Doug Marrone knew what was coming. He knew the questions that were on the minds of Bills fans and media alike: How did you arrive at this point? How did you go from an undrafted rookie free agent quarterback to a guy from your own practice squad?
“I want to go back to the beginning a little bit,” Marrone said early Monday afternoon.
Then the head coach launched into an uninterrupted eight-minute review of the Bills’ current quarterback position, from his hiring through training camp to the decision he made earlier in the day to elevate Thaddeus Lewis from the practice squad to start on Sunday against the Bengals.
Marrone tries very hard in press conferences. He believes in getting his message through to the fans. He also says the word “obviously” about every other sentence. And much of what he said Monday was quite obvious.
The Bills drafted EJ Manuel. They signed Kevin Kolb as the veteran to compete for the starting job. They signed Jeff Tuel, an undrafted rookie, to be the developmental guy. Kolb went down with a concussion. Tuel became the backup. They plucked Lewis off the street to be the No. 3.
Fast forward to last Thursday night. Manuel went out in the third quarter and Tuel was thrust into his NFL debut. He was terrible. Marrone decided he needed a better backup. The Bills talked to some prospects, most notably Josh Freeman. They tried out Dennis Dixon and Pat White.
Then they gave the job to Lewis, who’s on his fourth team in four seasons and has played one NFL game, a start for the Browns against the Steelers in last season’s finale. He’ll be the starter against the Bengals, who held Tom Brady without a TD pass for the first time in 53 games on Sunday.
Good luck with that, Thad.
Marrone did his best to explain how we got to this point. But when you sift through it all, you come to one simple conclusion: They screwed up.
One, they failed to sign an established veteran quarterback when Kolb was lost for the year. Two, they overestimated Tuel’s readiness to play in the league.
Three, they stuck Lewis on the practice squad because Tuel had performed well in preseason and they were afraid some other team might sign him.
“We didn’t want anyone to go and take a developing quarterback from under us,” Marrone said. “We decided to go with two on the roster and Thaddeus on the practice squad.”
But if Marrone felt Tuel was such a precious commodity, why did he give up on him after just a quarter and a half in Cleveland? You don’t give someone the backup job to keep him from other teams. It looks like Marrone took a gamble that Manuel wouldn’t get hurt, and it came back to bite him.
Listening to Marrone, I got the distinct sense that he felt Lewis was the better choice for some time. It’s hard to believe the notion occurred to him only after Tuel fell on his face last Thursday night in Cleveland.
When I asked Marrone if he had considered Lewis the better option all along, he hesitated before answering.
“You know what? In the beginning, I didn’t know,” Marrone said, “because he came in so late, and we were just working both those players. I think the skill sets are a little bit different, and I think the skill set with Thad, with the ability to run and extend, gives us a better chance.”
Lewis, in other words, is a better athlete. He’s a good fit for the Bills’ read option. The Bills knew that six weeks ago, when they chose him over Matt Leinart. It should not have taken Marrone that long to acknowledge that by making a roster spot for Lewis. If the Bills had a better alternative to Manuel, they might be 3-2 today.
Tuel was thrown into a tough spot against the Browns. Still, Marrone had to feel the eyes of his players on him, knowing his miscalculation at the game’s most vital position compromised their chance to win.
There’s no guarantee that Lewis will be up to the task, either. He’s going against a Cincinnati defense that stifled Brady. Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett have their work cut out for them over the next five days.
You might say they’re going back to the beginning a little bit.