The Buffalo Bills’ doomed decision to bench Tyrod Taylor for fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman would have been foolish regardless of the outcome Sunday afternoon. The choice would have been misguided even if it had not spiraled into disaster, even if it had not transformed the last remnants of a promising season into an embarrassment, even if had not made a rookie quarterback synonymous with cartoonish failure.
Peterman did not simply struggle in his debut Sunday, his first start after Coach Sean McDermott gave up on Taylor in the middle of a playoff race. Peterman became a future reference point for horrendous football and comical backfiring. He threw five interceptions in the first half before McDermott crawled back to Taylor for the second half, as the Bills lost, 54-24, in Los Angeles.
The unveiling of Peterman was, for everyone involved, a nightmare. He threw a pick-six on the first NFL possession of his career. He completed 6 of 14 passes for 66 yards. On the NFL RedZone channel, broadcaster Scott Hanson literally and earnestly lost track of Peterman’s interceptions. The Bills went back to Taylor, who had led them to a 5-4 record, at the half.
Peterman’s performance made clear McDermott erred, based solely on Peterman’s readiness for the NFL. It was a move made for the future more than present. Peterman, in his first year out of Pittsburgh, was thrust into a situation for which he was not prepared. Playing Sunday could have only hurt his development and called into Buffalo’s coaching staff’s ability to evaluate their quarterbacks in practice.
Put all of that, even Peterman’s deeply atrocious game, aside. The Bills’ choice to bench Taylor, and what it represented, wasn’t necessarily the problem. The issue was the timing, which made no sense.
If the Bills wanted to move on from Taylor, that would have been reasonable. He is obviously one of the best 32 quarterbacks alive, clearly good enough to start for an NFL team. But he is also a polarizing figure. ESPN called him, accurately, “a Rorschach test for how we think about quarterbacks in 2017.” Local fans and media believed the Bills could do better; traditional analysts were split; advanced statistics adored him.
Immediately before his benching, Pro Football Focus rated Taylor the 10th-best quarterback in the NFL, right between Ben Roethlisberger and one-time MVP front-runner Alex Smith. His athleticism is a perfect complement to LeSean McCoy, and he had thrown just three interceptions all season. He made the Bills’ offense useful despite a dearth of viable wideouts. But his accuracy could sometimes falter, particularly in the red zone and on intermediate throws.
If the Bills’ brain trust fell into the crowd that doubts Taylor as a franchise quarterback? Fine. But that they came to that conclusion after nine games, when his performance had not vacillated from his prior history and had, if anything, progressed, made little sense.
The Bills have a new head personnel executive in Brandon Beane and a first-year coach in McDermott. If they didn’t like the version of Taylor they watched this season, the would not have cared for the version of Taylor who quarterbacked Buffalo the past two years. If they wanted to move on from Taylor, they could have just done so at the draft. Last April, the Bills traded down from the 10th overall pick, where they could have taken Deshaun Watson.
Once the Bills committed to starting Taylor this season, there was no reason for them to bench him. The Bills started the season 5-2 and faltered in consecutive losses to the Jets and Saints, the latter of which came at home and by a 47-10 score. It was unsightly, but not a reason to knee-jerk bench Taylor, who bore no responsibility for the way New Orleans’ running game bulldozed Buffalo’s defense.
“We were made for more than 5-4,” McDermott said during the week,” and I’ve come here to be more than 5-4.”
McDermott may have seen the writing on the wall. The Bills may not have the talent to maintain their hot start, especially with a schedule that includes two games against the Patriots down the stretch. Even in a lousy AFC, McDermott may have determined the Bills would fade out of playoff contention, and so they should use their remaining schedule to evaluate Peterman.
In that case, though, why not just wait for the fade to actually happen first? They could still evaluate Peterman, except without alienating their locker room and parts of their fan base. If they felt like they needed more time to evaluate Taylor up close — the only good reason, given his performance, for them not have jettisoned him in the offseason — then they could have done so for another couple games. Maybe he would surprise them, and they could sneak into the playoffs, which the Bills haven’t experienced since people were worried about the Y2K virus.
Instead, the Bills let Sunday happen. Peterman was a disaster. They have to start over at quarterback. The playoffs, even though they’re still in the thick of the AFC playoff picture at 5-5, now seems like a reach for a team in the midst of a quarterback controversy and on a three-game losing streak.
If the Bills decide to stick with Peterman next week at Kansas City, Taylor showed them a glimpse of what they will miss. He passed for 158 yards and a touchdown, although the Chargers strip-sacked him for a defensive touchdown. More strikingly, he displayed the intangibles that will keep him employed for another decade or so.
Taylor twice lowered his shoulder at the goal line. He played with poise and spirit, outwardly obliviously to the coaching staff that had given up on him. He showed why teammates follow him. He was, in short, a pro. He gave the Bills more than they deserved, and gave them another week to think about an ill-conceived decision that went as badly as it possibly could have.
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