I have seen some really bad football in the 33 years I’ve been covering the Bills. Really, really bad football. But I don’t recall a three-game stretch as putrid as this one. After a gift-wrapped 54-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Buffalo has now yielded 135 points in three weeks. The offensively-challenged Chargers had scored 17 or fewer points five times this season, but they snapped out of it against their gracious guests, piling up 37 by halftime. That’s the most points given up by a Bills team in a half in 40 years.
And just when I thought I’d never witness a worse half of football by a Buffalo quarterback than the one by EJ Manuel two years ago against Jacksonville, along comes rookie Nathan Peterman, whose baptism under fire proved as hot as the core of a nuclear reactor. Coach Sean McDermott’s calculated risk to replace veteran Tyrod Taylor with Peterman provided a spark all right. One which blew up the small chance this team had at making a playoff run.
In a debacle of a debut, Peterman threw five first-half interceptions. Admittedly, the first was not his fault, glancing off Patrick DiMarco’s hands and into the mitts of linebacker Korey Toomer who tight-roped 59 yards down the sidelines for a touchdown. Peterman’s second series resulted in him being clobbered by Chargers’ pass-rusher Joey Bosa and lofting a wounded duck that was plucked from the air by Casey Hayward. The Bills held Los Angeles to a missed field goal, then responded by tying the score at 7 on runs of 37 and 27 yards by LeSean McCoy.
But that would be their last gasp as Peterman wound up being picked off three more times before his day came to a merciful end when Taylor took over in the second half. Peterman was one dropped interception from tying Bills Wall of Famer Joe Ferguson for most picks in a game. Fergy had six passes stolen in 21-9 loss to the Houston Oilers on Nov. 10, 1974. He was 10-for-28 that day for 110 yards and was sacked three times.
Peterman was nearly as bad. He finished with six completions in 14 tries for 66 yards a 14.2 passer rating, 102.5 points lower than the mark he posted during garbage time last week. The Chargers had 84 yards in interception returns. That means they gained 18 more yards on Peterman throws than the Bills receivers did.
So much for all those fans who had clamored for the fifth-rounder from Pitt to start since he wowed them with his decisiveness in the preseason and last Sunday after Buffalo had fallen behind by 44 points and the New Orleans Saints defense started playing it safe.
And so much for McDermott’s decision to try to jump-start an offense that had been struggling in recent weeks with Taylor under center. Many of us questioned the timing of the move because the Bills, at 5-4, were still in the playoff hunt in a season in which the AFC is a muddled mess and 8-8 might still be good enough for a wildcard.
McDermott was rightly grilled after the game about his decision to start a rookie who clearly was nowhere near being ready to play NFL downs that mattered. Amazingly, the first-year head coach was non-committal when asked if this experiment was over and if Taylor would return as starter next week against the Chiefs in Kansas City. “I’m going to take my time and evaluate and am going to make a decision I feel is best for the football team,’’ McDermott said.
There’s really no need to review the film before making the decision. If it’s all about giving your team the best chance to win now, if you aren’t going into tank mode, then Taylor needs to be back at quarterback until your team is officially eliminated.
Although Peterman was the sorry story of the day, there were numerous other contributors to this how-low-can-you-go performance. Taylor gave the Bills a little lift, passing and running for touchdowns while engineering 21 second-half points, but he also lost a fumble that was returned for a score. The offensive line was totally overmatched against Bosa, who spent almost as much time in the Bills backfield as Peterman and Taylor did. Keenan Allen burned the Bills secondary repeatedly, catching 12 of 13 passes from Philip Rivers for 159 yards and two scores. And the Chargers, who entered the game, averaging only 88 rushing yards, wound up gaining 149 yards. Opponents have combined for 641 rushing yards against Buffalo in the last three games.
About the only bright spots were McCoy, who ran for 114 yards and had a rushing and receiving touchdown, and Stephen Hauschka, who established a new NFL record with his 13th consecutive field goal from 50 yards or longer.
As if the news wasn’t bad enough, Buffalo’s top wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, was carted off with a knee injury during the game’s first series and did not return. The severity of the injury isn’t known, but it’s concerning because he missed all of the 2015 season with torn knee ligaments. Late in the game safety Micah Hyde got dinged and also didn’t return. He’s another player the Bills can ill afford to lose.
McDermott is facing a major crisis. He took a big gamble by benching Taylor. It was a move not warmly embraced by all of his players. The gamble blew up and now you have to wonder if some of his players no longer are trusting the process.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the players in that locker room,’’ he said.
The question is: Do they still have a lot of confidence in him?
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills analyst for WROC-TV and in his 33rd season covering the team.