Running out of time: Inside the Browns' botched trade attempt for AJ McCarron

CINCINNATI -- It was a 24-hour whirlwind for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and quarterback AJ McCarron after a potential trade was botched at the last minute.

There was still some disbelief around the Bengals facility on Wednesday morning after the proposed trade, which would have sent McCarron to Cleveland for second- and third-round draft picks, fell apart after the Browns missed the deadline to file their paperwork.

While McCarron was surrounded by a group of reporters on Wednesday, his teammates couldn’t help but crack jokes over the situation.

“It was fake news!” Andy Dalton yelled as he walked by McCarron’s locker.

Even Bengals coach Marvin Lewis still looked stunned at the turn of events, thinking back to what started as a quiet Tuesday.

“It was quiet! At least until ...” and then he trailed off.

Lewis said he’s not sure he has ever seen anything like this in his tenure.

Here’s the timeline of events surrounding McCarron and the failed attempt to trade him this year:

JAN. 2, 2017

As the Bengals clean out their lockers after the 2016 season, McCarron takes pictures, says his thanks to people around the franchise and says some goodbyes, too, anticipating the possibility of a trade. McCarron was the subject of trade rumors after almost leading the Bengals to a 2015 AFC wild-card win. That day, McCarron sounded like he thought he was on his way out, even hugging a Bengals staff member "just in case."


Around the time of the NFL scouting combine, the Browns approach Bengals player personnel director Duke Tobin to ask if McCarron would be available. Tobin says to make an offer. The Browns never make an offer, and the talks aren’t believed to be serious. Tobin tells reporters at the combine that they weren't actively looking to trade McCarron and it would take a "strong offer" to get him. Tobin says the Bengals were willing to listen, even if it was to a division rival.

“It has to be something we feel is valuable enough to warrant doing that,” Tobin said. “What it is, I don't know. Who it is to, I don't know. It's not ideal to trade guys within your division, particularly at that position, but we listen."

OCT. 31, 2017

The Browns call the Bengals to inquire about McCarron’s availability in the morning, and talks continue throughout the day. The Bengals lower their asking price to second- and third-round picks, partially because of McCarron's questionable contract status. McCarron is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, but because he did not spend enough time on the active roster as a rookie to earn a year toward free agency, he could be restricted that year instead, pending arbitration.

The Bengals stand firm regarding their asking price, although the Browns call throughout the day, trying to negotiate.

3:10 p.m.: Bengals owner Mike Brown has what he thinks is his final conversation with Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown. With the Browns continuing to haggle, Mike Brown stands firm on his asking price and says he thinks it's a good deal for an intra-division trade and tells him he's going to give them a chance to think about it for a few more minutes. The Browns pointed out that the San Francisco 49ers were able to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots for a second-round pick.

Mike Brown, who thinks highly of McCarron, doesn't budge and says he's not in the business of helping out a division rival. When they don't get a return call, the Bengals believe the talks have broken down.

3:55 p.m.: Sashi Brown calls back and says the Browns have changed their minds and they'll accept the deal, but only five minutes remain before the deadline. The Bengals immediately start the paperwork required to make the trade official. At some point between 3:30 and 3:55, McCarron, who is in the middle of Halloween preparations with his family, receives a call from his agent that things are progressing.

"I think 3:30 is when we first found out things are moving and could probably be happening," McCarron said. "We were told the deal was done, and then something happened. I really don't know what to tell you. I'm just as lost as everybody else here. You find out a lot more news on social media than you do anything else nowadays."

With only five minutes left, the Bengals are scrambling to get everything in order, and send their half of the paperwork to the league right before the deadline. To make sure everything is going smoothly, they have a league official on the phone informing the NFL of the pending trade. Around the same time, Sashi Brown's assistant sends the Bengals an email with their paperwork but does not copy the league on the email.

4 p.m.: The Bengals realize the Browns did not file their paperwork with the NFL in time. They receive a call from the Browns asking if anything could be done. The Browns plead their case to the league, but the NFL rejects their appeal.

"I'm not sure the powers that be wanted to make the trade," a league source said, pointing out the Browns had almost an hour to complete the trade if they had really wanted to make it after Mike Brown had made it clear he was not changing his asking price. The source said there seemed to be a disconnect between the Browns front office and coaching staff that could have led to the delay.

Teams are required to file their own paperwork with the league. While it's typical of teams to send the paperwork to the NFL and copy the other team on it, it wouldn't be allowed for one team to send in the paperwork for both franchises.

A source said teams usually get a league representative on the phone to give them a heads up that documents will be coming through. Teams often check with each other to confirm they both got the copies of the emails. In the mad scramble to get things done before the deadline, the Bengals were not monitoring their emails, and didn't see the one from Sashi Brown's assistant in time. It didn't help that it was was under an unfamiliar name.

However, even if the Bengals would have seen the email in the minutes prior to the deadline, it wouldn't have mattered unless the league was copied on it as well. For the trade to go through, the Browns needed to speak to the NFL themselves.

The next day, Lewis still couldn't wrap his mind around what happened.

“All you have to do is notify the league office you are making a deal. That's an easy thing,” Lewis said. “We spoke to a person in there.”

News breaks quickly after 4 p.m. that the trade didn’t go through, which is around the time McCarron learned he would be staying in Cincinnati as well.

“It happened, it didn’t happen, it happened too late. Whatever it may be, it’s pretty crazy,” said Dalton, who heard the news on Twitter. “That’s just a crazy situation.”

Said McCarron: “I have been through a lot of mind games. I think it makes you mentally tougher, stronger, let’s you see all the crazy sides of this business in a short amount of time. Just in my year alone, I’ve experienced a lot that guys who have been in the league 10 years haven’t experienced. Just by hearing your name and you are, you might be ... But like I said, I am blessed to be in my situation and I’m just enjoying every minute of it.”