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How the Bills Went From Surprise Playoff Team to Nathan Peterman Performance Art

Buffalo’s front office entered this offseason with a plan. It’s just not entirely clear what that plan was.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

What upsets me about the Buffalo Bills is not that they are bad. There are bad teams every year, in every sport. In this regard, the Bills are not particularly special.

I assure you, though, they are bad. Our Robert Mays ranked the Bills 32nd out of 32 in his preseason power rankings. When our staff assembled for its wins pool ahead of the season, the Bills were one of the two teams that went unselected. The Ringer was not alone in its negative assessment of Buffalo. ESPN had the Bills 28th, Bleacher Report 30th, and CBS joined us in ranking them dead last. But then again, last year everybody hated on the Bills too. Before the season, Mays put the Bills 31st; ESPN and B/R had them 26th, and CBS had them 27th. And that was the Bills team that was theoretically the best in years: They were the first Buffalo squad to make the playoffs since 1999, ending the longest postseason drought in pro sports. How could everyone have been so wrong about a team that turned out to be so good, and so meaningful for Buffalo? And how could they repeat the mistake by issuing such low expectations for a team that made the playoffs last season? Clearly, the preseason rankings of this year’s Bills team reflected typical downstate bias from a hating national media that would prefer to imagine 95 percent of the state of New York doesn’t exist.

But then the season started, and the Bills backed up the anti-hype. Buffalo lost its Week 1 game against the Ravens 47-3, the biggest blowout in any NFL matchup since 2014. Quarterback Nathan Peterman registered a 0.0 quarterback rating, becoming the first starter to do so since the 2015 season. The defense made Joe Flacco look elite, as he threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The score could have been worse, but the Ravens decided to chill out after going up 40-0 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

The Bills are bad, but like I said, many sports teams are bad. What upsets me about the Buffalo Bills is that they did this to themselves.

There were some truly great moments from the Bills’ 2017 campaign. There is no greater Buffalo football thing than the team and its fans celebrating an overtime win in an ongoing snowstorm by hurling snow wherever they could:

And then there is the video of the Bills realizing they made the playoffs by the grace of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton knocking the Ravens out of contention:

Many folding tables lost their lives in Buffalo last season.

But even as the Bills accomplished something awesome, there were signs that not all was in order. The first and biggest was that despite making the playoffs, they were not particularly great. They scored 302 points (22nd-best in the league) and allowed 359 points (18th-best in the league), giving them the worst point differential of any playoff team since the 2011 season. They finished 21st in DVOA. They didn’t have a top-10 passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense, or rushing defense. In fact, they ranked among the bottom 10 in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.3) and bottom five in yards per passing attempt (5.4). Those power rankers who predicted the Bills would be, like, the 28th-best team last year were wrong, but not that wrong.

Perhaps more worrisome was the coaching staff’s decision to start Peterman over Tyrod Taylor for a critical Week 11 game against the Chargers. I thought it seemed like a bad idea at the time to replace Taylor, at best an average quarterback, with Peterman, a rookie picked in the fifth round of the draft who looked terrible in preseason play. As it turned out, Peterman’s start ended up being the worst in league history, as he threw five interceptions on just 14 passes. Bills fans argued that Taylor’s conservative play didn’t give the team a chance to win games, but it turned out his decision-making was saving Buffalo from itself. Throwing five picks and giving an opponent good enough field position to score 37 points before halftime is what a quarterback not giving his team a chance looks like. Taylor’s play was unappealing, but it was safe, and it kept a not-that-great Buffalo team in enough close games to make the playoffs.

The Peterman substitution was a preview of how the Bills would handle the quarterback position in the offseason. Buffalo traded Taylor to the Browns for a third-round draft pick, then used a first-round pick on Wyoming product Josh Allen, the franchise’s quarterback of the future. Allen was a controversial pick, considering his college statistics and game tape both pointed to the conclusion that he is destined for abject failure. The Bills also signed AJ McCarron, a longtime Bengals backup, in free agency as the presumptive starter. But McCarron underwhelmed in preseason play, and Buffalo traded him to Oakland before the season for a fifth-round pick.

That left the Bills to start Peterman in Week 1, and—you’re going to want to sit down for this—he sucked.

Peterman has now started three games: One was the snowstorm game, which the Bills won against in the Colts in overtime thanks to remarkable play from third-string QB–wide receiver Joe Webb. The other two are easily among the worst five games played by any quarterback this decade. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that he might be bad.

It is stunning that the Bills thought it was acceptable to start Peterman in yet another game, especially considering they had an entire offseason to find any other option under center. Next week, they’ll start Allen, benching Peterman just one week into his second ill-conceived stint as Buffalo’s starter. I was pleasantly surprised by Allen’s preseason play and his garbage-time action against the Ravens, but even Allen’s biggest supporters acknowledge that he’s raw and will likely need time to develop. Things might not go well for him early, which is why the Bills needed a legit starter—or at least somebody besides Nathan Peterman.

Regardless of Allen’s talent, it will be hard for him to shine amid the rotting offense he is expected to lead. The Bills lost three of last season’s starters on the offensive line in center Eric Wood, left guard Richie Incognito, and left tackle Cordy Glenn. They also lost tackle Seantrel Henderson, who started Week 1 for the Texans. Buffalo replaced these players with nobody. The two free-agent linemen the Bills signed, tackle Marshall Newhouse and center Russell Bodine, both failed to win starting jobs out of training camp. The Bills slid Vladmir Ducasse from right to left guard to replace Incognito and are starting players who began last season as backups at left tackle, center, and right guard.

Now, Buffalo’s offensive line looks like this:

The Bills’ other glaring weakness was wide receiver. Instead of paying potentially competent players at the position, their big addition was Jeremy Kerley, who was the Jets’ third receiver last year. Buffalo’s receiving corps, the weakest in football, is led by Kelvin Benjamin, who is a worrisome no. 1 option.

Who did the Bills add in free agency? Their biggest signing was Star Lotulelei, a defensive tackle who was brought in to bolster the run defense. One problem, though: Lotulelei’s run defense has suffered a huge drop-off the last two seasons.

Instead of getting good players for the 2018 season, the Bills have kept their cash and assets for the future. They’ll have 10 picks in next year’s draft and the second-most cap room to spend on free agents in the 2019 offseason. But the Bills haven’t built with the long term in mind. In this year’s draft, the front office traded up three times: twice to get Allen (at a huge disadvantage in terms of draft pick value) and once to get linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Those aren’t moves made by a team looking to build for the future.

In some ways, I admire what the Bills have done. They didn’t act like a team that just ended an eons-old playoff drought. Other organizations would have let the emotion of the moment overpower them, treating average players like stars because of what they meant to the franchise.

The Bills recognized that the roster that made the postseason wasn’t set up for repeated success; it was good enough to make the playoffs once, but not good enough to someday win a Super Bowl. They made the tough but wise decision to focus on building for the future instead of settling for players who did something that felt meaningful. Yet the way they’ve carried out that decision has been baffling.

It’s sad to see the Bills’ playoff squad has turned into a football abomination. But my hope is that this change is part of a boldly pragmatic assessment of the roster focused on football and not feelings, and that it will set up Buffalo up for long-term success. Unfortunately, this team is run by people who have repeatedly given Nathan Peterman the opportunity to start professional football games. Why should we trust them?