The Buffalo Bills have held four training camp practices in four days. In that very short period of time, all three of the quarterbacks on their roster have taken reps with the first-team offense.
Even when playoff droughts end, some things never change.
Here’s another thing that hasn’t changed, because it comes with the territory: competition breeds controversy. The calendar hasn’t even turned to August yet, and apparently Brandon Beane, Sean McDermott, and the rest of the Bills’ brain trust are already ruining their team by forcing their quarterbacks to practice football with a larger percentage of their teammates.
There isn’t any one thing that a front office or coaching staff can do to expose themselves to heaping piles of criticism than asking more than one quarterback to practice with the starting offense. It doesn’t matter how early in the year that rotation starts, or more importantly, when the rotation stops and the depth chart sorts itself out. Once the rotation exists, the decision-makers seem to permanently be fair game.
And yet, quarterback competitions are commonplace during training camp, particularly early on. Teams don’t worry about opening themselves up to hot takes from the training camp nitpickers for one simple reason: it’s kind of important that they make a good decision at this specific position. Critics of these rotations seem to forget that they are temporary, and that these same coaches rarely, if ever, let this continue to occur past mid-to-late August.
These current Bills should be especially unperturbed by this type of commentary, because there is little to no suspense surrounding their quarterback situation: Josh Allen is their guy.
AJ McCarron or Nathan Peterman may be under center when the 2018 regular season begins, but if that turns out to be the case, they’ll merely be keeping the seat warm. Allen is the highest-drafted quarterback in franchise history, and a player that they spent months building up the ammunition to acquire. There is no ‘if’ involved in this ceremonial rotation; it’s just a matter of when, and that is the only question that the likes of Beane and McDermott are trying to answer.
So yeah, it’s probably unfair to ding them for trying to answer the question of ‘when’ by giving a Top 10 pick a few reps with the starting offense he’ll eventually be playing in real games with. Especially since their first preseason game is still 11 days away, and especially since there is clearly no standardized method to making these types of decisions in the first place.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not playing with fire a little bit, either. The dynamics of a quarterback competition can change pretty quickly, and outside influences can have a significant impact on these types of decisions.
(As an aside, The MMQB ran a great feature on quarterback competitions last summer which more thoroughly traversed the territory I’m about to briefly cover - all while including cameos from the two participants of the most epic quarterback controversy Buffalo has yet seen. Read it if you missed it.)
First, there are the Pegulas. The Bills’ owners are riding the high of an exciting sports offseason in Buffalo, in which their football team traded up for a potential franchise quarterback, and their hockey team landed their own blue-chip prospect with the No. 1 overall pick. They are not known as meddling owners, by any means, but they are looped in on decisions made by the front office and coaches. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Bills’ decision-makers believe, 100 percent, that waiting for Allen for as long as it takes is perfectly acceptable from an ownership standpoint. Allen is better for business by miles.
Then there are the fans. Does anyone here wants to try to convince me that they’d honestly be more interested in watching McCarron or Peterman play than Allen? The fan base will likely be the most intense source of external pressure on Beane and McDermott as they evaluate their options.
The players know the score, too. The NFL is first and foremost a business, and at this point, Allen playing is purely a business eventuality. Allen’s teammates are working with him for the first time knowing that they’ll be on the field with him at some point, probably soon, and building rapport in that dynamic is not necessarily easy to accomplish. Possibly the only way to make that easier is for Allen to practice well, which only adds to the insane amount of pressure already on his shoulders.
There’s a lot for Beane and McDermott to juggle here, with no tried-and-true path to reaching the end goal of developing Allen into the quarterback he was drafted to be. They don’t have to play Allen immediately; the Pegulas are patient, Bills fans are fairly reasonable and have had their expectations properly set, and the players and coaches are primarily interested in winning.
Still, threading that needle is the job set before Beane and McDermott. Mixing their quarterbacks in with the first-team offense is simply the option they’ve chosen in trying to pick their spot with their star pupil.
In two decades, when the team has moved on from everybody involved in this discussion, Beane and McDermott won’t be remembered for rotating Allen in with two other quarterbacks for a handful of training camp practices. We’ll only be celebrating or commiserating about the end result.
Four days in, the external pressure on Beane and McDermott is already starting to intensify. They are men of conviction, so it’s unlikely they’re feeling the heat just yet. How they handle the pressure as their quarterback competition continues to unfold will be critical to whether or not they’re able to answer the question of ‘when’ correctly.