As Chris Burke detailed Sunday, the Buffalo Bills are a football team with a great many quarterback problems. Kevin Kolb may be out for the season (and possibly the rest of his career) with concussion issues, and first-round pick EJ Manuel is out for the remainder of the preseason with a knee injury. The Bills are obviously hoping that Manuel will be ready to go for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, when they welcome the New England Patriots to Ralph Wilson Stadium. More likely, the Bills will have to start Washington State rookie Jeff Tuel, which would be an historic event if it happened.
“Right now, we’re planning on Jeff Tuel playing the first game and we’re working with EJ to get back as quickly as possible,” Bills head coach Doug Marrone said Monday morning. “Meaning New England. Right now that’s how we’re going about planning on doing it until we know more about where EJ is.”
Tuel would become the first undrafted quarterback of the modern era (which we're defining as 1960, the American Football League's first season) to start his NFL team's first regular-season game as a true first-year professional. Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com came up with five undrafted quarterbacks who started their first possible NFL game, but all had some previous professional experience.
- Dieter Brock started Week 1 of the 1985 Los Angeles Rams' season, but that was after more than a decade in the Canadian Football League.
- The year before, the Houston Oilers put another ex-CFL guy out there for their regular-season opener, and it went pretty well ... because the quarterback was Warren Moon. Moon, of course, is in the Hall of Fame and should have been a top-10 pick, but most people didn't believe in black quarterbacks in the 1970s.
- Jim Zorn started the Seattle Seahawks' first-ever NFL game in their inaugural 1976 season, but he was a camp body for the Dallas Cowboys the year before.
- Sam "The Rifle" Etcheverry started the first game for the 1961 St. Louis Cardinals, but he had also done time in the CFL.
- Tom Flores started the Oakland Raiders' first-ever game in 1960, but he had played in the CFL and been cut by the Washington Redskins.
The closest any player has come to doing what Tuel might do in a couple weeks was Dan Darragh, who was drafted by these very same Buffalo Bills in the 13th round (yes, there used to be a 13th round) in 1968 and started the Bills' first regular-season game that year.
Here's the thing -- Tuel has earned the chance, based only on his preseason performance. He's done a lot of work against second-team defenses, but his 106.6 quarterback rating ranks third among all qualifying signal-callers through this exhibition campaign, behind Luke McCown of the Saints, and some guy by the name of Andrew Luck. Tuel has completed 31-of-43 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and no picks through three games.
Why was he undrafted? Well, his Washington State team was undergoing a serious re-build through most of Tuel's time there, and he didn't have many elite weapons. Current Chicago Bears receiver Marquess Wilson was probably the best target Tuel ever had, but Wilson left the team after nine games after he fell into the doghouse of head coach Mike Leach. Tuel was considered to be a developmental quarterback coming into the NFL, but it seems that the development has come far enough for him to get a real shot.
"I want all of our players, not just Jeff, to understand that no matter where they may stand on the depth chart, they’re fighting for the position to be a starter," Marrone said last week. "I don’t want our players to think, ‘Hey I’m fighting for this position, he’s the starter, maybe I could be number two or three.’ My mind says once the player has limited himself to that he’s not going to develop as far as he can. So to answer your question now, yes I want him to compete to be the starting quarterback -- that’s what is going to make him the best, and then we’ll evaluate if it’s good enough for us to win with and where he ranks among that position. Not just at the quarterback position, but also the roster."
Asked recently about what made Buffalo so attractive to him as an undrafted free agent, Tuel cited this potential opportunity, and the ability to work with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
"They brought me on a pre-draft visit. I met with all the coaches and I really liked the energy, the feel and where they were going. I really like Coach Hackett’s style -- he was as crazy then as he is now. I knew I was going to have a good time, learn a lot from him. I felt like he was going to make me the best football player I could be. I just felt really good about the city and everything. It felt right. It was easy."
An additional aspect to this story -- the Bills recently signed veteran quarterback Matt Leinart to back Tuel and Manuel up. Tuel was in the Rose Bowl stands when Texas beat USC, 41-38, in the 2006 Rose Bowl, which served as the NCAA's de facto national championship that year. That was Leinart's last game with the Trojans -- he turned pro and was selected 10th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2006 NFL draft.
"Last time I saw Matt, I was watching him in the Rose Bowl in the National Championship against Texas and I was in the stands," Tuel said on Monday. "I was in eighth grade or something. Now here we are on the same squad. It’s just crazy how things work out. It’s really neat. Just enjoying every second of it."
Leinart through it was s cute story, but he also mentioned that it made him feel how time had passed.
"Yeah, it’s just crazy. I feel like this is my eighth season and I said the same thing to Tyrone Wheatley [once] -- 'I was watching you when I was a little kid,' and he got mad at me. Tuel in 2006 was a youngster who went to the game. It’s fun to be in a new team and meet new guys. I remember being in Jeff’s shoes, a little bit different obviously, but just eight years ago.