You can call it a luxury, although it seems much more like a necessity.
A 14-year quarterback whose primary role is to serve as an extra coach? How in the world can the Buffalo Bills — or almost any NFL team — afford that when there are so many other priorities that require players who actually play?
Here’s how: Their need for someone like Derek Anderson, who they signed as a free agent Tuesday, was great enough for them to justify going with one fewer player at another spot, which happened to be safety.
Why? Because so much of the franchise’s future hinges on the development of Josh Allen, and Anderson can do plenty to help it along with what he knows, what he says and what he does. It doesn’t mean the Bills aren’t interested in winning in the short term, but it does underscore their intention of sticking with the plan to build sustainable success.
The first step in Anderson’s mentoring came Wednesday at 5:50 a.m. That was when he arrived at One Bills Drive to lift weights.
Allen showed up at his usual time of 6:10 a.m. The 22-year-old rookie immediately took note of the fact the 35-year-old veteran had already been in the building for 20 minutes.
“Seeing him get here early, lifting earlier than us, and just kind of talking with him out in practice, after practice, just the things that he’s kind of been through, the things that he sees,” Allen said, listing all of immediate ways Anderson’s presence was already benefiting him. “He’s got a lot of experience in this league. He’s a guy that is going to help me and Nate (Peterman) out and we’re lucky to have him.”
Peterman is in his second NFL season, so he can also prosper from having an old pro around. But he isn’t as rough around the edges as Allen, even if he’s less talented. The Bills also aren’t depending on their 2017 fifth-round draft choice to be their starter for double-digit seasons, as is the case with the seventh overall pick of last April’s draft.
David Culley, the Bills’ quarterbacks coach, and Brian Daboll, the offensive coordinator, can only provide so much information. Most of what they discuss is of the X-and-O variety as seen through the eyes of men who have never taken a single snap in the league.
Anderson knows how it looks from behind the line of scrimmage. He understands how defenses react to certain formations and pre-snap motion. He can anticipate blitzes and identify where openings are in coverage. He has lived the life of an NFL quarterback more than half the years Allen and Peterman have been alive.
“I’ve seen a lot of football. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in my career and (can) just be a guy that (Allen) can lean on,” Anderson said. “(He can) ask me any question. I said, ‘Bud, I’m here for you. If you need me to watch a guy or find something special or something you’re unsure of,’ and things like that.”
Anderson spent the past seven years with the Carolina Panthers. That was where Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, a member of the Panthers’ front office for most of that time, and coach Sean McDermott, Carolina’s defensive coordinator for most of that time, saw Anderson interact with the team’s franchise QB, Cam Newton.
They believe Allen is enough of a sponge to soak in everything Anderson has to offer, something that was evident after Wednesday’s practice when the two were involved in a deep, hand-moving football conversation from which Allen had to be pulled away to speak with reporters.
“Josh is a constant learner,” McDermott said. “He loves the growth mindset and embraces that. He has a whole heck of a lot of respect for people who have been around the game, very little ego. I know, in my own career, if you're able to sit next to someone that's been there and done that before, there’s a lot of value in that, in particular when they’ve had success like Derek has.”
Anderson had his days as a viable NFL starter. He made the Pro Bowl after helping the Cleveland Browns to a 10-6 finish in 2007. He had legit numbers, throwing for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. He threw with tremendous velocity, as his 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame suggested he could.
Anderson remained with the Browns through 2009, then signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2010. A year later, his view of himself as a pro quarterback switched from someone striving to be a star to someone who wanted to be a star-maker. Anderson reached out to Rob Chudzinski, who had just been named the Panthers’ offensive coordinator and who had been Anderson’s OC for two seasons in Cleveland.
“I said, ‘Hey, bud, I know I have gone through a lot of the things I have, but there is something I can give back to (Newton). Give me a chance to come in there with Cam,’ ” Anderson recalled. “I didn’t know Cam, I didn’t know anyone there and I was lucky to have that opportunity. It was a blast.
“Seeing Cam his rookie year, at times we didn’t know what we were doing. Then, to eventually get to the Super Bowl and to where he’s at now and he wins the league MVP, it’s something that I’m very proud to be a part of. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to help him along the way, but helping the coaches, they bounced things off of me. It (was) a good working relationship.”
Ken Dorsey had a firsthand look at how well Anderson handled being a mentor when Dorsey was the Panthers’ quarterbacks coach from 2013 to 2017. Among the many traits Dorsey saw that made Anderson the perfect coach-in-shoulder-pads for Newton was his selflessness.
“I think he was big in helping Cam and a big reason why we were able to go to the playoffs four of the last five years,” Dorsey, now an assistant athletic director at Florida International University, said by phone. “And I think he has a lot to do with that because of the trust factor he developed with Cam and the extra set of eyes he provided on the field, in the the film room either during meetings or when those guys are watching film on their own. And having that type of experience is invaluable.”
Whether Anderson is in uniform for Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans is unknown. He hasn’t practiced with an NFL team since the end of last season. He said he drew some interest during the league’s free-agency period, but “didn’t really feel comfortable” with the feelers he received.
Although Anderson worked with his personal trainer at Arizona — where he lives with his wife and their three young children — he did begin to think his playing days might be over. He was starting to wrap his mind around spending a year chasing after the kids (who are four, two and one) and getting used to being a former player before pursuing another means of earning a paycheck.
Then, a week ago, while vacationing with his family, Anderson received a call from the Bills.
“I was like, ‘Just give me a couple days, I can finish this vacation up,’ ” he said. “I left. Miss the kids, miss my wife, but very happy to be here.”
That shouldn’t be mistaken for someone who is simply happy to still have a job in the NFL or who is thrilled with not feeling the pressure to perform on the field.
Anderson would more than welcome the chance to play. That is something he wants Allen and Peterman to know as much as anyone.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a competitor,” Anderson said. “I’m going to push them once my old body starts feeling right. I’m going to go out and practice like I always have.”
Still, the Bills want the best work he does to show up every time Allen takes the field.