Things are good in Buffalo for once. The Bills are one of just six AFC teams above .500, putting them in position to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season. Now would be a ridiculous time for the Bills to bench quarterback Tyrod Taylor for backup Nathan Peterman, a rookie picked in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft. Just ask head coach Sean McDermott, who said as much in a Monday press conference:
So of course, on Wednesday, McDermott announced that he would be benching Taylor for Peterman:
McDermott: “I’ve been impressed with the maturity from Nathan Peterman. I’m comfortable making a calculated risk to try and get us where we need to go.” pic.twitter.com/LGoUgQyU18— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) November 15, 2017
Taylor is being benched because he just played the worst start of his career, going 9-for-18 for 56 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 47–10 loss to the Saints. (Apparently not benched: any of the defenders responsible for all 298 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns allowed by Buffalo’s defense.) Peterman made his NFL debut in that game, throwing for 79 yards and the Bills’ lone touchdown during garbage time. If Sunday was the first time you had ever watched the Buffalo Bills, the decision to bench Taylor for Peterman would be an easy one. Just ask new Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who played his first game for Buffalo on Sunday and spoke glowingly of Peterman after the game before being informed it was also Peterman’s first game with the Bills.
But looking at the bigger picture, Taylor has a proven history of effectiveness. He’s not the league’s best quarterback, and has been rather unpopular among Buffalo fans, but he’s not a bad quarterback. He was a Pro Bowler two years ago, and contributed heavily to the Bills’ league-best rushing game last year. And even though Taylor has struggled at times this season, he’s still 16th in the NFL in QB rating, perfectly average; 19th in ESPN’s QBR; and ninth in Pro Football Focus’s QB grades. He has at least 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions on the season — only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Alex Smith can say the same. The Bills’ offense isn’t great, and Taylor isn’t spectacular, but there are a lot of teams with worse options at quarterback.
The hope is that Peterman can take the Bills to a new level, but can he? His performance in garbage time against Saints backups playing half-hearted, bend-don’t-break defense shouldn’t be considered a reasonable guide for what to expect from him. In the preseason, he completed just 54.4 percent of his passes (worse than Taylor’s in-season numbers) for 5.7 yards per attempt (much worse than Taylor) while fumbling three times (more than Taylor has in nine regular-season games in which he’s taken plenty of contact).
Peterman was just a fifth-round pick, the eighth quarterback off the board in 2017. NFL.com described him in the draft process as “a late-round developmental signal-caller.” Has he developed a bunch in 10 weeks? Bills fans better hope so, because in preseason, he looked worse than Taylor at his worst, against worse competition. The only reason to believe that Peterman somehow has a higher ceiling than Taylor in 2017 is that nobody has seen Peterman play besides the Bills’ coaches. But the floor is much, much, much lower.
The timing of McDermott’s sudden turnaround from stumping for Taylor to benching him seems weird, unless you imagine that the move was actually called for by non-football staff. The Bills renegotiated Taylor’s contract last offseason — after an awkward process in which the team benched him to prevent him from getting injured in a way that would guarantee his salary, then began cutting Taylor-less highlight videos — and then switched general managers in May. Taylor is now on a contract that will leave the Bills on the hook for a lot of money if he’s on their roster to start next year, leading some to note that this year was an audition to see whether he could be a franchise quarterback worth that risk. Perhaps the Bills think he’s failed that audition, and are now interested in checking out their rookie. At the beginning of the season, we investigated the possibility of the Bills trading Taylor and beginning fresh with a quarterback from the 2018 draft class. Benching Taylor now and kicking the tires on a rookie quarterback seems consistent with that logic — though now the team is primed to move on from him without getting anything back in return.
This is not the way a team should treat its best quarterback in the middle of a rare playoff chase. The timing may seem odd, even ridiculous, to you — but only if you forget the fact that the Buffalo Bills are the team doing it.