The Bills played themselves benching Tyrod Taylor
Rookie Nathan Peterman had a disaster of a day with five interceptions
Soon after Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott was hired in January, he told a longtime Bills player that, despite the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought and coming off a 7-9 season, the Bills were “absolutely not rebuilding” and were “going to win and win fast.”
After a 5-2 start – one of the best records for the team since its 1993 Super Bowl appearance – it looked as if the lowly Bills were on their way. But then after two disastrous losses during weeks 9 and 10, McDermott benched starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor a mere days after stating he believed in Taylor and that “he is our starter.”
Taylor was benched for rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman, a “prototypical” quarterback who, according to his scouting report ahead of the 2017 NFL draft, could read the field and operate in the pocket (both code words normally attributed to white quarterbacks). But despite those intangibles, Peterman couldn’t beat out eventual fourth-round draft pick Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee, and after transferring to Pitt in 2015, put up two pedestrian seasons, barely completing 60 percent of his passes through two five-loss seasons.
Through two quarters Sunday, Peterman completed 6 of 14 passes for 64 yards, zero touchdowns and five interceptions on the way to a 54-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The rookie was benched at halftime, and Taylor finished the game with 158 passing yards and two total touchdowns.
The Bills swapped out an average to above-average veteran for an inexperienced rookie on a team fighting for a playoff spot. Taylor being African-American and Peterman being white adds an additional wrinkle to the controversial decision.
It’s long been held that black quarterbacks are given a shorter leash than their white counterparts. From pioneer Marlin Briscoe being forced out of playing quarterback after breaking a Denver Broncos rookie passing record to Warren Moon having to spend six seasons in the Canadian Football League, black quarterbacks aren’t necessarily given the same chances to succeed, or fail, in the NFL. When black quarterbacks struggle, it’s their inability to read a defense or a defense “figuring them out” that is the cause, not extenuating circumstances (bad coaching, poor blocking from offensive line, turnstile defense). For example, Jeff George was a notorious locker room cancer who threw 40 interceptions in his first three seasons, yet lasted 12 seasons in the NFL. Robert Griffin III, another controversial-yet-talented player, has appeared to have washed out of the league after just 42 games.
White quarterbacks can be mediocre their entire careers and get second, third and fourth chances. Career journeymen such as Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown and Brock Osweiler have all started multiple games this season. Meanwhile, to be a starting black quarterback, you usually have to come in the league as a high draft pick or fall into a starting position. Taylor was one of nine black starting quarterbacks in the league, a list that includes two rookies (the injured Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer), two former No. 1 overall draft picks (Cam Newton and Jameis Winston), two backups filling in (Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley), a Super Bowl winner (Russell Wilson) and Dak Prescott, who, along with Watson, is in the top five in the league in Total QBR.
Peterman only needed to meet two of the three requirements of a starting quarterback: white (check), tall and pocket passer (check). And this is what that got the Bills on Sunday (all stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information unless noted otherwise):
On just his third attempt, Peterman threw an interception – admittedly his fullback’s fault – that was returned for a touchdown by Chargers linebacker Korey Toomer. Through the remaining 26 minutes of the first half, Peterman rushed throws and had miscommunication with his receivers, leading to the other four turnovers.
In 1,130 career attempts, Taylor has never thrown a pick 6. In 53 career games, Taylor has thrown just 17 interceptions since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, and has thrown two or more interceptions in a game just once (three in 2015 vs. New England). Through 10 games this season, Taylor has just three interceptions in 279 attempts, compared with Peterman’s five interceptions in 14.
Those five interceptions tie Peterman for the most interceptions in a career debut, joining, in what has to be a made-up player name, St. Louis Rams quarterback Keith Null (2009). He’s also just the fourth quarterback (Fitzpatrick, Ty Detmer, Drew Bledsoe) to throw five picks in a half since 1991, according to NFL Media. The New England Patriots (2) and Los Angeles Rams (4) have both thrown fewer interceptions this season than Peterman did in 30 minutes Sunday.
Taylor, in his third season as a starter, has an interception rate (1.54 percent) that is the lowest in league history (minimum 1,000 attempts), lower than both Aaron Rodgers (No. 2 on the all-time list) and Tom Brady (No. 4), with the third-best rate held by, of all people, Colin Kaepernick.
At the same time, Taylor has a reputation of being too safe: checking down to underneath receivers and tight ends instead of stretching the field, and leaving the pocket the second containment appears to collapse. He also wasn’t going to put many points on the board in the Bills offense. Since 2015, Taylor’s first year as a starter, his 47 passing touchdowns are the third-least among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts in that time span. The two quarterbacks below Taylor? Joe Flacco, who signed a $66.4 million extension in 2016, and Sam Bradford, who was traded to the Minnesota Vikings before last season for a first- and fourth-rounder.
Despite his inability to turn the ball over – a treasured commodity in today’s NFL – Taylor has long been unappreciated by football fans and analysts, and even his own team. He’s been called “too small,” “not able to read a defense,” and “not a pocket passer.” After a 14-14 record the past two seasons and being arguably the franchise’s best quarterback since Jim Kelly, Taylor had to take a $10 million pay cut from the Bills over the offseason just to remain the starter. At least until Sunday.
McDermott doubled down on his decision after the game, saying he didn’t regret starting Peterman and that he will “evaluate” the quarterback position before the Bills face the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs next week.
Peterman can play no worse than he did on Sunday; better days are ahead for the rookie. But the Bills had a chance to make a playoff run – they had a 26 percent chance of making it to the postseason after Week 10 and before Taylor was benched, down to 14 percent after Sunday’s game – but they threw that out the window the second they decided to start an inexperienced quarterback against one of the best pass rushes in the league. Taylor was never going to be an All-Pro option for the Bills, but he was the best option.
And then the Bills played themselves.