Backup quarterback wasn’t thought to have a question mark next to it when the Buffalo Bills reported to training camp.
But the first two weeks of practice and Sunday’s preseason opener against the New York Giants have shown that Jeff Tuel has turned up the heat on Thad Lewis.
Coach Doug Marrone downplayed its significance, but Tuel was the first quarterback in after EJ Manuel in the Bills’ 17-13 loss to the Giants in the Hall of Fame game at Fawcett Stadium.
“Just part of our plan,” Marrone said. “We had a plan for them to play and how much we wanted them to play.”
When Marrone announced a competition for the No. 2 job early in camp, it came as a surprise to fans and media members following the team, but General Manager Doug Whaley explained why team has been pleased with Tuel.
“What we’ve seen from him in the spring and what he’s been doing in the preseason, it’s a definite competition,” Whaley told The Buffalo News after Sunday night’s game. “He performed well. He went out there and took us on a nice long drive. … We’re encouraged with him and hoping for him to just keep growing like he has so far.
“It’s going to be interesting to see next game if they switch the roles and see how Thad performs behind the people that Jeff had to work with.”
Tuel finished 12 of 17 for 74 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He directed a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods on fourth and goal.
“I thought it was a better catch than a throw, honestly,” Tuel said. “It was a little behind him, so I thought Robert made a heck of a catch.”
Woods liked Tuel’s decisiveness on the throw.
“He was a quick trigger. He was seeing it and … letting it go,” the receiver said. “Just confident, you know?”
Like Marrone, Tuel didn’t want to speculate on what running with the second string meant.
“Nothing is set in stone here,” he said. “It’s just the rotation, I guess, for this week. I’ve just got to keep getting better to establish myself in being that second guy. But I’m not going to weigh too much into it and just look forward to the next practice.
“Just had a lot of fun. I tried to stay within the system and move the ball. We did what we’ve been doing all camp and it just worked out.”
Tuel said his knowledge of the Bills’ offensive system has greatly increased in his second year, thanks in large part to the addition of quarterbacks coach Todd Downing.
“He’s come in and really helped the room out a ton,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable and confident with the schemes and protections. … It’s really allowed me to, I think, take some jumps. It makes a big difference when you really understand why the play is being called and where they expect the ball to go.”
Lewis finished the game 10 of 16 for 87 yards and an interception.
“I thought we progressed throughout the game,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t accomplish our team goal, though, and that’s to get the win.”
Lewis entered training camp as the clear-cut No. 2. The Bills elected not to sign a more experienced quarterback in the offseason, with Whaley telling The News in March, “I thought Thad did a heck of a job for us. Everybody’s all ‘Get a vet! Get a vet!’ In this business, we believe you want your backup to keep you .500. Thad got us 2-3. So close enough.”
Expectations for Lewis last season were low. He was signed off the practice squad to start after Tuel struggled badly in place of Manuel in a loss at Cleveland in Week Five.
But Whaley’s vote of confidence brings a heightened level of expectation. They need Lewis – or Tuel – to be good enough to keep the Bills afloat should Manuel be lost for a significant amount of time. Lewis has been erratic at camp and thus not secured the job.
“It’s the NFL. You’re going to have battles and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out and compete, and that’s what will make the team better, because you’re only as good as your backups. That’s what the coaches are doing, and I respect them for that.
“You have to take it as a challenge, but at the same time, we’re a close-knit group. We understand the business.”
Lewis said he should have instead checked the ball down on the pass that was intended for receiver Marcus Easley, but intercepted by Giants cornerback Zack Bowman.
“I’ve just got to push it out further,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. You just have to learn from it and not make the same mistake twice. I’m pretty anxious to go back and see what I did wrong and correct it.”
It’s clear after Sunday that Marrone expects more out of all of his quarterbacks – Manuel included.
“Obviously the performances were not good enough to win,” he said. “We’ve got to get better – all of them.”
The Bills were off Monday. They return to practice at St. John Fisher College at 6 p.m. today.