastics of the next step. He's a great kid. He's a true team player. He's a leader. He's a leader on this football team and that's why we felt like he was such a valuable asset. And the man upstairs (Mike Brown) was very clear about that, of how we felt about him."
The matter of why time ran out is another story.
The day began with the Browns calling the Bengals to initiate talks – discussions the Bengals were reluctant to participate in – resulting in offers and counteroffers.
The long-time price tag of a first-round pick for McCarron had dropped, but at some point during the day the Bengals made it clear there was no more room for negotiation.
About an hour before the deadline, the Browns rejected the final set of terms the Bengals had put forth – McCarron for the two draft picks.
Then, within 20 minutes of the 4 p.m. deadline (there is some dispute over the timestamps reported by ESPN) – Cleveland reversed course.
In that window, Bengals president Mike Brown was called by the Browns and told they would indeed accept the terms the Bengals previously laid out.
The deal was, unofficially, done.
So, the Bengals signed and filed their version of the agreed-upon deal just before the deadline. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that the Bengals copied the Browns on that filing.
The Browns sent a copy of the deal to the Bengals, but The Enquirer confirmed the original ESPN report that the Browns did not send anything to the league. (That was also confirmed by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.)
Lewis was asked if he ever heard of a trade not being completed due to the paperwork not being filed.
"I don't know that I've ever really heard of one," he said.
"All you have to do is notify the league office you're making a deal. And that's an easy thing."
Multiple sources The Enquirer communicated with felt the delay, and ultimate improper handling of the final moments before 4 p.m., was due to a lack of a consensus between the personnel department and coaching staff in Cleveland regarding McCarron.
A league official told The Enquirer that the necessary paperwork to consummate a trade was not filed at 4 p.m.
A league source confirmed the Browns did appeal to have the deal accepted but ESPN reported that plea was denied.
The next part of this journey for McCarron and the Browns will play out in the offseason.
He is currently considered a restricted free agent, which means the Bengals can place first, second or original round (fifth) tenders on him. Should a team sign him, they would send the Bengals that corresponding draft pick. Or, the Bengals could match the offer and keep him on the roster.
But, McCarron is disputing that status. He maintains he will actually be an unrestricted free agent, having accrued a full season toward free agency despite an injury-shortened rookie year. An independent arbitrator will make that decision, likely after the season concludes.
In Cleveland, the Browns will have another shot at making this deal -- or deciding to draft another quarterback, sign a free agent or package picks to make a run at someone else.
So where does that leave everyone?
Exactly where they were on Monday.
McCarron will once again have to refocus on the season at hand and prepare for Jacksonville, and the Browns will hunker down during their bye week and try to chart a course to find a victory in their final eight games.
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