A year ago, the Bills got off to a surprising 3-0 start and headed down to Ohio for a game against an AFC opponent with a struggling rookie quarterback. No problem, right? Most of us front-runners had them marked down for 4-0.
Cincinnati bumped them off, 23-20. Andy Dalton, the Bengals' rookie quarterback, threw for 182 yards in the second half and won his first home game as a professional. This might come as a shock, but the Bills haven't won away from Ralph Wilson Stadium since. They're 0-8 on the road since winning the opener in Kansas City a year ago.
So the Bills have that memory to guide them as they prepare for Sunday's game in Cleveland. Brandon Weeden, the one-time Yankees pitching prospect, will be making his third NFL start at quarterback for the winless Browns. That should be promising news for the Bills' improved defense. But when you haven't won a road game in more than a year, you take nothing for granted.
"Everyone is accountable for the same standard in the NFL," said Bills linebacker Nick Barnett. "We played a rookie quarterback last year and lost. So we're not going in there overconfident. I don't care if he's a rookie or not. We're going into the game playing like he's Brett Favre."
Weeden isn't quite that old, but he's a lot older than the typical NFL rookie. He'll be 29 next month.
He's older than Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, less than a year younger than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Weeden spent five years as a pitcher in the Yankees' farm system, never moving above high A ball, before abandoning baseball and resuming his football career as college football's old man at Oklahoma State. The Browns took him 22nd overall in last April's draft.
But whatever your age, adjusting to life in the NFL is tough for a rookie quarterback. That's one reason the Bills were expected to contend for a playoff spot this season. They have five games against teams expected to start rookies at the game's most important position: Weeden, Andrew Luck of the Colts, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks; and Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins (twice).
You worry about Fitz running the offense? Imagine having a first-year quarterback, in his third NFL game, making split-second decisions with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams bearing down on him with menace in their hearts.
"I played as a rookie," Fitzpatrick said. "I was a seventh-round pick, a fourth-string guy in preseason who got thrown in there in the middle of the year. It's not easy. I know I'm biased, but I think it's the hardest position in sports. To play well as a rookie is a very difficult thing. I didn't watch the game, but from what I've seen on film, he performed admirably last week, especially rebounding from a tough performance in week one."
Tough doesn't begin to describe Weeden's ghastly debut against the Eagles. He was 12-for-35 passing for 118 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns. That earned him a 5.1 passer rating. Here's how bad it was: Remember when Derek Anderson went 2-for-17 in that 6-3 win over the Bills here in 2009 (I prefer to forget it)? Anderson's QB rating was 15.1 that day.
Weeden came back with a strong day last week in Cincinnati. He went 26 of 37 for 322 yards, two TDs and no picks in a 34-27 loss. Still, he can't have figured it all out in two short weeks. Weeden is still a rookie, and the Bills need to remind him of that Sunday.
The Browns used a lot of short passes and screens to get Weeden in rhythm against the Bengals. They also got a strong game from rookie running back Trent Richardson, who had a couple of C.J. Spiller moments.
"(Weeden) is not your typical rookie," Chan Gailey said. "He's been through a lot of things in his life and is more mature than most. But they're doing a good job of helping him be successful. The ball's getting out of his hands and they're getting it to some other guys in different ways."
Last year, the Bills allowed Dalton to get too comfortable in the pocket. Even a rookie will make the throws if you don't get heat on him. Of course, the Bills rarely pressured anyone a year ago. There's no excuse this year. They have a dynamic pass rush. After a curiously passive game plan against Mark Sanchez in the opener, they had the corners play up on the Chiefs' receivers and attacked Matt Cassel.
Cassel and the Chiefs went to pieces. That should be the exact approach to this week's game. Go after Weeden. Make every down a crisis. Have him wishing he were still throwing a baseball, despite the 5.02 ERA. Don't allow him to get comfortable in the pocket.
It doesn't matter if he's 18, 28 or 38. Send some extra rushers his way and see how he responds. He's a rookie. Attack him accordingly.
"Absolutely," defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "I think that's the case with all quarterbacks, but especially ones who may be a little more prone to get rattled. You see that with young quarterbacks, less experienced guys. So that's definitely something we're going to put a lot of emphasis on."
"We'll do what we do," Barnett said, "regardless of how experienced he is. We've got to play defense and cover and get to him. You want to disrupt any quarterback. We definitely want to get him uncomfortable back there and making bad decisions."
They'd better. It won't be a very comfortable trip back home to Buffalo if they're 0-1 on their little pleasure cruise of rookie quarterbacks. The opponent will be a tad more seasoned the following week. Veteran, name of Brady.