Is it harder to be the demoted starting QB or the elevated rookie backup? The answer is 'Yes' - The Buffalo News

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Is it harder to be the demoted starting QB or the elevated rookie backup? The answer is 'Yes'

Desperation would seem a plausible reason if times actually were desperate.

Outright panic feels like a reasonable explanation.

The decision was so surprising, so vexing that self-sabotage could be assumed.

The Buffalo Bills this week benched Tyrod Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, who will make his first NFL start Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, an odd maneuver because the Bills are playoff contenders and Taylor is healthy.

Such switches are rare, and this one was far from obvious for Bills coach Sean McDermott.

Peterman made his NFL debut in last Sunday's whimpering defeat to the New Orleans Saints at New Era Field. Skeletal remains of the crowd cheered when he entered in the death throes and tossed a touchdown to Nick O'Leary to make the score 47-10.

McDermott stated afterward Taylor still was Buffalo's starting quarterback. McDermott declared it again Monday afternoon. But somewhere between then and Wednesday morning, McDermott made the boldest announcement of his first head coaching season.

Taylor was benched. Buffalo's offense belonged to a rookie with 10 NFL passes to his name.

"There are all kinds of potholes that could happen," Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner said. "That's why you don't see it very often. You don't see many coaches make this move at this point."

The 2004 New York Giants also were 5-4 when they demoted Warner for rookie Eli Manning.

The comparison isn't perfect. Manning, the first overall draft choice, was considered the Giants' star-in-waiting. Peterman never carried that expectation as a fifth-round pick. But Peterman isn't replacing someone who'd been named league MVP twice and Super Bowl MVP once.

The Bills at 5-4 hold the second AFC wild-card position. When the Giants flipped quarterbacks, they were among five NFC teams with that record and were three games out of first place in the NFC East.

As Giants coach Tom Coughlin explained the decision, Warner recalled understanding the sentiment without hearing the words.

"It was simply we were 5-4, but we weren't a playoff team," Warner said. "We were finding ways to win and doing enough to be in the mix, but I felt he was saying, 'I don't think we're a playoff team. So to try to prolong this thing and set a young kid like Eli back or not give him a chance to be better prepared for the future, I want to make this move right now.'

"He felt it was in the best interests of the organization, that eventually it would pay off because Eli was the future of our franchise."

The Giants lost Manning's first six games and finished 6-10, although they went to the playoffs each of the next four seasons and won two Super Bowls over the next seven years.

So that quarterback switch – to a No. 1 draft choice, not No. 171 – eventually worked out for the Giants.

Rookie Eli Manning, left, would take the Giants starting job from Kurt Warner in 2004. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Warner is worried for the Bills, that McDermott's strategy will backfire.

"When there's a playoff opportunity in front of you," Warner said, "it's tough to reconcile making that kind of move. If you're not the Patriots, you know how few and far between those opportunities are."

Buffalo is in the longest playoff famine of the four major sports at 17 years.

"That's the reservation here going forward," Warner said. "If you struggle, then you have some veteran guys who'll have the tendency to look back and go, 'What were we thinking? We had a chance. We haven't been to the playoffs in however long, and now we're in a position to be there.'

"That's the concern. In this season, what does that do for a first-year coach, and how do the guys look at him?"

The elevated backup

Prepare as though you're the starter.

Yeah, that's a good one.

Coaches and players regurgitate that mantra all the time about the proper way to approach a backup role.

Problem is, achieving that objective is impossible.

Once training camp is over, the second-string quarterback takes about 10 percent of the snaps every practice and usually with other backups. Peterman has gotten most of his action the past three months running the scout team, the guys who pretend to be the upcoming opponent for the Bills' starters.

"It's a ticklish thing," said Howard Schnellenberger, a man who would know.

Schnellenberger oversaw the greatest quarterback depth chart ever assembled and began perhaps the finest assembly line of passers in college history.

His 1982 Miami Hurricanes had Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, Mark Richt, Kyle Vanderwende and redshirt freshman Bernie Kosar, who would lead them to the national title a year later.

Schnellenberger, offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins' undefeated 1972 campaign, became the Baltimore Colts' head coach in 1973. He had to juggle second overall pick Bert Jones and incumbent Marty Domres.

"You've got to get your reps other than what's in practice," Schnellenberger said. "You've got to get your reps off tapes, off the chalkboard.

"You've got to stand right behind the huddle in practice and pretend you're getting the call, visualizing that you're the starting quarterback and go through every step as if you were behind the center. You get behind the starter's right shoulder and see what he's looking at, see what the defense looks like as if you were taking the snap.

"That way, you can make progress on every snap in practice you don't actually take the ball."

In other words, you're not even coming close to preparing as though you're the starter.

"That's the best you can do," Schnellenberger said. "You have to take advantage of everything there is when you're in that backup position."

Counterintuitive as it may sound, championship coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden claimed practice-time limitations can be an appealing motive for a coach to see what his young quarterback can do.

Rather than using sparse reps as an excuse to keep a young backup on the sideline, sparse reps become a reason to throw him into live action.

"I'm sure that is part of the thinking here," Gruden said. "Let's get our young guy, who has been impressive since he's been here, all the reps. Not a third of the reps like in training camp. Not 10 percent of the reps like he's getting now. Let's give him 100 percent of the reps.

"Maybe we have something here, and we just need to give him the ball."

Marginal practice time, however, may reduce Peterman's playbook Sunday in Los Angeles.

But that's supposed to be a secret.

"You go into Sunday with a normal game plan, knowing full well you probably won't use it," said Mike Martz, former St. Louis Rams coach and operator of the Greatest Show on Turf offense with Warner at quarterback. "But you don't tell your players that because if you pare it down you're sending a bad message.

"So you go in with a healthy game plan and – who knows? – maybe he can handle it. Then you just kind of feed him as the game evolves, the more success he has and the more comfortable he gets."

The demoted starter

Kurt Warner became a starting quarterback again after Coughlin benched him.

Warner returned to the Super Bowl with the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, skulkers into the playoffs at 9-7, which is why he cringes at the opportunity the Bills might be sacrificing this year.

Jake Plummer never got another chance.

Plummer was surprised to learn Thursday somebody else had been benched by a team in the playoff hunt, while healthy, replaced by a rookie. Plummer thought he and Taylor were alone.

The Denver Broncos were 7-4 when coach Mike Shanahan swapped out Plummer for 2006 first-round pick Jay Cutler. The offensive coordinator was Rick Dennison, the Bills' play-caller now.

"It wasn't easy," Plummer said. "Eventually, I leaned on my teammates, but initially it felt like they were ripped away from me, and that was hard because the only thing I had were my guys around me.

"When I couldn't go out there and battle with them, it just killed me."

The Broncos lost consecutive AFC West games to the San Diego Chargers and then to the Kansas City Chiefs on Thanksgiving.

In between, reports leaked from Denver that Shanahan might opt for Cutler. Division and wild-card hopes were fading away. The Broncos and Chiefs were tied at 7-4, with the Chargers on the verge of increasing their lead to 9-2.

One day Plummer was the quarterback of a 7-2 team that had beaten the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers on the road.

Five days later, he was out of a job.

"The toughest part is swallowing that pill and trying to retain your dignity, really," Plummer said. "You're taught to be a good teammate and not cause any insubordination. In the NFL, teams are expected to be like armies and soldiers.

"You're not supposed to say anything. But I had to."

Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer lost his job to rookie Jay Cutler in 2006. (Photo: Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary)

While Shanahan certainly could've handled the decision better, Plummer admitted he reacted horribly.

Plummer, in his fourth season as the Broncos' starter after six years in Arizona, said he did the bare minimum on the practice field that week and didn't bother to attend meetings for a few days.

"I didn't want to be told to take the scout team and give our defense a good look," Plummer said. "If you could imagine what was going through my head ...

"But I knew if that was my attitude and Jay got hurt or I was called to go back in, I had to really dig deep to push all my frustration aside. Not only could I let down my entire team, but I could look like a total a------, not knowing what to do with the ball. And I could get hurt.

"So I went back to studying as much as I could and being prepared to take back the reins if I got the opportunity."

Denver went 2-3 over the final five games with Cutler and missed the postseason.

Plummer didn't play another down. Denver traded him to Tampa Bay after the season, but he was bitter over how events transpired with Shanahan and heartbroken over the drive-by murder of Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams in the early morning hours after their season-finale loss.

Plummer, 43 next month, eventually came back around to Denver and football.

He sat with Shanahan for lunch in Denver a few weeks ago, their first meeting since Plummer retired. Plummer called it "therapeutic." He told the coach he loved him, apologized for how he reacted and thanked Shanahan for giving him the opportunity to win.

Plummer has been an advocate for medicinal marijuana to treat sports injuries and joined a group of retired players to found the not-for-profit Athletes for Care, an organization that helps former players transition into real life.

"We take guys to games and let them know, 'Man, you were a badass. Relish in that. Don't be mad you got cut your last year. Remember all the amazing things you did the seven years before that,' " Plummer said.

"What is hard in the sports industry is focusing on what just happened instead of all the good you did throughout the culmination in your career."

From within that vibe Plummer summoned advice for Taylor.

They're now together in a dinky NFL quarterback club, after all.

"You've got a right to be as pissed off as anybody else in the history of this game," Plummer imagined himself telling Taylor. "Yeah, if you weren't playing well and were just awful and couldn't complete a ball and just disgustingly horrible, then you know you deserve to get benched.

"But if you're playing good enough ball, and they're putting in someone you know won't bring what you bring to the field, be pissed off. There's no reason not to be a little upset. Your teammates will question you if you aren't.

"But remember you're still a leader on the team, and you were just the leader. Now you're not, but you still need to act like you are. That's hard to do, but the guys need you to be there. Hey, man, we all win the Super Bowl if we go, right?"

Taylor's teammates voted him captain in September. He'll still have a "C" on his jersey, whether or not he's breaking the huddle.

"Fifteen years from now, kid, when you're done playing, you're going to get mad respect for handling situations like this the right way," Plummer continued. "What's being done right now is being watched by a lot of eyeballs.

"Get back on it. But go ahead and be pissed off the whole time."

Cliques and bated breath

Stan Parrish isn't a household coaching name.

Nevertheless, trust that Parrish knows how controversial quarterback changes can impact a locker room and beyond.

"It's tricky because whether you want to face it or not, every team has its cliques," Parrish said. "That's not a bad thing. It just happens. When a guy's out there for a while, he establishes friends.

"I'd be lying if I said anything contrary to this kind of switch being extremely difficult to manage."

Unlike Schnellenberger and his VIP depth chart in Miami, Parrish didn't make the final call on who would start for the University of Michigan.

As quarterbacks coach in Ann Arbor from 1996 to 1999, however, Parrish had plenty to worry about. His job was to develop, in addition to lesser names, Scott Dreisbach, Brian Griese, Drew Henson and Tom Brady.

Griese started when Michigan won the national co-championship in 1997.

Then Parrish was forced to cope with one of college football's most dubious QB approaches in 1998 and 1999, when Michigan coach Lloyd Carr alternated series between Brady (a steady winner) and Henson (a blue-chip recruit Michigan wanted to keep happy for fear he would leave to play in the New York Yankees system).

"When you switch, particularly without there being a disaster, it's very, very difficult," Parrish said. "You have to make that choice knowing that's the way it has to be.

"And you will fragment your fan base because it's not like you're 0-10."

Parrish also won a Super Bowl ring as Gruden's quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers' starting quarterbacks that season were Brad Johnson and because of injuries Rob Johnson and Shaun King.

"It's excruciating at times, and the most difficult part is telling the No. 1 guy he's going to have to sit," Parrish said. "That's really, really, really hard to put it mildly.

"But the coaches in Buffalo must have faith in their backup. They felt they had a necessity to make this move. They're coaching for their jobs and for pride and are trying to make the playoffs."

Martz ventured that for McDermott to change QBs this late despite a winning record and Taylor being healthy, the Bills are "frustrated with what the starter was doing, that he's got them hamstrung and they can only go so far with him."

Fine, but what if the Bills don't win with Peterman?

That's where Warner's misgivings return over McDermott's decision.

"The telling factor is going to be if they struggle," Warner said. "Now what? It's easy if Nathan does well and everybody jumps on board and the coach is a genius.

"I see wanting to get more out of your quarterback within our offense from inside the pocket, but I look around the AFC, and I just don't see anybody separating themselves. Outside of the division leaders, everybody else is average.

"The landscape of the AFC has Buffalo still in this thing. You don't want grumblings from veterans who've never been to the playoffs, saying, 'Why are we doing this? We basically just gave our season away.' "

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