One down, 19 to go.
The Buffalo Bills kicked off their 2018 campaign with the first of four preseason games -- with this one ending in a 28-23 defeat handed to them by the Carolina Panthers. However, the result of the game was the least important part.
Instead, what the Bills and their fans found was a compelling second half driven by one man, and one man only: Josh Allen. He was the big ticket item coming into the matchup, and he'll continue to be the hot topic amongst fans until the Bills deem it time to let him fly in the starting lineup.
So, what did we learn from the Bills' loss? Seven observations from preseason game number one:
1) Allen's dazzling arm mixed with a confounding error
- The main attraction of the evening captured the hearts and minds of Bills fans with one single throw with a flick of the wrist -- that went out of bounds even though it traveled nearly 60 yards in the air. For many, that was their first exposure to what Allen could do on the football field. He's got an absolute cannon for an arm and pushes many in the league for the top arm in the league. As the game went on, we continued to see the same zip from Allen that we've seen in training camp come to fruition. First, his best throw in my eyes was the zinger over the middle of the field where he froze the linebacker in space and let Ray-Ray McCloud work past the zone for a big completion down the field. We've seen that quite a bit in camp this summer. His next best throw, at least to me, was his touchdown in between two defenders in zone coverage to find McCloud again, this time in the end zone. Those two seemed to have a connection throughout the game with a total of three receptions. The throw that many will forget about, though it was quite impressive, was his rolling right fallaway finesse shot to Khari Lee to get them into the red zone. He put it only where his tight end could go and get it, and it's one of those that keep you coming back with Allen when a play drifts outside of the pocket. Even still, Allen needs to shore up some things, too. He threw the wrong route, an out route, on a play designed for Robert Foster where he ran a comeback. Allen took the blame for this immediately. Late in the game, Allen completely missed on a throw to McCloud that nearly went for an interception and could have ended his night before two of his most impressive of the night. And lastly, his 4th-and-2 play in which he extended it as long as he could, but inexcusably decided to whip the ball forward as he was being whipped down to the ground. That play gets filed under the, "Never do that again, Josh" distinction. We've seen Allen try to pull those plays off in college and they didn't work then, and they certainly aren't going to work at the NFL level. He's lucky that confounding error of his didn't wind up in an interception. However, all in all, Allen did a lot of nice things that the Bills can work with, but I don't know if it was enough for them to give him serious consideration to be the opening day starter in 2018. To me, he made enough errors to where they can justify sticking with the perceived slow and steady plan for their wild stallion of a rookie quarterback.
2) Peterman exorcises the demons a bit
- Even though Nathan Peterman started a game after the Los Angeles Chargers debacle in 2017, no one seems to remember it because he got injured close to halfway into the snow game against the Indianapolis Colts. So for Peterman, tonight was a big one to show that he's a competent player and one that should be taken seriously for the starting job. Outside of a couple of precision errors -- one of which helped contribute to an interception (but was also the receiver's fault for dropping it), I thought Peterman was sharp. He was hitting his receivers in stride and staying within himself in the playbook. He didn't look nervous like he did early on in training camp, which is what the Bills want to see moving forward. He didn't jump out to a big lead in the race to be the starting competition mainly because of the performance of his primary adversary, but he did everything he could to put himself in a good light. I'd like to see him push the ball down the field a bit more as they go forward, but I thought it was a strong showing to kick things off.
3) McCarron shows poise in the pocket
- Some fans won't agree with this, but I liked A.J. McCarron's day just a bit more than Nathan Peterman's. For this, it was mostly due to poise and his presence of getting rid of the football promptly. He was pushing the ball down the field when there was some separation there, and one of them resulted in a perfectly in stride throw to Brandon Reilly that gained 59 yards. I thought his touch and timing was superb, and outside of the sack on his first play, McCarron looked like he was fully comfortable sitting in the pocket and even climbing the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field. If the rotation were to continue naturally, you'd have to believe that McCarron -- because he didn't do anything to rule him out of the competition to be the starter -- would probably be in line to start the second preseason game. At least, that's what an educated guess would lead you to believe, anyway. Take it all with a grain of salt because it's still the preseason, but I don't think any Bills fan should feel poorly about the performance of any of the three quarterbacks on Thursday.
4) Ray-Ray McCloud makes a statement
- Throughout camp, I've seen Ray-Ray McCloud show flashes that he could do something on the offensive side of the ball. McCloud separates from defenders well enough and has put himself in position to make plays all throughout the summer. However, his hands have let him down a bit in practice -- whether it be with drops on reception attempts or even some muffed punt return attempts -- McCloud has struggled a bit in that department. However, we know the Bills are putting more of an emphasis on what players do in game settings, and McCloud saved his best performance of the summer for his debut game with the organization. McCloud was one of Josh Allen's favorite targets and connected with the rookie quarterback on three separate occasions on the evening. Best yet, he was getting the same separation that he had been in camp, but instead, his hands were confident and brought in some big plays in the second half. This game will go a long way for McCloud in his bid to make the 53-man roster. I think it was a strong statement, and I think he's on the right side of the bubble as it stands today. Still, we've got a few weeks to go.
5) Phillips gets the start... at 3-tech?
- For obvious reasons, the Buffalo Bills gave the night off to some of their older and key veteran players, one of which being defensive tackle Kyle Williams. All throughout camp, when Williams has gotten a rest day, the Bills allowed third-year player Adolphus Washington to take most of the first-team reps as the three-technique defensive tackle. They've given rookie defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, a normal one-technique DT, some reps at Williams' position, but none have been as stark as Thursday night. Phillips was given the start alongside Star Lotulelei against the Carolina Panthers, which is a clear indication of how they view their defensive tackles and perhaps what we could see from them in an actual game setting. Phillips has shown a great versatility to play both positions along the line, and once again proved he could get into the backfield and wreak havoc when he brought down the Panthers quarterback for a sack. It's quite difficult not to come away impressed with Phillips and everything that he's done with the Bills through the last two-plus weeks. With how he's going here, I would not be surprised to see mostly a three-person rotation at defensive tackle with Phillips rotating at both spots whenever Lotulelei and Williams need a rest -- which would mostly be a third starter with how the reps are likely to work out. Phillips has quite a bit of potential in the NFL and could be a steal if he stays on his present path.
6) Proehl, Foster miss golden opportunities
- Where Ray-Ray McCloud took advantage of his chances, rookie wide receivers Austin Proehl and Robert Foster took a step back in the race to make the 53-man roster. Proehl, who has struggled for much of camp with getting both separation and targets during team drills, actually found some open space in the second half with the third unit. The result, a blatant drop on a third down that would have given them a first down, and a 50-50 ball that he lost late in the game. As the receiver depth chart stands today, Proehl is probably at the bottom of the list and this point seems like a longshot to make the roster. As for Foster, he's been struggling with confidence in his hands during camp, and that continued with another drop from Josh Allen. Again, it's not for the sake of getting separation and targets. In fact, Allen targeted Foster more times than any other wide receiver. Of his 19 passes, five of them headed Foster's way. The result? Zero receptions. Not all of them were Foster's fault, but it's also a bit about trust to complete the play, and Foster needs to turn it around for the Bills to be willing to keep him around past the summer.
7) Slumber no more about Marcus Murphy
- The secret is out on Marcus Murphy. On Thursday night, Bills fans got to see what we've seen at training camp almost on a daily basis -- a multi-use running back that lines up a little bit of everywhere in Brian Daboll's offense. And it's not just lining up in different places, it's making electric plays with his feet and taking advantage of those opportunities, which he again did against the Carolina Panthers. On one play in particular, a screen pass from Allen, Murphy single-handedly found a lane and got it up the field after being tossed a pass that didn't create much upfield momentum. Murphy has quietly worked himself up the depth chart ahead of Taiwan Jones, and I'd say he's even pushing Travaris Cadet for RB3 honors. Keep in mind, Murphy is one of only two running backs on the Bills roster that isn't pushing 30. There is quite a bit of talent, he's versatile, and I thought even before the game that he'd positioned himself to be on the 53-man roster at this point, and all he did on Thursday was affirm that.
Bills MVP: RB Marcus Murphy
- Murphy wound up with 11 touches for 65 yards and a touchdown, as he continues his outstanding summer in the hopes to earn a solid role with the Bills.
Bills LVP: WR Austin Proehl
- It's unfortunate for Proehl, a draft pick of the Bills, but he's become a prisoner of the moment. He would have to do quite a bit to make the roster outright from where things stand today.
Up Next: The Bills practice on Friday, August 10 in Orchard Park, NY. The practice is not open to the public.
- The Bills came into their first preseason game not knowing what they'd be on offense -- with a new offensive coordinator, two new quarterbacks, and an intense competition to decide what happens to start the 2018 season. All three players came out and had the type of performance that makes everyone want to see where each player will go from here. The primary competition is between Peterman and McCarron, and neither one of those did anything to lose the job on Thursday night. In fact, all that's going to happen from here is a continuation as the Bills try to decide what to do. As for their young rookie quarterback Allen, he's in a position now where he has shown some exciting talent and a solid base, but also has some areas that need refinement for the Bills to work on for the future. For that reason, I expect them to continue along on the current track of keeping him mostly with the third-team offense and in the "we're not going to rush this," line of thinking that Sean McDermott spit out on Tuesday. Even still, I wouldn't rule out Allen from the competition yet, either, because he keeps you coming back with some of those throws he makes. All in all, Bills fans should be pleased with what they saw from the rookie and the offense in totality from what we saw in 2017 -- a far cry from the predictable playcalling that kept the Bills from reaching their offensive potential even in a playoff year. The quarterback competition is far from over, and that's precisely what Sean McDermott and company wanted out of the evening -- with all three doing their part to make the decision hard on them.