Just as he has been for the first dozen games of his NFL career, Cardale Jones will be inactive Sunday when the Buffalo Bills host the Pittsburgh Steelers at New Era Field.
But that’s not to say the rookie quarterback is an afterthought. Far from it, actually.
For many Bills fans, Jones is the great unknown. With the team’s playoff chances hovering somewhere between slim and none, that has them eager for an opportunity to see what the Ohio State product can do.
Coach Rex Ryan was asked this week about that very possibility, and made it clear that wasn’t something the team is considering right now.
“At no time are we looking at that,” Ryan said. “We’re trying to win these next four games.”
Ryan’s stance is perfectly logical. As long as the Bills have a playoff pulse, faint as it might be, making a quarterback change would be preposterous. If, or more likely when, the team is eliminated, though, it becomes an entirely different conversation.
“He can make all the throws, and his accuracy is getting better,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who goes against Jones’ scout team in practice every day. “He’s got a big arm, and if he keeps getting better with his accuracy, the sky is the limit for him.”
Jones came to the Bills with just 11 college starts, so calling him green would be an understatement.
“I think I’m coming along,” he said. “Of course, never having a game rep, but things are kind of slowing down out there at practice. Just knowing where I want to go with the ball a lot sooner is helping me with my accuracy.”
Running the scout team means trying to prepare the Bills’ starting defense for the offense it will face in the upcoming week.
“I’m facing all those looks, why they want to do certain things to certain receivers or quarterbacks on the offense that we’re going against,” Jones said. “Learning that has been extremely helpful. Just seeing the workload and the skill of the players” has been the biggest change since college.
As for how much better of a quarterback he feels like now as opposed to when he was drafted in May, Jones said, “10 times better. I’ve never played so fast. I’ve never thrown the ball with so much velocity, never thrown the ball with so much pin-point accuracy into tight windows.”
A week ago, Jones tweeted a simple message: “Patiently waiting.”
Asked this week what he was referring to, he doubled over laughing.
“I was waiting on my food, actually,” he said. “I was so hungry.”
His followers, however, took it a much different way. Told his message could be easily be perceived as “patiently waiting” for his chance with the Bills, Jones agreed that was true.
“Of course. But still, I’m not in a rush for anything,” he said. “I definitely commend the coaches for having a hell of a game plan set for me.”
The physical tools for Jones are impressive. He’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, with a howitzer of a right arm.
“Watching the scout team and evaluating his reps with the scout team, he’s putting the ball in the right places,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “He’s accurate. I think his development has come along fine.”
Gilmore has seen the same thing.
“One thing I noticed from when he came in the first time and then now, say if you’re playing man on him and you’re over the top, he’s learning how to throw it away from the defender,” he said. “He’s learning how to throw back shoulders. If the corner’s to the outside, he’s going inside. That’s one thing that he’s adjusted to.”
Gilmore’s advice to Jones has been simple: Treat every practice rep like it’s a game. Don’t throw a ball you wouldn’t during a real game.
“I kind of challenge myself to try to find a completion against those guys,” Jones said of the Bills’ cornerbacks. “Practicing against them is really the thing I’d say has helped me the most with my growth.”
It’s not just Jones’ potential that has Bills fans intrigued. It’s also the uncertainty surrounding current starter Tyrod Taylor, who has struggled this season. The Bills have a big decision coming up on Taylor’s contract in March. If they pick up his option, it guarantees the quarterback more than $30 million.
If the team chooses to walk away, it’s back to square one at the most important position on the field. Getting a glimpse of Jones, which is impossible with practices during the regular season closed to both media and fans, could provide hope he's the answer.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk about maybe giving him a shot, but I don’t know if he’s ready,” outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “He’s a rookie and it’s Week 14. He has great potential, but to throw him in there right now, wouldn’t give justice to anybody in here that’s been working all year, or to him. You don’t want to just put him out there and he’s not ready, because that can hurt quarterbacks, as well. It’s a whole other thing when you’re getting hit, and have to make checks in pressure situations. But he has the talent to play in this league.”
NFL players and coaches don’t deal well with hypotheticals. As far as the Bills are concerned, they are still in a playoff chase, so any talk of turning to Jones is premature. There is also a loyalty to Taylor. Teammates have the utmost respect for his leadership and work ethic, so it would not go over well if he were benched.
“He’s earned this, to go out there and give us a chance to get to the playoffs,” Alexander said “Cardale’s a good quarterback, but he’s young. He’s still learning.”
Ultimately, the decision on whether Jones does see any meaningful time in 2016 rests with coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley.
“What I’ve learned, they’re going to put players in the best situation to succeed, not just throw him out there just to see what you can do,” Alexander said. “That can really hurt a guy, and hurt other people as far as his team goes.”
Until Jones does get a shot when the games count, fans will be left to wonder whether they have a diamond in the rough. Even Ryan himself admitted to being curious.
“I think as far as progression, you know all that stuff, I guess it’s kind of hard to tell, but he’s done a good job in the classroom,” he said. “I think this is great. I mean, as a rookie quarterback, seeing what it’s like in the NFL, in the meetings and the prep and all that stuff, and then coming out here.”
Ryan said the team tries to split reps on the scout team between Jones and backup EJ Manuel.
“He’s picked up the offense well,” Lynn said. “He’s in meetings with all the other quarterbacks. He comes early. He leaves late. I’ve been very satisfied with his work ethic.
“It’s hard, you know, without seeing a guy in a game. But you watch him in practice. You watch him in individual drills. You watch his footwork and his arm strength. He’s what you want waiting on the runway.”