It's not quite official yet, but multiple reports indicate that undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel will be making his first professional start when the Buffalo Bills host the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs at Ralph Wilson Stadium this afternoon. It's just the latest headline in a long and unpredictable year for Tuel in Buffalo, which nearly saw him emerge as the team's opening-day starter.
In fact, things for Tuel have been unpredictable essentially throughout his entire post-high school football career, which we discussed when Tuel made a pre-draft visit with the Bills this past March: he started more games than any true freshman at Washington State since Drew Bledsoe, only to see injuries, coaching changes and highly-touted recruits derail his progress with the Cougars.
The Bills signed Tuel as a free agent following the 2013 NFL Draft, only to see Tuel become one of the team's major story lines of the exhibition season. In three preseason appearances, Tuel completed 31-of-43 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 106.6, prompting the Bills to keep him on the active roster even after first-round pick EJ Manuel made it back in time from a knee injury to start the team's season opener. (The Bills had already lost Kevin Kolb for the season, as well.) Tuel was held out of the team's preseason finale - a rarity for an undrafted rookie, to say the least - as the Bills tried to keep him healthy if he was needed for the season opener. In the week leading up to that Week 1 contest against New England, Tuel became something of a household name when the Bills announced him as the starting contingency plan if Manuel couldn't play.
Manuel did play, of course, and started the team's first five games of the season. Tuel resurfaced in Week 5, when on a nationally televised Thursday Night Football matchup in Cleveland, he stepped into the lineup to replace Manuel, who had just sprained his LCL. The Bills took a 24-17 lead on a drive that Tuel finished in the red zone, then watched Cleveland reel off 20 straight points - including a pick-six thrown by Tuel - in a 37-24 loss. Tuel completed 8-of-20 passes for 80 yards with the pick that night.
When the Bills named their Week 6 starter with Manuel sidelined, the team turned not to Tuel, but practice squad stash Thad Lewis. Tuel served as Lewis' understudy for each of the last three weeks, watching Lewis lead the Bills to a 1-2 record while head coach Doug Marrone addressed questions regarding why Tuel was ahead of Lewis on the roster in the first place. Tuel also switched jersey numbers in this time frame, allowing veteran punter Brian Moorman to re-claim his old No. 8, with tuel switching to No. 7.
Now, with Manuel still sidelined by that LCL sprain and Lewis nursing bruised ribs, Tuel is finally getting his chance to start after nearly doing so in Week 1. He's not even wearing the same jersey number as he was in his last regular season appearance a month ago, but he's also not guaranteed to repeat his poor performance in Cleveland, given that he has a full week of preparation under his belt. Waiting across the line of scrimmage from him today: a Chiefs defense that leads the NFL in sacks (36) and ranks second in takeaways (20).
Good luck today, Jeff Tuel. You're probably going to need it.