The Buffalo Bills could not have found a backup quarterback more ready than Tyler Thigpen to hit the ground throwing this summer.
Thigpen spent the NFL lockout thinking exactly what Bills fans were thinking: It sure would make sense for him to reunite with Bills coach Chan Gailey, for whom he started 11 games in Kansas City in 2008.
"I spoke with Chan the first day I could, when they lifted the lockout," Thigpen said. "I just felt like it was a great opportunity out here, already knowing the system. When I got a look at the playbook the first meeting, it felt like second nature to me."
Thigpen took the field in his No. 4 Bills uniform for the first time Thursday night at St. John Fisher College. The Bills think the 27-year-old gives them good insurance if starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick were to get hurt.
"I was in this offense for a year and a half with Chan, before he chose to step down as offensive coordinator in 2009," Thigpen said. "You can only run a curl one way, but you can call it so many different ways. So it's definitely an advantage for me coming in here knowing the offense already."
Thigpen got thrown into action in 2008, his second NFL season, after the Chiefs lost their top two QBs to injury. He had played in a modified shotgun ("the Pistol") in college at Coastal Carolina. So Gailey switched to a shotgun offense and spread the field with receivers.
In 11 starts, Thigpen passed for 2,608 yards and threw for 18 touchdowns, more than NFL top rookie Matt Ryan had that year. Thigpen also ran for 386 yards and three TDs. The downside was the Chiefs went 1-10 in Thigpen's starts. They blew five fourth-quarter leads in those games. Thigpen was one of 11 first-year K.C. starters that season.
"He's a productive player," Gailey said. "He's a very good athlete; he's not just a pocket guy. He can go make some things happen with his feet. He's a great competitor and he has a strong arm, which you have to have to play up here."
Thigpen was dealt to Miami in 2009 and has made only one start the past two seasons. However, he thinks he developed in Miami, where he was coached by veteran aide David Lee (now at Ole Miss).
"I definitely feel like I've developed fundamentally," he said. "Coach Lee worked with me a lot on my fundamentals. I feel like I've definitely gotten a lot more accurate. That's one of the things as a quarterback, you have to be accurate. They don't factor in dropped balls or throwaways. But at the end of the day it's about moving the ball as an offense and scoring touchdowns."
Thigpen completed only 54.8 percent of his passes in '08. He says he has improved his footwork the past couple of seasons.
"That was definitely a big thing," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing for me as a quarterback with my game. As long as my feet are right, I pretty much feel like I can make any throw."
Gailey likes mobile quarterbacks, and now he has a fleet of them, with Fitzpatrick, Thigpen and free-agent signee Brad Smith.
"I think in any offense, when you're able to move, [it helps] when something breaks down up front and you're able to make a guy miss and make a play with your feet or keep the play alive with your arm," Thigpen said.
Thigpen says he has focused on keeping his eyes on the receivers when he breaks out of the pocket.
"Back in '08 when I first took over the job, Chan was like, 'You want to be a quarterback who takes off to pass.' Then you can run after that. I think at first, every time I took off to run, I was taking off to run rather than keeping my eyes upfield. I think that definitely developed. Right after he said that, I took it to heart and started practicing that."
It's a good bet the Bills will throw a few Pistol formations at teams as a change of pace. Gailey did it last year a few times. In the Pistol, the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind center (instead of 7), with a running back directly behind him.
"Defenses have to study it," Thigpen said. "Once that quarterback turns his back to the line and you have a running back in the I-formation behind him, it's definitely something different. Rather than being in the shotgun all the time and having him beside you, they can't always key on certain little tips."
Thigpen sees no problem working with Fitzpatrick.
"He's a great guy," he said. "I've known him for about three years. We played against each other when he was in Cincinnati, and the last two years. You can tell his teammates are behind him 100 percent and I'm behind him 100 percent as well as the backup right now. I look forward to competing with him, pushing him, making him better and helping him any way I can as well."