Jeff Tuel’s first career start will largely be defined by one game-altering play.
Unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills, it was a rookie mistake that came at the worst possible time Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
With the Bills on the doorstep of a touchdown that would have given them a 17-3 lead against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tuel did the unthinkable, throwing an interception that was returned by Sean Smith for a 100-yard touchdown.
Instead of a two-touchdown advantage with a defense playing lights out, the Bills found themselves in a 10-10 game, one in which the tenor had completely shifted.
“One hundred percent my fault, something I’ve got to see,” Tuel said of the play, in which he intended to throw to T.J. Graham. “I can’t do that. … It’s just a huge momentum shift; something that I could’ve prevented from happening.”
The interception erased much of the good Tuel accomplished in the first half. The undrafted free agent out of Washington State – in the lineup because of a rib injury to Thad Lewis – started the game going 5 of 7 for 112 yards and a touchdown.
“Obviously he wasn’t rattled when he went out there,” coach Doug Marrone said. “He went out there and did the best he could, so we appreciate that.”
Not surprisingly, Tuel couldn’t keep up his blisteringly hot early pace. Quite the contrary, actually. Over the final three quarters, he went 13 of 32 for 117 yards and two interceptions in what ended as a 23-13 loss that dropped the Bills to 3-6 on the season. He finished the game 18 of 39 for 229 yards, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 52.2.
Tuel wasn’t ready to offer a letter grade on his performance after the game, saying that he needed to watch the film, but that he “felt comfortable” in only his second professional appearance.
“I felt good out there, felt like I made some good plays … and some not good ones,” he said.
Despite the fact he became the Bills’ third different starting quarterback this season, Marrone said he had high expectations for Tuel, who split practice reps leading up to the game with Matt Flynn.
“It’s my responsibility to put a guy out there that can win,” Marrone said. “Did Jeff play well enough for us to win? At times. At times he didn’t. I think you could say that about a lot of people.”
To be fair, Tuel didn’t get a lot of help. There were at least six drops by Bills receivers, and the Chiefs scored another defensive touchdown when Tamba Hali picked up a fumble by Bills receiver T.J. Graham and ran 11 yards to the end zone.
But much of the focus after the game centered on the pick-six, which came on the Bills’ first possession of the second half. A 61-yard run by C.J. Spiller on the drive’s first play set up the Bills inside the red zone. A pass interference penalty against the Chiefs gave the Bills first and goal from the 1-yard line, but two straight runs by Fred Jackson were stuffed.
On third down, Tuel took the snap with three receivers to his right. Smith completely abandoned Stevie Johnson in the end zone, but Tuel never looked that way.
Whether Tuel gets a chance to make amends next week remains to be seen. Marrone said Lewis wasn’t close to being able to play Sunday. Fellow rookie EJ Manuel, the team’s first-round draft pick, worked out on the field before the game and practiced on a limited basis as he nears a return from a knee injury.