The Buffalo Bills took their boldest step yet Monday in the quest to fix their sputtering offense.
Quarterback Todd Collins has been benched in favor of Alex Van Pelt, who will make his first NFLstart when the Bills face the Miami Dolphins Sunday at Rich Stadium.
In announcing the surprise move, coach Marv Levy said he was searching for a way to avoid the slow starts that have plagued the team the first half of the season.
The Bills have yet to score a touchdown in the first quarter and have just five first-half TDs through eight games.
Collins had a bad game in Sunday's loss to Denver. He completed 7 of 18 passes for just 35 yards and two interceptions before being replaced by Van Pelt late in the third quarter. Van Pelt engineered four fourth-quarter scoring drives to rally the Bills from a 20-0 deficit before Denver won the game in overtime.
"We've had these slow starts," Levy said. "And Alex went in and did a good job and the team did move the ball. . . . I think he deserves a chance to start, and if it helps us to get off to a faster start in the game, either from a physical presence or psychologically, fine."
"I'm surprised, but I'm excited at the same time," said Van Pelt.
It was a surprise for several reasons.
First, Collins has fared reasonably well overall, considering it's his first year as a starter. In addition, Levy does not have a record in Buffalo of favoring many midseason lineup changes. And the coach steadfastly opposed any benching talk when Jim Kelly was quarterback.
However, Levy said comparing the current situation to the Kelly era is like comparing "apples to oranges."
"Would I be more prone, if we're not moving the ball, to make changes than I had been when Jim Kelly was here? Yes," Levy said. "We think it will sort itself out."
"I'm surprised," said running back Thurman Thomas. "All the games that Jim Kelly started around here and got off to a bad start, Marv was never one to make a quarterback change. I think it's surprising to the guys who have been around here the longest. . . . But I guess this is something that we might need as an offensive group, because we haven't played as well as we wanted to."
In a way, the move is consistent with the Bills' offensive approach this season. They have refused to stand pat and watch the offense sputter. They have used eight different personnel combinations on the offensive line through eight games. And coordinator Dan Henning has tried various offensive personnel sets to try to get the offense going.
Still, the offense ranks 29th in the league in interceptions thrown, 26th in sacks allowed, 24th in first downs and 28th in third-down conversions.
"As far as the offense goes, guys have been shuffled in and out all year, and I guess it was my turn," Collins said.
Levy and Henning told Collins and Van Pelt the news together at 2:30 p.m. Monday, 15 minutes before the general team meeting.
"I thought about it yesterday (Sunday) and thought it might happen," Collins said. "But right when he (Levy) is saying it, it's not a surprise, but you still can't believe it's happening. But you get over it."
Collins said he thought he played "pretty well" this season and considered the move unfair. But then he said he understood the decision.
"Alex played real well the second half and he deserves a shot," Collins said. "I'm not anywhere near as established as Jim Kelly, but even for guys in this league who are established, you're only as good as your last game, and the hook comes quick."
Van Pelt does not have as strong an arm as Collins and at 6-foot-1 is a good 3 inches shorter than Collins. However, in brief opportunities he has shown some knack for moving the offense.
"He's not as tall as the average NFL quarterback," Levy said. "He has ability, he has some flair to him, and he's a bright guy."
In his first season as a Bill, Van Pelt impressed in a brief stint in a playoff game at Pittsburgh. Kelly missed most of two series after taking a hard hit. Van Pelt threw a TD pass and started the Bills on a second TD drive before Kelly returned.
Last season, Van Pelt threw just five passes. Sunday's game was the best performance of his career. He was 12 of 24 for 177 yards and two TDs. Van Pelt has no illusions about his chance Sunday. He must produce.
"I think it's a one-game deal," he said. "It's an opportunity I've been waiting a long time for."
Van Pelt will be facing fellow University of Pittsburgh alumnus Dan Marino. Van Pelt broke many of Marino's college records.
"It's something you dream about as a kid," he said. "I've always been a Marino fan. It's going to be a treat for me to be on the same field with him."
Van Pelt is popular among his teammates, most of whom are simply hoping the latest move makes a difference in the offense.
"I'm not going to favor anybody over anybody," said receiver Andre Reed. "Whoever's in there, we've got to beat the Dolphins."
"I had respect for the guy from Day One," said nose tackle Ted Washington. "That's who I wanted back there when there was a quarterback controversy (in preseason). I said, 'Alex Van Pelt.'
"I think until you have a perennial starter as we did when Jim was here, then they're going to go with what works and what they feel," said tackle John Fina. "A gut feeling is not always a bad thing. Obviously, if Alex can't do the job, then we go back to Todd, which is a safe bet."
"I think it got to the point now where we don't have a leader around here like we had when we had Jim Kelly," said Thomas. "I think it's obvious we needed something different with this offense to get us going. Who knows, maybe in the next couple weeks you'll see Antowain (Smith) starting."
How the Buffalo Bills offense ranks in certain offensive categories:
Category League Rank
Sacks allowed 26th
First downs 24th
Third-down conversions 28th