AJ McCarron's Injury has Little Impact on Bills' Master Plan
Based on the immediate reaction from the national media following AJ McCarron’s injury against the Browns, you would have thought the Buffalo Bills’ offense was doomed without their starting quarterback when they opened the season against Baltimore.
McCarron never the presumptive starter in the eyes of the people making the decision, not when he arrived as a free agent after signing a two-year deal worth $10 million and certainly not while he was competing with Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen in training camp.
The three were locked into a quarterback competition, and most indications pointed toward McCarron finishing third. The notion he somehow had the inside track on the starting job based on his limited experience with the Bengals was grossly inaccurate.
Peterman had been the most consistent quarterback during training camp before McCarron had his shot with the first unit Friday against the Browns. His start in Cleveland wasn’t a promotion or an indication that he would become the Bills’ top QB. It was simply his turn after Peterman started the first exhibition and played well.
The Bills also wanted to evaluate Allen with the second-team offense. It was far more likely that they were impressed more with him grasping the offense than his big arm and potential. They were well aware of his physical traits when they picked him seventh overall.
Peterman was bumped down to the third team because … somebody needed to play with the third team. If the Bills were performing an honest evaluation at the position, they needed to see McCarron with the first team and Allen with the second team.
Allen played well against the Browns. He appeared completely under control, was accurate with his throws and showed pocket presence and vision you would expect from an NFL starter. It was all on display on his short touchdown pass to Rod Streater.
It doesn’t change the fact that the Bills play three of their first four games and five of their first seven on the road. Barring Allen becoming the undisputed starter, Bills coach Sean McDermott is likely to err on the side of caution and keep him on the bench early in the season.
McCarron’s apparent broken collarbone, while unfortunate for him, likely had little impact on their depth chart. There was a strong chance he would wind up being the Bills’ third quarterback, anyway, based on Peterman’s play and their plans for Allen.
McDermott knows Peterman better than the other two quarterbacks. McDermott has coached the former fifth-round pick since the beginning of last season and believes in him. It’s why he decided to bench Tyrod Taylor in favor of Peterman in the middle of a playoff race.
Most media had a difficult time digesting the decision and suggested the Bills were throwing away their season. It was simple. McDermott realized Taylor had reached his ceiling, and he needed to know if Peterman would blossom with the starting offense.
With only one way to find out, he took a gamble and started Peterman against the Los Angeles Chargers with the hope he would be an upgrade over Taylor. The decision blew up when Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half and was yanked.
Critics tore into McDermott for making a mistake. But there was a difference between making a poor decision and making a sensible decision that produced poor results. If Peterman played reasonably well that day, he would have remained the starter.
No matter, McDermott never lost faith in the former Pitt star. With the optimism tethered to McCarron’s signing and hype accompanying Allen’s arrival was a subtle but consistent message from the head coach: Do not forget about Nathan Peterman.
"I have great appreciation, and I think our team does as well, for Nate’s mental toughness," he said. "He’s driven to complete and loves to compete. I think there’s a steadiness about Nate that is important at that position, the quarterback position that is, but also is one that teammates can appreciate."
Since the start of camp, McDermott has refused to provide details about where his quarterbacks stood on the depth chart. At one point, he acknowledged there was separation without elaborating. Many assumed he was talking about McCarron. My sense was Peterman was inching forward with Allen making a push from the third spot.
The Bills may have been leaning toward Peterman all along. The battle wasn’t between him and McCarron. It was between McCarron and Allen for the backup job, reaffirmed when Allen was given time with the second offense against the Browns.
So why start McCarron in Cleveland?
McDermott was making sure he gave McCarron an opportunity in the event he showed something that had not emerged in practice. He was giving McCarron a fair shake. If McCarron had played well, he would remain under consideration for the starting job but more likely would be retained as a backup.
Instead, the Bills’ offense was terrible with McCarron playing QB. They failed to make a first down. He completed only three passes for 12 yards while under duress before he was injured. Allen proved he was capable in a backup role against a second-team defense.
Through two preseason games, Peterman has completed 17 of 20 passes for 231 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that wasn’t his fault. Allen is 18 of 32 passes for 176 yards and two TDs. McCarron was 10 of 16 for 128 yards before heading for the sidelines.
McCarron’s injury was newsworthy, but its importance to the Bills was exaggerated by people who figured Buffalo lost its starting QB. In reality, it had a minimal impact on the Bills’ plans for the start of the regular season. Anyway, their offense could be doomed based on the play of their offensive line, not the quarterback.
Look for the Bills to stick with that plan and start Peterman when the season begins Sept. 9 against the Ravens at New Era Field. Allen has time to show he should start right away, but McDermott is more likely to have the kid watch a few games and develop behind the scenes.
Remember, last year, that’s how he handled Peterman.