Buffalo Bills coach Mike Mularkey still hasn't given up on his team's chances of making the playoffs this season, which explains why he isn't quite ready to begin the J.P. Losman Era any time soon. Drew Bledsoe will be the starting quarterback Sunday afternoon against the St. Louis Rams.
After that, we'll see.
Mularkey's reasoning Monday after the Bills' embarrassing 29-6 defeat to the New England was built more on mathematics than reality. The Bills are 3-6 with seven games remaining, including a five-game stretch that includes four road games. Ten teams in the AFC have a better record than Buffalo, and only Miami's is worse.
Technically, the Bills can make the playoffs. Realistically, their chances are slim at best.
"It's still too early to rule out where we're going from this point in the season," Mularkey said after meeting with his players. "There are seven games left. We're not out of it. Drew has proven in three (wins) of four (games) before this game that he was a big reason why. We'll start with Drew this week."
Problems that had plagued Bledsoe for two-plus seasons resumed Sunday against the Patriots in what could have been the worst game of his career. He completed just eight of 17 passes for 76 yards, had three interceptions and failed to lead the Bills' offense into the red zone, let alone the end zone. His 14.3 passer rating was the lowest for any game in his 12-year career.
"I think he just threw some poor balls," Mularkey said. "We had some guys open, and then we didn't and forced some things in there. Against that team, you can't afford to do that."
Losman came off the bench cold as the third quarterback and wasn't much better in two series against the Pats. The Bills' first-round pick in April was sacked and fumbled the ball away on his first NFL drive and threw an easy interception on his second. He didn't exactly inspire thoughts he was the next Ben Roethlisberger, the rookie quarterback who has led the Pittsburgh Steelers to seven straight wins.
But could Losman be a better option than Bledsoe?
Mularkey said he merely wanted to take a peek at Losman knowing Sunday's game was basically decided, not kick-start a quarterback controversy. Mularkey wouldn't even say whether Losman, who is still not fully recovered from a broken leg, would be promoted to backup and therefore get more snaps in practice.
"It was really just a matter of giving him some time," Mularkey said. "It was purely exposure. I don't think we put him in there to win the game. It would have been a tough comeback based on the number of scores we needed. It wasn't to start a controversial thing. It was to get a quarterback experience."
Losman was not available for comment Monday. Bledsoe was the only offensive starter who walked into the locker room while it was open to the media. Several others slipped out of the Bills' practice facility long before the locker room opened.
Bledsoe did not conduct a formal interview but acknowledged that he knew criticism directed toward him would intensify with Losman on his heels. The same thing happened during the 2001 season in New England, when Bledsoe suffered an injury and the Pats turned to Tom Brady, clearing the way for Bledsoe's departure.
"It's not my first rodeo," Bledsoe said before walking out the door.
Bledsoe's future with the Bills -- and perhaps in the NFL -- could be in jeopardy after this season. He signed a three-year contract extension in the spring that included a $6.5 million signing bonus and allowed the Bills to save $4.18 million against the salary cap. He would cost the Bills some $4.33 million against the cap if the Bills released him after the season and $6.51 million if he returned.
Bledsoe has not suggested he would retire, but it's been widely assumed he would rather consider that option than accept a backup role with the Bills or any other team. He's financially set for life. He has been in steep decline since early last season, when the Bills opened with blowout victories over the Patriots and Jacksonville.
The Bills are 7-16 in the 23 games since their 2-0 start in 2003. Bledsoe has not thrown for more than 300 yards during that span, but he has thrown for less than 100 yards four times over the same period. He had thrown for less than 100 yards only three times in his first 142 games, including twice during his rookie year in New England.
Bledsoe has thrown for less than 200 yards 15 times during the same stretch, in which he had 17 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. The Bills are 1-10 on the road during that period, and he averaged just 158 yards passing. The Bills averaged just 215 yards of offense in the 10 road losses.
Another defeat could signal the end for Bledsoe in Buffalo. At some point, Mularkey must consider whether the Bills' long-term benefits of developing Losman outweigh possible short-term success of staying with Bledsoe.
"I haven't wrestled with it yet because I don't think we're at that point yet," Mularkey said. "I've been in this situation. I've been 4-6 and made the playoffs before (with the Steelers in 1989). I will never, not until it's final that we're in that position. I think we're still shooting for the stars and nothing less."