The Buffalo Bills announced Monday that veteran Kyle Orton (pictured) would start at quarterback in the team’s Week 5 game at Detroit. The move to Orton means that incumbent starter EJ Manuel has been benched after just a quarter of the 2014 season. Although the Bills are 2-2, Manuel has struggled so far this year: The second-year signal-caller hasn’t thrown for 250 yards in any of the team’s four games, and he completed less than half of his passes in the most recent outing against Houston (to go with two interceptions).
Coach Doug Marrone explained the switch by saying that Orton gives the Bills the best chance to win. And while yanking a 2013 first-round pick to play a veteran who’s in the tail end of his career — many thought Orton would call it quits in 2014 before ever signing with Buffalo — might not be popular, the move Marrone made really is the right one for the franchise. Here’s why.
1. The Bills have spent too much not to win now
Buffalo can’t afford to be patient with a young quarterback going through growing pains, whether or not Manuel (pictured) ends up being the face of the team’s future. The Bills have spent far too much already with an eye toward making the postseason in 2014. They made that clear in May, when general manager Doug Whaley traded up to get Sammy Watkins at No. 4 overall in the draft.
Moving five slots ahead in the draft order cost the Bills a first-round and fourth-round pick in 2015, so calling 2014 a lost year because a young QB is just finding his way was never going to cut it in upstate New York. One more season of losing and then earning a high draft pick as a reward isn’t an option the Bills can hold out hope for, since they’ll be watching the first day of the draft from the sidelines in 2015 anyway.
2. It couldn’t get worse
According to ESPN’s QBR quarterback rating, Manuel has performed worse than every other current starting quarterback in the league to date this season. In the last two games, both Buffalo losses, Manuel’s score on the QBR scale was in the single digits, worst in the league, making him the first player to score that low in consecutive games since the days of Brady Quinn (2012).
When your quarterback is playing the worst of anyone in professional football and you’re spending more than $5 million this season to make sure there’s a solid backup in place, it’s probably time to turn to the backup that you’re paying all those millions to. The Bills know what they’re getting in Kyle Orton: A player who’s seen action in 75 NFL games, thrown for more than 15,000 yards, tossed 83 touchdowns against only 59 picks, and has completed more than 58% of passes in his career. How much of an upgrade Orton will be remains to be seen, but the odds of him being a downgrade as compared to what Manuel did in Weeks 3 and 4 are slim to none.
3. The playoffs are actually attainable
Marrone (pictured) made headlines — and probably a few punch lines — Monday when he said the Bills have a playoff-caliber team, but that’s not really too far from the truth. If Buffalo can shore up the quarterback position, which of these games don’t seem winnable down the stretch on the Bills’ schedule: Vikings, at Jets, Chiefs, at Dolphins, Jets, Browns, at Raiders, etc.? A 2-2 Buffalo has proven it can win despite less-than-adequate quarterback play, so is it too much to assume the Bills could beat any or all of those teams, none of which have winning records?
The soft schedule facing the Bills over the last 75% of the season has to play into this decision: It’s not like we’re talking about the Rams here, with two games each against Seattle, San Francisco, and Arizona simply because of the division they compete in. Buffalo has a realistic shot at the postseason if for no other reason than schedule alone, and every week that Manuel stayed QB1 was — at least in the coaching staff and front office’s estimation — closing that window a tiny bit further.
4. The coach and front office may be on a short leash, so they have to try
The Bills have new owners this month, as Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team after founder Ralph Wilson’s death. Buffalo fans are ecstatic that the team will stay in town, while Marrone, Whaley, and the rest of the staff members are simply trying to make a good first impression for their bosses and hang on to their jobs for the long term. Knowing you were hired by a different owner and previous regime is never the safest feeling for job security, and the tension of an ownership change has been palpable in recent weeks and months.
As CBSsports.com wrote after a public on-field shouting match between Marrone and several members of the front office earlier in September, “This is definitely a time when the entire organization is about to be more or less under review, a factor lost on no one there.” The win-loss record of the 2014 Bills could very well have a significant impact on whether this year’s coaches and personnel staff are also next year’s coaches and personnel staff, and it’s in Marrone and Whaley’s best interest to fire (sorry, pun intended) every bullet at their disposal — including switching quarterbacks to try and find a spark — in a desperate attempt to coax a playoff appearance out of the 2014 Bills.