Sean McDermott made a calculated decision, as he usually does, when he announced early last week that rookie quarterback Josh Allen would start for Bills in their third preseason game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
If the first exhibition generally serves as an introduction to the NFL for rookies and the second contest offers a chance to see how much progress has been made, the third preseason game offers the best glimpse into how teams are approaching the regular season.
Most intriguing was the way McDermott approached his decision to start the rookie Sunday at New Era Field. He was intent on throwing everything he could at the kid, knowing Allen would be peppered with questions from the media and raised expectations from fans.
What did we learn?
The Bills’ rebuilt offensive line was so atrocious that it was difficult to measure the play of anyone else in a 26-13 loss to the Bengals. Buffalo had two false starts, plus an illegal shift that was wiped out when Allen was dropped for his first of five sacks, on the first two series. The offensive line couldn't block an email.
Allen was playing against a starting defense for the first time in the preseason, and it showed. He completed 6 of 12 passes for 34 yards while running for his life. He took several big hits, including one from Carlos Dunlap that ended Allen's day late in the first half.
"I didn’t do a good enough job getting the ball out on time and into the playmakers' (hands)," he told reporters after the game. "Holding onto the ball is not going to be to great most of the time. I’ve got to do a better job. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to get better from."
Nathan Peterman is more equipped to run the offense, as it stands now. He played well again Sunday after relieving Allen after the kid had his head slammed off the turf. Peterman completed his first seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown and engineered two scoring drives in the third quarter against the Bengals’ second defense.
For the afternoon, Peterman completed 16 of 21 passes for 200 yards and a 17-yard TD to tight end Jason Croom. In three preseason games, he has converted 33 of 41 attempts for 432 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
It didn’t matter who started for the Bills at quarterback Sunday because there was no time for the offense to find its rhythm. Buffalo was late breaking the huddle on the first two series, wasting vital time at the line of scrimmage and giving Cincy an advantage.
The Bengals asserted themselves along the line of scrimmage, enabling them to apply heavy pressure in obvious passing situations. They picked up the tempo and took away two things a young quarterback needs – time and space – while mounting their assault.
Never mind whether Allen will open the season as the starter. Why would the Bills subject their first-round pick and presumptive franchise QB to such deplorable playing conditions? Playing him right away could be hazardous to his health do more harm than good.
They don’t need him to become their savior to start the season. They need to save him from them.
McDermott knew what he was doing Sunday. He didn’t just contribute to the hoopla around Allen. He created it for his own benefit. He wanted to see how Allen would respond to the preparation needed and responsibilities that accompanied being a starting NFL quarterback.
Allen didn’t help his own cause, either. He didn’t show the same command against a starting defense than he showed against the second-teamers in Cleveland. The Bengals did a good job in coverage, making a tough situation exponentially more difficult for Allen.
"Getting out there with the first team, obviously it’s moving really fast," Allen said. "To see that speed, it was eye opening. They have a really good defense, they came out and they brought it. But at the same time, we had plays in place that could’ve worked if I got the ball out in time."
Allen also missed on some throws. He underthrew Charles Clay early in the game after getting chased from the pocket. He airmailed Zay Jones on third-and-long on the next series. Kelvin Benjamin failed to catch a good pass in the second quarter. The offense was out of sorts.
McDermott likely expected Allen to struggle, but he had kept an open mind while conducting a quarterback competition. Maybe the kid would rise to the challenge, continue to show progress against better competition and make a strong case to become the No. 1 quarterback.
Now, he knows Allen and the offense have much work ahead in the next two weeks.
Allen has all the physical traits to play in the NFL. He has a rocket for an arm and is bigger, stronger and more athletic than Peterman and injured veteran AJ McCarron. He’s expected to be a franchise quarterback and should start at some point this season.
McDermott will need to decide whether Allen should learn on the fly behind a suspect offensive line or have him watch from the sidelines and develop in practice while he adjusts to the NFL. The Bills are expected to struggle with him or without him this season.
Let’s not forget that Peterman has been the most efficient quarterback throughout the preseason. He completed all but three attempts and threw two touchdown passes in the first two exhibitions. McDermott spent last season getting him ready for the NFL.
"Another young player at the start of his sophomore season if you will, that has shown some poise and understanding of how the NFL works in terms of defensive schemes," McDermott said of Peterman. "I’ve watched him grow and develop, which is good to see."
The Bills would rather avoid risking Allen to injury or throwing too much too soon on his shoulders. They would be better served keeping him on the sidelines while the offensive line comes together, assuming it does, until the game slows down in his head.
You can safely assume McDermott added up all the factors long before he threw Allen into the fire Sunday. If the third preseason game was the so-called dress rehearsal, Allen and his supporting cast need to practice their lines before raising the curtain on the season.