KANSAS CITY – Sean McDermott's quarterback switch was a miserable failure, but it did accomplish one thing: It made Tyrod Taylor into a sympathetic figure, even among Bills fans who have seen enough of Taylor and long for a true answer at the game's most vital position.
Nationally, McDermott has been roundly excoriated, dismissed as an amateur and a fool for putting in Nathan Peterman when his team was 5-4. Some of the more prominent voices said that he deserved to be fired for the move.
The head coach made himself an easy and deserving target from afar. But national NFL experts have always been too kind to Taylor, lacking the nuanced perspective of people who observe him up close on a weekly basis.
Taylor's supporters look at his high QB rating and historically low interception rate and see a franchise player. They overlook the stats that betray his shortcomings: The high rate of sacks and three-and-outs, the unwillingness to attempt tough throws, the lack of comebacks.
At any rate, after a one-week stutter, we're back where we were when the season began, wondering if Taylor can rise up and lead the Bills to victory in a crucial road game, something he's done far too infrequently during his two and a half years as the starter.
A week ago, the Bills decided to audition Peterman as a possible long-term solution. Now, it is Taylor who is on trial. He's auditioning for the league at large, trying once again to prove that he's worthy of a lucrative long-term contract – the one he failed to get last summer.
McDermott's actions prove that he's ready to move on from Taylor. He shouldn't have brought him back in the first place. But once he decided to keep Tyrod in an attempt to win in the short term, he owed it to Taylor and the fans to ride it out until the Bills were eliminated.
There are no guarantees now. I could see McDermott going back to Peterman if the Bills lose here Sunday and next week against the Patriots at New Era Field. Taylor said he had not been assured that he would be the starter the rest of the season, barring an injury.
"As of right now, I was told I’m going to be the starter for this week," Taylor said, "and that’s how I’m handling my business and doing whatever it takes; pouring all my time and energy into preparation and getting everyone on the same page so we can go out and get a win this week."
Taylor could boost the Bills' fading playoff chances and bolster his stock in free agency Sunday. A big day doesn't seem likely, even against the Chiefs' 28th-ranked pass defense. Taylor's four top receivers (Kelvin Benjamin, Charles Clay, Jordan Matthews, Deonte Thompson) are all listed as questionable with various injuries.
History says the Bills are in trouble if Taylor has to lift them with his arm. He hasn't thrown for 200 yards in a road win since the game at New England more than a year ago, when Tom Brady was still on suspension. It remains the only road game he's ever won when he threw more than 30 times, and the second overall (Tampa Bay this season).
Taylor has won road games for the Bills while passing for 182, 124, 166, 158 and 109 yards. He has seven TD passes in his last nine games on the road. So the roadster model is well-established: Run the ball down teams' throats and limit the number of times Taylor has to put it in the air.
In his first four road games this season, Taylor was sacked 19 times. He had no completion over 26 yards to a wide receiver. So you can see the logic behind McDermott's move to Peterman, however ill-timed or ill-advised it might have been with the Bills in a playoff spot.
Arrowhead is a notoriously difficult place for a road team. Still, Bills fans can find some hope in the fact that Taylor had the best passing half of his NFL career in a 30-22 loss at Kansas City two years ago. Taylor went 14 for 27 for 236 yards in the first half that day at Arrowhead. To put that performance in perspective, Taylor has passed for 236 or more yards only 11 times in 39 full games as a Bill.
He wound up throwing for 291 yards that day. Sammy Watkins had six catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and didn't catch a pass after halftime. That was the game in which Rex Ryan blew five challenges or potential challenges that could have tilted the outcome.
The Bills came into that game at 5-4, coming off a loss and looking to assert themselves as a contender. It sounds all too familiar, and it's understandable if Bills fans aren't terribly optimistic about this one.
Games against Kansas City have been horror shows in recent years. The Bills lost three in a row to the Chiefs from 2013-15, undone by bizarre plays, bad coaching and dubious quarterback play in the clutch.
In 2013, the Bills led, 10-3, and had third-and-goal from the 1-yard line early in the second half. Jeff Tuel, in his only NFL start, threw a pass that was picked off by Sean Smith and returned 100 yards for a TD. The Bills lost, 23-13, despite outgaining the Chiefs, 470-210.
In 2014, the Bills were 5-3 and facing the Chiefs at home, looking to get to 6-3 for the first time in 15 years. Bryce Brown fumbled a ball through the end zone. Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a punt. Kyle Orton had four chances from the KC 15 in the final minutes and failed. Chiefs, 17-13.
We've discussed the sorry events of two years ago, when Rex Ryan and his genius coaches decided it was OK to use Watkins as a decoy after the best first half of his and Taylor's careers. Sometimes, playing in Arrowhead brings out the blockhead in coaches.
Maybe this time it'll be different. It would be fitting if Taylor played the game of his life, snapping the Bills' three-game losing streak, putting them back in the thick the playoff hunt, and making McDermott look even more silly for yanking Tyrod as his starter the week before.
Or worse yet for McDermott, imagine if Taylor plays a tremendous game and they lose because of a further unraveling by his defense.