In an ideal world, the Buffalo Bills will authoritatively claim a spot in the 2015 NFL playoffs behind great defense and unexpectedly solid, consistent play from one of their three starting quarterback options - Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel, or Tyrod Taylor.
Very little in the NFL, however, ends up being ideal. That has certainly been the case in Buffalo, where the team is hoping to end a 15-year stretch without a playoff appearance. Fans can conjure up big hopes about 16-plus games of solid, non-controversial play at the game's most important position, but said daydreams probably aren't realistic enough to be considered a proper use of our valuable time.
It is far more likely that, as the Bills try to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, they'll be doing so in spite of mediocre-at-best quarterback play. Which isn't a fun proposition, but hey, plenty of teams have done it before - and new Bills head coach Rex Ryan made something of an art form out of it early in his previous gig with the New York Jets.
The big question for the Bills heading into the 2015 season might not be who starts at quarterback in Week 1, but whether or not the team can achieve its biggest goal if they end up deciding to not use that Week 1 starter at some point during the season.
Why keep fewer than three?
During spring workouts, as media members of all sorts were talking through the idea that the Bills might cut one of their three options (Cassel and Manuel were cited most often), Ryan went out of his way to say that he didn't think that would be happening.
"I would think - it'd be hard for me to fathom that those three won't be on the roster," Ryan told WKBW's Joe Buscaglia in the final week of May. "Unless Peyton Manning gets cut, or something like that - I don’t see that happening; maybe Archie Manning will be available - but yeah, I think it’s a safe bet to say those three will be on the roster."
The Bills have not opened a regular season with three quarterbacks on the active roster since 2012, but that seems likely to change this fall. Despite the intrigue of the talking point, the Bills really don't have to part ways with any of their top three options. Compelling arguments can be made for doing so, of course - especially with Cassel and his scheduled $4.15 million salary - but the Bills should be more desperate to ensure the best quarterback situation they can possibly cobble together than they are about saving a few bucks.
Again, in an ideal world, one of these players firmly establishes himself as the starter in August, and the situation doesn't change during a memorable season for the Bills. In the very likely event that doesn't happen, however, more options are always better than less. It's safe to assume at this point that, unless something drastic changes between July 30 and September 13, all three of these quarterbacks will be on the roster come Week 1.
Why limit yourself to just one?
Coaching with an increased sense of desperation from 2012-14 while with the Jets, Ryan developed a habit of benching quarterbacks in an attempt to stay in the playoff race as long as possible. In 2012, he pulled three-plus year starter Mark Sanchez out of the lineup twice in favor of Greg McElroy. The next season, then-rookie Geno Smith was yanked in favor of Matt Simms on three separate occasions (though Smith did start all 16 games). The trend reached a fever pitch last year, with Michael Vick replacing Smith on two separate occasions, and then Smith recovering his spot from Vick after three mediocre starts from the veteran.
Buffalo's new offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, spent four seasons calling plays for the San Francisco 49ers, where during the 2012 season, a playoff-bound outfit oversaw one of the most controversial quarterback changes in recent memory. Alex Smith, enjoying the best season of his career, suffered a concussion. Two and a half weeks later, he had been cleared to play, but had also permanently lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick, who remains that team's starter today.
San Francisco's situation was not the same as New York's, by any stretch. Ryan was making moves trying to keep his head above water, while the 49ers were a great team trying to tweak the formula just enough to win a Super Bowl (which they very nearly did). Ryan was picking among the trash heap; the 49ers were deciding between two passers playing at a very high level.
The point remains, however: the two most influential decision-makers on offense for the Bills have a track record of making quarterback switches on the fly, and for very different reasons with opposite levels of success. Why should fans expect them to stick with one quarterback in 2015 if said passer isn't performing adequately?
The Bills have a window of opportunity to do some serious winning with their blossoming defense as the centerpiece of that effort. That window may not stay open long. Marcell Dareus is scheduled for free agency after the 2015 season, as is talented linebacker Nigel Bradham. Mario Williams and Kyle Williams are on the wrong side of 30, and defensive backs Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham aren't far behind. Time will tell if a few key young players - Preston Brown, Stephon Gilmore, and Aaron Williams chief among them - ever do reach their full potential. We have a pretty good idea that Buffalo's defense will be good in 2015; there are enough moving parts, however, to question if it will ever be truly great, or if they'll be able to sustain their current level of talent for very long.
That is all of the opportunity-seizing desperation that a coach like Ryan might require to continue his trend of flip-flopping quarterbacks. He has always done whatever it takes to win, and no NFL team needs to win more than the Bills do.
Where can two take you?
Within the past 10 years (dating back to the 2005-06 season), many teams have made the playoffs while using two or more quarterbacks under center for five or more games. Most of those situations, however, occurred because the original starter was injured, forcing the team's hand. 120 different teams have made the playoffs in that 10-year window, but only three did so in a season in which they voluntarily switched quarterbacks during the year:
- The 2006 Dallas Cowboys finished 9-7 and snuck into the postseason after Bill Parcells pulled Drew Bledsoe (3-3 as a starter) out of the lineup in favor of Tony Romo (6-4 to finish the year);
- the 2008 Minnesota Vikings went 10-6 and snuck into the field after Gus Frerotte (8-3 as a starter) supplanted Tarvaris Jackson (2-3) early in the season;
- and the 2011 Denver Broncos rode Tim Tebow (7-4 as a starter) to an 8-8 finish and a postseason berth despite his completing less than 50 percent of his passes as the replacement for Kyle Orton (1-4).
Only one of those teams - the Broncos - won a game in the postseason. Only one of those quarterbacks - Romo - still has a meaningful role in the league. Clearly, the odds are not in Buffalo's favor if they end up taking this road.
The Bills themselves are no stranger to voluntary, in-season quarterback changes during playoff campaigns - one cannot utter the phrase "Flutie-Johnson" without the collective blood pressure of Western New York rising several points - and because of this, floating the idea of a platoon-by-choice for the Bills at quarterback will probably yield more than a few all-caps responses. That's fair, and it's even fairer when considering the small odds of making the playoffs with a muddled quarterback situation. But the precedent is there, as is the situation for history to repeat itself. Is it that crazy to consider the odds of a Bills quarterback platoon occurring much better than the odds that one of Cassel, Manuel, or Taylor starts 16 games?
Bills training camp begins 31 days from today. Their home opener against Indianapolis is 75 days from today. As the Bills' three-man quarterback competition begins, the name of the Week 1 starter is easily the least interesting thing that Buffalo will have to figure out at this position in 2015.