You know the rule about making assumptions, but it’s pretty safe to say that Monday morning was one of the strangest practice days in the Bills’ long, forgettable and regrettable history. Let me put it this way: Jeff Tuel had the most seniority of the three quarterbacks on the field.
Doug Marrone smiled afterward when talking about his tenuous quarterback situation going into the regular season. His eyes brightened while he used the words “fun” and “exciting” as if he were describing an afternoon at an amusement park while bracing fans for yet another white-knuckle ride on a roller coaster.
Tuel entered training camp an unknown, undrafted free agent out of Washington State who started seven games as a senior. He could open this season as a starting NFL quarterback against Tom Brady and the Patriots. That’s the plan, barring a miraculous recovery from rookie EJ Manuel in the next half-hour or so.
The Jeff Tuel Era begins.
Hey, kids, isn’t this fun?
Tuel has a chance to make history after opening training camp as the third quarterback. He could become the first undrafted, free-agent rookie since the current draft system was established in 1967 to start an NFL season opener. Only eight quarterbacks who were taken after the first round have started in Week One.
Alongside him in practice Monday was Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, the former Southern California star who was signed off the street Sunday after accomplishing nothing in seven seasons. We shouldn’t overlook Thaddeus Lewis, whom I’m sure you remember from his work on the Rams’ practice squad in 2010.
“I don’t know if ‘awkward’ is the right word, but it was a little strange, odd,” Tuel said. “It was just a completely different scenario. It was just two new guys. I’m the veteran all of a sudden, and I have to tell these guys the footwork, the progressions and stuff like that. I was telling Matt that it’s funny how things circle around.”
It must have been weird for Tuel, who was in eighth grade the last time he saw Leinart in person. He was sitting in the stands at the Rose Bowl while USC played Vince Young and Texas for the national championship after the 2006 season. Then again, it was the last time many of us saw Leinart play before he showed up Monday.
With the season opener less than two weeks away, the Bills already find themselves in a tenuous position. Manuel played two preseason games and is not expected back on the field full-time until next week at the earliest. Kevin Kolb is out with a concussion, which could end his career if his inability to play the position does not.
Stephon Gilmore is sidelined for eight weeks. Chris Hairston’s season ended Monday with a non-football illness. If that’s not enough, safety Jairus Byrd sounded bitter after failing to resolve his contract dispute.
Otherwise, everything is fine.
You know it’s bad when the Bills are scrambling to sign Leinart and making a trade for Lewis, adding two L’s to a roster that should prepare for many more. Leinart has played a grand total of four games in three years. The Bills are his third team in three years, four if you include about 15 minutes he spent with the Seahawks in April.
“It was definitely a humbling experience,” Leinart said. “This business is as crazy as can be, especially at the quarterback position.”
Leinart’s failure to launch in Arizona contributed to the Cardinals signing Kolb to a $63 million contract that included $21 million guaranteed, a ridiculous deal when watching him flounder this year. Around and around we go, with Leinart’s career in steady decline since, well, Tuel saw him play at USC.
Lewis arrived from the Lions for linebacker Chris White, a special-teams player who stood out about as much as his name. There must be a million Chris Whites, nondescript players who come through the NFL in bushels. He had little chance of making the Bills’ roster. That, alone, says enough about him. And it says plenty about Lewis.
Seriously, who are these people?
Bill Belichick would be laughing hysterically if he had a sense of humor. He must be salivating in some dark room in Foxborough while breaking down video and preparing for Buffalo. That’s only if Belichick already hasn’t turned his attention to the Pats’ home opener four days later against the Jets, if not Week Three week against Tampa Bay.
Manuel had a light workout Sunday. Even if he returns to practice next week, the first-round pick will have missed two preseason games and too much practice time to expect significant production. Marrone is hoping his young franchise quarterback can return soon, but they’re not about to risk long-term damage for nominal short-term gain.
Somewhere, Marv Levy is shaking his head. Manuel looked good during his brief time under center, markedly better than anyone else at the position. But there’s no denying the fact that he’s an NFL infant, an unpolished and inexperienced player who has never faced the complex defenses he’ll see when he returns.
The end appears near for Kolb, who is sidelined with at least his third concussion. He has been riddled with injuries in recent years. It’s not a good sign when he’s unable to navigate a rubber mat, but he didn’t play well when healthy. He brings nothing other than experience, and his experience is not the kind Buffalo needs.
Let’s be realistic here.
If the Bills are forced to play Kolb, Leinart or Lewis, they’re doomed. They might as well take Tuel for a spin with nothing to lose. He’ll get another extended look Thursday in the preseason finale against Detroit. You never know, maybe the seventh-rated passer in the Pac-12 somehow slipped through the top evaluators in the NFL.
Of course, when teams start counting on, “you never know, maybe …” they’re in for a world of hurt. It’s hardly foreign for a team that has missed the postseason for 13 straight seasons. Five victories this year seem like a stretch, but you never know. Maybe they can play well enough in other areas and surprise a few people.
The Bills have two good running backs in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They are the keys to their offense and the strength of their team. Most offensive linemen would rather run block. A strong ground attack can relieve pressure from the quarterback, which is what the Bills need to stay competitive.
Buffalo’s defense, which was putrid against Washington, should be better. The Bills allowed 435 points last season, second-most in franchise history behind the dreadful 1984 team that finished 2-14 under Kay Stephenson. Three of their four worst teams in terms of points allowed have come in the last three seasons. It can’t get any worse.
Then again, you never know. Stranger things have happened.