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Jerry Sullivan: Sean McDermott's 'calculated risk' leads to humiliation

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CARSON, Calif. — Sean McDermott had just suffered the worst embarrassment of his coaching life. So of course, he reacted as any self-respecting coach would. Asked how in the world he could go back to Nathan Peterman, McDermott said he needed to watch the film.

"I'm going to evaluate it," McDermott said after the Bills were humiliated Sunday by the Chargers, 54-24. "I'll take my time."

Sorry, but anyone who saw Peterman throw five interceptions in the first half of his NFL debut could deduce without film study that it was a colossal miscalulation for McDermott to pull Tyrod Taylor and install a raw rookie at quarterback with his team at 5-4.

The move couldn't have blown up in McDermott's face any worse if he had stuck his head in the annoying cannon that they set off in the corner of the end zone after every Chargers score.

And boy, did that cannon get a workout. The Bills allowed the most points in a first half (37) in 40 years, the third-most points in a game in their history. They've now allowed a franchise record 135 points over their last three games for their young defensive mastermind.

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McDermott had said it was a calculated risk to put in Peterman as his starting quarterback with his team in a playoff spot. He said it gave his team the best chance to win, now and in the future. Instead, it gave the Bills a chance to humiliate themselves before the nation.

Peterman was worse than anyone could have imagined, going 6 of 14 passing for 66 yards and no touchdowns at the StubHub Center. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was the first quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to toss five picks in the first half of a game.

By midway through the second quarter, you could see the Peterman Principle was at work, with the QB having been promoted beyond his abilities. As fate would have it,  on his one terrific throw, early in the game, Kelvin Benjamin went out with a knee injury.

"Obviously, anyone who went through this would be disappointed," Peterman said. "It means a lot to you. You put a lot of work, a lot of time and energy into trying to go out and help your team win. So it's definitely tough, but I'm going to learn from this and be stronger for it."

Peterman said that several times. Learning experience. So did McDermott. They both came off like shell-shocked rookies after this loss, which resounded around the NFL after McDermott made the nearly unprecedented move to yank his starter with his team in a playoff spot.

McDermott finally and mercifully pulled Peterman at halftime in favor of Taylor, who played well in a hopeless situation. Then the Bills sent both quarterbacks out separately to the postgame interview room,  continuing the charade that they're equal at this point in their careers.

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Say what you will about Taylor, a limited passer who often plays safe to a fault and tends to hide behind his low interception rate. But a couple of the interceptions by Peterman were the kind you see in junior high, where he simply panics and heaves the ball up for grabs.

It was a serious blow for McDermott, who had his grand experiment go to pieces against Anthony Lynn, who served as interim Bills head coach for last season's finale and was the perceived favorite to replace Rex Ryan before Terry and Kim Pegula went ga-ga over McDermott.

Evaluate film? How could McDermott possibly go back to Peterman next week against the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead? He made his calculated risk. It was an abysmal failure. But the Bills are still 5-5 and in the playoff hunt and he might lose his team if he puts Peterman back in after this.

Taylor went to the mike and began spouting the same nonsense about watching the film and learning. But at some point, when the head coach says he's making moves with an eye to the future, players have to believe he's taking a risk with their playoff hopes.

Then I asked Taylor, "Doesn't there come a time when team leaders go to the coach and say 'You can't put this guy back in?' Isn't that what leadership is about, not being willing to stand there and take it?"

"Absolutely," Taylor said. "There's definitely some things we have to talk about as a leaderhsip council, and I'm pretty sure over the next couple of days, things are definitely going to have to be talked about."

There it is, a refreshing hint of the truth. Taylor said the Bills' leadership council consists of 12 players who can meet with McDermott and clear the air. LeSean McCoy said it was challenging to put a rookie quarterback in such a tough situation. In passing last Wednesday, he even mentioned the notion of "five picks."

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McDermott said the team was focused and determined on Sunday, but I saw some quit in them, especially late in the game when the defense again seemed indifferent about tackling.

In any event, it's hard to imagine the Bills making the playoffs now. The defense is a shambles. Peterman made it worse, of course. But you can only talk so much about technique and gap integrity. A glaring lack of depth and talent is showing through. They appear to be falling apart, like so many Bills teams during the 17-year playoff drought.

This makes 17 straight years in which the Bills haven't managed to be even 6-4 after 10 games. Amazing as it sounds, they have now lost 16 games in a row when they had five wins and were above .500. That goes back to the start of the 2001 season.

So if Bills fans have a familiar, haunting sense of impending doom, there's good reason. I know this is saying a mouthful. But in the long chronicle of road woe during the millennium, this might have been the most distressing of all. This is the first time a head coach decided to pull his starting quarterback with his team above .500 and in a playoff spot.

The Bills are in a bad way right now. They're one of the worst teams in the NFL, and with Peterman on the field, they might be worse than the Browns. Before the game, I said it was the first big crisis of McDermott's first year as coach.

It just got a lot worse. My advice is, don't watch the film.


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