Derek Anderson strolled off the practice field Thursday and into the Buffalo Bills’ locker room, injured rookie Josh Allen following like a puppy.
Allen was wearing a long, black brace on his throwing arm to restrict the movement of his strained right elbow. The franchise quarterback doesn’t need surgery, two doctors have said, but could miss several games after being injured in last weekend’s loss to the Houston Texans.
Anderson headed toward his locker and began to change, pulling off his red “no contact” practice jersey and the list of plays wrapped snug around his forearm, a key piece of equipment he’ll likely wear on the field during Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The veteran quarterback has spent 14 seasons in the NFL, the last seven as the backup for Cam Newton in Carolina. But he’s been in Buffalo less than two weeks.
“It’s a little bit crazy,” Anderson said, “but I’m just trying to get the body right and brain right and be ready to go.”
Anderson, 35, signed with the Bills on Oct. 9 to serve as a tutor for Allen, the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, and young backup Nathan Peterman, who has struggled with turnovers.
Anderson didn’t expect to have to start for the Bills, and certainly not this soon. He spent training camp and the first five weeks of the season on the golf course.
But after Allen was hurt and Peterson imploded once again, tossing two interceptions, including a pick-six for the game-winning score in the final minutes of the 20-13 loss to the Texans, coach Sean McDermott was left with little choice.
This type of quarterback crisis has happened before. There are rare instances when a player signs and must play in a game on short notice. Those who have experienced and managed such extreme turnarounds said the intensity of the preparation in the days before kickoff is unlike that for any other week.
It involves the quarterback ensuring he is physically ready to perform, learning the terminology to unlock the playbook, building rapport and timing with teammates on snap counts and routes and executing the game plan, including red zone packages and the two-minute offense.
Anderson has been learning about this pressure-packed process in the same manner as those who preceded him – on the fly.
Vinny Testaverde has done this twice.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick played in the NFL for 21 seasons, the last several on short-term deals as he bounced from team to team.
His second stint with the New York Jets began on Sept. 27, 2005, after starting quarterback Chad Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler were hurt in the same game. Testaverde was signed to be a backup but ended up starting 12 days later, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football.
Two years later, under similar circumstances, Testaverde signed with the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 10, 2007, and started on the road against the Arizona Cardinals four days later.
“Compared to the last one, where I only had three days of preparation, he’s been there for a lifetime already,” Testaverde said about Anderson in a phone interview this week with The Buffalo News. “Actually, both times, just to give him and the team a little confidence, both times I was in those situations, we won that week.
“And I think it’s because everybody understands the urgency of what’s happening, everybody being the players. Everybody needs to play to their abilities and play good football. And when everybody can do that, it makes the quarterback’s job a little bit easier. Not that I want to say it’s ever easy, but it definitely takes a little off the quarterback when everybody’s playing up to their potential.”
Testaverde, like Anderson, was out of football each time, essentially retired, he said, when the Jets suddenly called.
“And my mind was going through everything,” Testaverde said.
His first decision was critical.
“I was working out at the time, so I felt like I was in good enough shape. And that’s what you’ve really got to figure out," said Testaverde, who was nearly 42 at the time. "Can you physically be able to handle what it takes to perform at a level good enough to win? And only Derek can answer that, because he knows what he’s been doing prior to signing with the Bills.
“And then mentally, there’s that side of it, too. He’s played long enough. He’s been in enough different offenses. He has enough experience that he can rely on, and that’s really what I did. I relied on my experiences and the teams that I was with in order to be able to perform at the level I felt like was needed to help the team win.”
McDermott knows Anderson from their time together in Carolina, where the Bills’ coach served as defensive coordinator and the quarterback practiced and played with Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Anderson also played under Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in Cleveland, but that was nearly a decade ago. The offense has evolved. But the slim foundation can only help.
Testaverde returned to the Jets less than two years after he had been released. Herman Edwards was still the head coach, but the offensive coordinator and much of the personnel had changed.
In the days leading up to the game, Testaverde said he continued preparing while alone at night in his apartment by envisioning the speed of the game, the defenses he’d likely face and the plays he’d have to run.
“You certainly don’t want to go into a situation and be a detriment,” he said. “You don’t want to be the reason why the team is being held back. And I always felt like with my preparation, both mentally and physically in the weight room, whatever it took, I was prepared enough for those situations. And I think he is, too.
“I’ve been a fan of Derek’s over the years. And I think he’s very capable of going in and playing with only limited preparation. But again, a lot is going to depend on the players around him and how they perform and go about their business.”
Former Colts coach Chuck Pagano recalls signing two quarterbacks off the street to play in the 2015 regular season finale against the Tennessee Titans.
Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst were hurt, leaving the Colts to turn to former first-round pick Josh Freeman and journeyman Ryan Lindley in an attempt to finish the season with an 8-8 record and give the team a minuscule chance to slip into the playoffs.
They signed on Tuesday and played that Sunday.
“And won the game! There’s the kicker right there,” Pagano said. “It’s a tall order and a difficult task, as you can imagine. I’d hate to be the Bills. But this stuff happens. They’ve at least had a week or so with Derek.”
Pagano recalled that Freeman had most recently played with the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League.
Lindley had been driving an Uber around New York.
“We had three days with both those guys,” Pagano said. “You bring them in for a tryout just to make sure they’re healthy and they can walk and chew gum and the guy can still throw a football. Ryan came in and completed every pass but they were all under 10 yards. And Josh came in and didn’t complete anything on his tryout, his workout. They were going 1,000 miles an hour and bouncing off, like BBs, off a tin can on the indoor facility there in Indy. We were like, ‘Holy (expletive). We are screwed.’ You know? But we said, ‘What else are we going to do? Let’s sign them summa (guns) and let’s go.’ "
The Colts’ staff devised a plan to start Freeman – who was the more talented player and had familiarity with some of the coaches from his time in Tampa – and teach Lindley the two-minute offense as a way to maximize resources given lack of time to prepare. They were used accordingly in the game, and the receivers had to try to adjust to the wildly different velocities the quarterbacks threw the ball.
Freeman heaved a long touchdown pass in the first quarter, Lindley tossed the go-ahead score with 13 seconds remaining in the first half, and thanks in part to a defensive touchdown, the Colts never trailed again in a 30-24 victory.
“First and foremost, game plan-wise, we had to obviously really scale back for these two guys,” Pagano said. “That was the biggest thing. They’ll have to curtail it to what Derek can do best. The terminology and the playbook, he’s been around for so long there’s nothing that he hasn’t done from the run game, pass game concepts, protections, A to Z, he’s seen it all. But the terminology would be the hardest thing. So he’s in a cram session right now, just like our two guys were in a cram session. Credit those two, and I know Derek will do the same thing, they were in that building 24/7 through the course of that week.
“But he’ll put the terminology in his own words, so to speak, and whatever play action passes they have, drop back, three-step, whatever they call them, he’ll go back and kind of put it in terminology he knows. He won’t change it, but he’ll equate it to something that’s familiar with him.
The wristband that Anderson was wearing in practice and likely will wear in the game will be "huge," Pagano said.
“They can put it all on a wristband for him," Pagano said. "I know we did that with Josh and Ryan, so that was simple for them. You can’t dumb it so far down where you don’t have enough bullets, but then you can’t paralyze him with too much. So they’ll be smart about that.”
Former Panthers offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz recalled a similar instance in 2010, when little-used Brian St. Pierre signed to the practice squad on Friday, the active roster the following Tuesday and started that week against the Baltimore Ravens.
These stories don’t always have happy endings.
“That was a no-win situation,” Schwartz said. “Derek Anderson is much better than Brian St. Pierre. I think Derek will be better equipped to handle this, considering he’s been around for a while, he was a Pro Bowler with Cleveland, so the comparison of talent is not there, but the situation I think is. We had a better O-line, better run game. It didn’t matter. We still played very poorly. And we stood no chance.
“There’s a lot of nuance to offenses. That’s why it takes everyone a while to learn them. When you become very basic on offense, defenses key on this. It’s why you have to be multiple in what you do. And so the one thing that worries me when you have a quarterback start on such a short notice is how much you can give him of the offense to make it to where he and the offense have a chance to succeed.”
Schwartz recalled a play on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter when the Panthers just called “block 'em up,” keeping eight players in protection while sending two out on routes.
“That was our best play at that time,” Schwartz said. “We had nothing else to do. And we actually scored a touchdown.”
The surprising score allowed the Panthers to pull within seven points, but St. Pierre threw two pick-sixes in the final five minutes of a 37-13 loss.
“I don’t think there’s one thing you can say that, ‘Hey, this is what will get him better prepared,’ " Schwartz said. "It’s even just as simple as the offensive line has to hear a new snap count from someone else. And they’re on the road this week, too, so you’ll get a silent count this week. I think it’ll be imperative for them to set up easy throws for him early in the game and get him in a rhythm. If you can stay ahead of the chains, that will be important. I think third and 7 to 10, staying out of those situations will be imperative, because teams will try to test Derek Anderson and his assignments of where guys need to be.”
“You just don’t have a lot of options when you get in third-and-long,” Schwartz said. “And that’s where a bulk of this comes in. First-and-10, simple coverages. You can tell Derek Anderson, let’s run this two-man route on a play-action pass. But third-and-7, third-and-8, third-and-long, that’s where the hay is made in this league, and having a new offense and new quarterback and working with a new offensive line and new protections and things like that, that’s where the difficulty comes in. So I can’t stress enough, trying to be good on first and second down.”
Pagano said the Bills need to get off to a fast start to build confidence and play to the strengths of their team, relying on their solid defense and the running game rather than having to throw the ball 40 times. That could be a challenge because the Bills have seven first-half points in their last three games combined.
Anderson should be familiar with the Colts’ defense, the coach said, since it’s similar to what the quarterback practiced against every day in Carolina.
“He’s seen a lot of ‘Tampa 2’ … so from an identification standpoint, complexity standpoint of the defense they’re going to see, I think it’s a great week,” Pagano said. “There won’t be a lot of exotics, if you will, presented to Derek from the Indy defense.”
The Colts know they’ll face a minimal game plan, but Indianapolis faces its own challenge in preparation.
“You’ve always got a book on guys,” Pagano said. “And they’re going back in Indy and scrambling saying, ‘OK, how much film can we get on this guy? How many throws has he had?’ And they’re trying to figure out, ‘Is he a pocket passer? Do we want to keep him in the pocket? Do we want to flush him? Can he still throw a deep ball? Can he throw outside the numbers? Is he going to work the inside paint? You know, whatever.”
The most important thing, Testaverde said, is to protect the football and give your team a chance to win.
“All the basic stuff is easy,” Testaverde said. “It’s when the defense is throwing blitzes and you’ve got to make that quick decision. Who is my hot route? Where do I go with the ball if things break down? … How do I get out of this situation and make the best of it without making a critical mistake for our team?
“I would tell Derek that whatever he’s feeling comfortable with throughout the period of time that he’s been with the Bills, they should utilize those strengths and those plays. Sometimes it’s the things that are in the playbook or game plan that week that you’re not sure about, and then the time comes and you have to make a split decision and you sometimes make the wrong one, and that’s when things go bad for you.
“But just run the plays, and if something comes across he’s not comfortable with, just make sure you manage it and make sure you don’t make the big mistake. That’s really what it’ll boil down to.”
Back in the Bills’ locker room after practice Thursday, Anderson spotted wide receiver Zay Jones and bounded toward his locker.
“So,” Anderson began, mentioning a play they’d practiced earlier. “You’ve got the deep cross, right?”
“No,” Jones said. “I’ve got the crease. Like, vertical.”
“Oh, the seam! Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Anderson said.
Jones continued explaining his thought process as he and Anderson worked through the confusion.
“That’s why I was like, ‘Dang, does he have the shallow?’” Jones said. “And then I just ran that option out. But, obviously, it was wrong.”
“OK,” Anderson said. “That’s OK. It’s OK.”
They still had about 72 hours until kickoff.