Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Quarterback A.J. McCarron defeated the Bengals’ attempt to game his service time today, with an arbitrator ruling in McCarron’s favor on a grievance involving an injury designation from his rookie season in 2014.

The decision means McCarron, who backed up Andy Dalton for three seasons and attempted just 14 passes the last two years, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next month. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported it first.

The issue dates to July 21, 2014, the day the Bengals placed McCarron on the non-football/injury (NFI) list because of an injury to his throwing shoulder. It was just before the start of training camp, and two months after Cincinnati selected McCarron in the fifth round of the draft. A little more than a month later, on Aug. 30, the Bengals listed McCarron on NFI to begin the season—guaranteeing he would miss the first six weeks of the year.

Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer explained what happened next, and its significance:

A player needs to be on an active roster for six games to accrue a season toward unrestricted free agency.

A player on NFI is allowed to practice for three weeks before having to make a decision on adding him to the active roster. The Bengals not only used that three-week window, which would have potentially had McCarron on the roster with eight games to play, but filed for and received an extension for more time.

McCarron was finally cleared to practice Nov. 20, 2014 and was added to the roster Dec. 9.

Thus, McCarron was only on the active roster for the final three games and did not accrue a season toward unrestricted free agency.

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What mattered here is when McCarron was injured, and how. As Owczarski detailed, McCarron was quoted at the time saying he would skip the Senior Bowl after his final college season at Alabama to heal from injuries, including to his shoulder. He then threw at the combine and did not throw during the first two weeks of OTAs just after the draft before throwing at minicamp that June, a little more than a month before the Bengals put him on NFI.

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Had the arbitrator sided with the Bengals, McCarron would currently have only three years’ service time—and been eligible for restricted free agency. That outcome likely would have left him with the Bengals—teams could have made him offers, but the Bengals would have had the chance to match, or an option of first refusal along with draft-pick compensation, depending on how they tendered him—with little to no chance to bargain for what he’s worth. McCarron was supposed to have been traded to the Browns last fall, but the Browns tripped on their dicks. Now, he’s free to hit the market.

This post was updated to include Rapoport’s tweet that McCarron was also awarded back pay with interest.