Before training camp kicked off, I wrote that the Buffalo Bills would be better off keeping rookie quarterback Josh Allen on the bench in the regular season opener because he wouldn’t be National Football League-ready and because of pass protection concerns. After watching Buffalo’s offensive line get undressed last Sunday in their final dress rehearsal, I’m even more convinced this is the prudent path to follow. Why risk turning Buffalo’s latest franchise quarterback into the next David Carr?
Carr, you might remember, was the former No. 1 overall pick from Fresno State who was thrown into the deep end of the pool by the Houston Texans before he knew how to swim back in 2002. Shell-shocked after being sacked an NFL-record 76 times during his rookie season, Carr never recovered.
Allen didn’t stand a chance last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals pass rush. And it largely wasn’t his fault. Playing behind a matador line—ole!—the Bills first-round pick was sacked five times and pressured on eight other dropbacks. On one of the hurries, he was sent sprawling backwards, barely avoiding a concussion after his head bounced off the turf.
Not having starting left tackle Dion Dawkins certainly didn’t help. But Buffalo’s pass blocking problems go well beyond Dawkins’ absence. It’s pretty obvious the line remains in flux as the Bills desperately seek adequate replacements for veteran center Eric Wood and Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito.
Coach Sean McDermott said this week he hadn’t made a decision about which quarterback will start when the Bills open the regular season against the Ravens in Baltimore on Sept. 9. Second-year pro Nathan Peterman, Buffalo’s fifth-round pick in 2017, has been the Bills most consistent QB during camp and exhibition games, but free agent acquisition AJ McCarron has slightly more NFL experience and might be a better option. I wouldn’t be surprised if McDermott waits until the opener to make his decision public. I would be surprised if he starts Allen behind a turnstile line and against a challenging early schedule that has the Bills playing five of their first seven on the road. A more likely scenario finds Allen seeing action later in the season after Buffalo falls out of playoff contention.
Going slowly with a rookie quarterback is usually, but not always, the better course of action. McDermott’s time as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers enabled him to witness the benefits and pitfalls of both approaches. The Eagles didn’t start Donovan McNabb until the second half of the 1999 season, and he prospered from that extra acclimation time, eventually leading them to five NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance. The Panthers, meanwhile, started Cam Newton immediately, and had him learn on the fly. He acquitted himself well that first year, passing for 4,051 yards and rushing for 706 yards as Carolina went 6-10.
There is no set formula. Circumstances and individuals differ. The aforementioned Carr never realized his enormous potential after being sacked an average of 52 times per season his first four seasons. I witnessed the pummeling of Peyton Manning during his rookie season in 1998, when he threw a league-leading 28 interceptions for the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts. But he recovered nicely from that hellish baptism, and guided the Colts to a 13-3 record the following season, launching a career that would see him win two Super Bowls and establish scores of NFL passing records.
Former North Dakota State star Carson Wentz became a rookie starter with the Eagles two years ago, and experienced some growing pains, throwing 16 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, while posting a mediocre 79.3 quarterback rating. Last year, he blossomed into an elite passer (33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 101.9 rating) before suffering a season-ending injury during Philadelphia’s run to a Super Bowl title. Although Wentz, like Allen (Wyoming), didn’t attend a Power-Five conference school, he did arrive as a more-refined passer. Still, he had his struggles, as will Allen, whenever his time comes.
Some argue that time should be now because the Bills are a long shot to return to the playoffs this season—and might even be looking at a six- or seven-win season. I get that reasoning, but I’d hate to see Allen try to learn the pro game behind a sieve-like line and risk becoming another Carr, sacked into oblivion. Red-shirt him until you get your line shored up.
I have modestly high expectations for the Syracuse University football program this season—and it’s been a while since I felt this way. The good news is that third-year coach Dino Babers has significantly upgraded the program’s talent level and developed an offense that’s hard to stop. The bad news is that the Orange still play in the same division of the Atlantic Coast Conference that boasts powerhouses such as national championship contenders Clemson and Florida State. Of course, SU did score a major upset of Clemson in the Carrier Dome last season, and also had the Seminoles from the Sunshine State on the ropes. So the Orange have proven they can play with the big boys.
Record-setting quarterback Eric Dungey is back for his senior season, which begins Friday night at Western Michigan. The only thing that has stopped him so far has been injuries, which unfortunately sidelined him for the later part of the past three seasons. That helps explain why SU is 0-12 the past three Novembers. But should Dungey suffer a similar fate this autumn, the Orange should be able to weather the storm because redshirt freshman QB Tommy DeVito, a four-star recruit, is ready to let it fly in Babers’ fast-paced, pass-happy offense.
I’m predicting a 7-5 finish and a mid-range bowl game for a program that’s ready to turn the corner after consecutive 4-8 seasons.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.