The NFL season revealed yet another twist on Wednesday when the Buffalo Bills announced the benching of quarterback Tyrod Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, a sudden and largely unprecedented decision for a winning team this late in the year.
The Bills gave no warning for the change under center, as head coach Sean McDermott had just given Taylor a vote of confidence earlier in the week.
"Tyrod is our starter," McDermott said on Monday. "That's what I said [Sunday]. I know what Tyrod has done and I also know what Nate has done. Tyrod is our starter."
Two days later, McDermott reversed course: Peterman will make his first NFL start on the road against the Chargers on Sunday.
At 5-4, the Bills hold the inside track to one of the AFC's two wild cards, making their decision to bench Taylor an unusual maneuver. Teams that voluntarily change quarterbacks during the regular season rarely reach the playoffs. Excluding Week 17 quarterback changes that were made when resting starters, there have been four cases of performance-based demotions in playoff seasons in the past 10 years. Three of those teams won nine games or fewer. For those teams, the trip to the postseason resulted from an uncompetitive division rather than the change under center.
2016 Texans (9-7): Brock Osweiler for Tom Savage, Week 15
2015 Texans (9-7): Brian Hoyer for Ryan Mallett, Week 1
2011 Broncos (8-8): Kyle Orton for Tim Tebow, Week 5
2008 Vikings (10-6): Tarvaris Jackson for Gus Frerotte, Week 3
By benching Taylor, the Bills double down on their recent emphasis on the passing game. Just before the trade deadline in October, they acquired wideout Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers for third- and seventh-round draft picks. While Benjamin fell out of favor with his old team due to his injury history and concerns about his conditioning, he has performed like a No. 1 receiver in the past, something Buffalo has lacked since trading Sammy Watkins in the preseason. In hindsight, the Benjamin trade signaled the Bills' discontent with their aerial production thus far this season and foreshadowed the decision to bench Taylor, who has gradually regressed as a passer since his breakout 2015 campaign.
In his first year as the Bills' starter, Taylor ranked ninth in adjusted net yards over average (a metric that accounts for passing yards, sacks, touchdown passes and interceptions) with a 7.10 mark. That figure has fallen to 5.71 in 2017, coming in at No. 25 across the NFL. Taylor proved particularly ineffective during Buffalo's most recent outing, a 47-10 loss to the Saints in which he completed just 9 of 18 passes for 56 yards and an interception.
Taylor makes up for some of his shortcomings as passer on the ground, where he remains one of the league's premier rushers at the quarterback position. However, in shootouts and during the final minutes of close contests when the clock makes running inadvisable, he doesn't possess the ability to consistently win games with his arm. With the Bills fresh off back-to-back losses for the first time all season, McDermott apparently determined that his team couldn't reach its goals without that added element on offense.
Whether Peterman can provide what his predecessor lacked remains unclear. He played well during his collegiate career at Pittsburgh but largely took a backseat to first-team All-ACC selections Tyler Boyd and James Connor. The perception that Peterman rode the coattails of his offensive playmakers, along with skepticism about his physical tools and upside, kept him on the board until the fifth round of this past April's draft.
After arriving in Buffalo, Peterman posted ordinary numbers during the preseason, completing 54.4 percent of his passes for 453 yards and one touchdown. However, the team felt good enough about his work in training camp to trade Cardale Jones, in effect awarding the No. 2 job to Peterman.
Peterman held the clipboard through the Bills' first eight games of the season, finally reaching the field last Sunday in garbage time. With the game well out of hand and the defense playing to avoid injury and run out the clock, the rookie put together a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to produce Buffalo's first points since the first quarter. That series, along with Taylor's poor play, helped convince McDermott to make a QB change.
By starting Peterman, McDermott has placed a large bet on himself and his coaching staff. It takes considerable resources to prepare an inexperienced quarterback, let alone a rookie, to start. Peterman hasn't taken many first-team reps until this week, and making up for those lost opportunities will require more than just a few days of practice. But McDermott believes in his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach can bridge the gap quickly and prepare a game plan that plays to Peterman's strengths.
McDermott's bet carries considerable upside. If Peterman proves to be a superior passer, he could revitalize one of the league's worst aerial attacks and take pressure off LeSean McCoy and the ground game. Doing so would help the Bills contend with the powerhouse offenses awaiting them down the stretch, including a rematch with the defending-champion Patriots.
However, Peterman could instead play like the majority of rookie quarterbacks, struggling to adjust to the more complex coverages and blitzes of the NFL and turning over the ball as a result. That could torpedo the Bills' playoff hopes and overshadow the team's promising start to the season. Buffalo could turn back to Taylor if Peterman really struggles, but doing so could further upset the locker room and stymie the rookie's development.
Recent history suggests the Bills could regret their decision, but that doesn't matter at the moment. Right or wrong, McDermott made a change under center, and now the team must make it pay off.