Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi once said that no one on your football team is quite as popular as your backup quarterback. That’s certainly the case in Buffalo, where citizens of Bills Nation are clamoring for rookie Nathan Peterman to replace incumbent Tyrod Taylor. Peterman’s poll numbers spiked Sunday afternoon after the beleaguered Taylor once again failed to consummate a fourth-quarter comeback and threw for just 125 yards in a 9-3 loss at Carolina. Following that putrid performance, Bills fans piled on Taylor during post-game talk shows and on social media. Enough is enough was the popular, occasionally profane refrain. Time to go with the kid.
Bills Coach Sean McDermott wasn’t budging the day after the game. Taylor will remain the Bills starter Sunday when the Denver Broncos and their top-rated defense come to Orchard Park. Buffalo offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said he has “complete confidence” in Taylor, adding that the third-year starter actually “kept us in the game” in Carolina. Devoted, knowledgeable Bills fans understandably found that latter phrase insulting.
Look, I don’t expect a coach to throw his quarterback under the bus (though New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo seemed to do just that to Eli Manning following Monday night’s loss to Detroit). But neither do I expect foolish “kept us in the game” quotes in defense of a guy who had passed for fewer than 100 yards during the first 57 minutes of the game.
I get why many are done with Taylor and want to see Peterman. They realize Taylor is who he is and probably isn’t going to get markedly better. He is an average quarterback, with some play-making skills, but he isn’t a franchise guy who can elevate the play of those around him. Some of the criticism of Taylor is unfair. The reality is that he has only one game-changer (LeSean McCoy) at his disposal, and the departures via trades or free agency of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Chris Hogan and Marquise Goodwin have left him with a receiving corps thin on talent and experience. Things could get better as he develops some chemistry with rookie Zay Jones and young veteran Jordan Matthews.
But the Bills don’t seem to have a go-to-guy and a burner who can stretch the field and stop teams from stacking eight tacklers close to the line of scrimmage to gang up on McCoy’s rushing attempts. The strategy for defensing the Bills is obvious. Until Taylor connects on some deep balls, McCoy is going to have little room to roam.
To his credit, McDermott appears to have fixed a defense wrecked by Rex Ryan. Sacking mobile Carolina quarterback Cam Newton six times and limiting the Panthers to three field goals was impressive. It appears McDermott is going to follow a philosophy his predecessors followed. Play as conservatively as possible on offense and hope your defense and special teams can eke out a win. It came within a pass off of Jones’ fingertips of working Sunday. But, as this 17-year playoff famine has proven, it isn’t a recipe for sustained success.
In today’s NFL, you need your quarterback to do more than “keep us in the game.” You need him to win the game. And I don’t see Taylor being that guy. Again, it’s unfair to put all this on him. He is hamstrung by a dearth of playmakers. The truth is, he and the offense played almost well enough these past two seasons to make the playoffs, but were done in by Ryan’s ruination of what had been one of the league’s better defenses and by the buffoon coach’s terrible game management, especially when the outcome was still in doubt.
I think the calls for Taylor’s benching are premature. I know how desperate Bills fans are for any glimmer of hope, and they liked what they saw from Peterman in the preseason. Yes, the ball came out of his hand quickly and he seemed more decisive than Taylor. But it’s often foolhardy to put too much stock in exhibition game performances. You’re often going against second- and third-stringers, and the defensive packages are much more vanilla than what you see in real games. I’m not saying that Peterman shouldn’t get a shot. I’m just saying now is not the time, especially against a defense like the Broncos’ that harasses passers and blankets receivers as closely as two coats of paint.
I believe the bye week is when you make the change. By that point (following an October 8 game in Cincinnati), Buffalo might very well be 1-4 after losses to Denver at home and the Atlanta Falcons and Bengals on the road. This would give Peterman a few more weeks to study pro defenses, and after the bye week, you’d be able to get him much needed work with the first unit.
McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have purposely avoided using the word “rebuilding,” but who do they think they’re kidding? Trading Watkins and cornerback Ron Darby on the same day and opting not to re-sign cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Mike Gillislee told you this team was looking at an extreme makeover.
McDermott harps on the phrase “trust the process.” I’m willing to do that, but at some point you will need to see what you have in Peterman, the fifth-rounder from Pitt. The odds are stacked against him. If he fails, his favorability ratings will plummet and the most popular quarterback on the Bills will be one of the signal-callers they select in the supposedly bountiful quarterback draft next April.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist and is in his 33rd season covering the Buffalo Bills.