The Buffalo Bills will start their third quarterback of the 2018 NFL season this week, with veteran Derek Anderson serving as the latest player to man the position. Nathan Peterman began the season as the starter, but he was benched during the third quarter of a dismal 47-3 shellacking by the Baltimore Ravens. Rookie Josh Allen has been the starter since Week 2 and, despite his struggles, the job was his barring injury.
Of course, we all know the story by now. Allen injured his elbow last week against the Houston Texans, Peterman threw another interception, and suddenly, the guy whom the Bills had signed only five days prior to the game was looking at starting against the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s difficult enough to start a game at quarterback in the NFL when a player has been with a team for an entire offseason. Understanding the playbook and the terminology is obviously essential, but perhaps even more important than that is developing a rapport with the receivers. It’s one thing to know how to call a play, but it’s another thing entirely to know how long it takes a player to break out of his route, or whether he catches better breaking to his outside shoulder or his inside shoulder. Chemistry, trust, and understanding don’t come overnight.
Anderson spent 7 years with the Carolina Panthers, serving as Cam Newton’s backup for the entirety of his stay in Charlotte. As a result, he did not have the chance to throw too many passes. While he spent more time in Carolina than anywhere else, he only threw 168 passes over that time span. Interestingly, his time did overlap with that of Buffalo wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Ostensibly the Bills’ number one receiver, Benjamin has languished between looking entirely disinterested, mostly incompetent, and grossly underused throughout his 12 games in Buffalo. Last week, he didn’t even start. Benjamin has been targeted 59 times in Buffalo, catching 26 of those passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, he was acquired at the trade deadline and then was injured in his second game in a Bills uniform, thereby preventing him from ever establishing a rapport with Tyrod Taylor (or Peterman). This year, Buffalo’s quarterback play has been miserable, and Benjamin’s attitude has drawn criticism from everywhere.
The remedy for helping a disinterested receiver wouldn’t seem to be signing a veteran free agent off of his couch, but when that disinterested receiver is the only one with whom that free-agent quarterback has any established rapport, it could lead to some more success. Consider Derek Anderson’s numbers in games when he and Kelvin Benjamin played together in Carolina. Anderson threw 157 passes in those ten games. He targeted Benjamin 35 times, and the big wideout caught 23 of those passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
None of those numbers are overwhelming, but it’s clear that Anderson trusts Benjamin, targeting him on 22% of his throws while wearing a Carolina uniform. The Panthers also lacked receiving weapons for much of Anderson’s time there, as Benjamin joined Greg Olsen as the main men in the receiving game until the emergence of Devin Funchess—who made Benjamin expendable in the eyes of general manager Dave Gettleman.
Even more noteworthy is Anderson’s connection with Benjamin in his three starts while the two were Panthers. In those three games, Anderson threw 102 passes—30 of them went to Benjamin, and he caught 19 of them for a total of 266 yards and one touchdown. Anderson targeted Benjamin on 29% of his throws as a starter.
The Bills have put themselves and their newest starting quarterback in an insanely difficult spot. They will have had 12 days to prepare him for his first start, 12 days to allow him to become comfortable with his pass-catching personnel. The Bills also have a highly-paid wide receiver with a questionable work ethic—one who seems content to pack it in even in a contract year.
On Sunday, they may be each other’s best hope, as well.