Fighting to stay on his feet

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Buffalo Bills quarterback Davis Webb (7) is forced out of the pocket by Detroit Lions defensive end Robert McCray (52) in the second quarter at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.

Jim Kubiak has been analyzing the play of Buffalo Bills quarterbacks for Kubiak is the all-time leading passer at Navy, has played in the NFL, NFL Europe and the Arena Football League, and has been a coach and executive in the AFL. He spent eight years as the radio analyst for the University at Buffalo and runs the Western New York Quarterback Academy to help develop the next generation of quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks are evaluated each quarter using a “Doing Your Job” grading system for every play that takes into account the quarterback’s responsibilities and outcome. The accountability system rewards a quarterback with a plus for a play in which he does what he is supposed to do, a minus for not doing what he is supposed to do. A quarterback can earn a plus-plus for an extraordinary play and a minus-minus for a play that hurts the team.  

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The Buffalo Bills’ backup quarterbacks, collectively, completed 20 passes in 31 attempts for 145 yards and a touchdown in the come-from-behind, 16-15 victory against the Detroit Lions on Friday.

Mitch Trubisky started the game but only played seven snaps in the first quarter. Trubisky threw the football twice, completing one pass before giving up his turn to Davis Webb. 

With only three preseason games and five players to be cut by Tuesday, the Bills took a different approach than past preseasons as quarterback Josh Allen and many of the starters did not play. This philosophical approach marks a turning point in the organization. 

There are two important takeaways:

  • Sean McDermott has an outstanding football team that is loaded with talent and ability. 
  • This team has depth, with players who will be able to step in and perform when they are called upon.

The backup quarterbacks not only impressed, but demonstrated remarkable poise, discipline and decision-making skills. McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane have been working toward this moment of resting those who they know are elite, while digging for those valuable backup players who will be necessary to fill in positions at desperate moments. 

The way this game was handled reminded me of Marv Levy’s approach during the late 1990s when the Bills contended for four straight Super Bowls. I get the feeling the Bills believe they now have what it takes in terms of talent, consistency, character, and depth to be a championship contender, something that should excite Bills fans heading into this season.

First quarter

Play selection: 7 plays – two passes, five runs.

Trubisky: 1 for 2 passing for 10 yards.

Performance grade: 86%.

Score: Tie, 3-3.

Trubisky, the second overall pick in the 2017 draft from North Carolina, has been penciled in as Allen’s backup and played sparingly. He handed off to Devin Singletary five times and completed one pass to Dawson Knox on a drag route across the field for a 10-yard gain. It was difficult to evaluate Trubisky from his limited action, but he is a known commodity, having started 50 games for the Chicago Bears. He is a player the Bills feel has the experience to handle the moment. Trubisky has already proved that he is able to perform at a high level under pressure so his playing time was brief and his position is already secured as the No. 2 quarterback.

Second quarter

Play selection: 23 plays – eight passes, 15 runs.

Davis Webb: 6 for 9 passing, 51 yards, one touchdown. Two carries for 26 yards.

Performance grade: 100%.

Score: Bills, 13-3.

Webb took over the offensive reins in the second quarter and looked like a guy who was ready for his long-awaited opportunity. Webb’s confidence and command were evident as demonstrated his capabilities as a passer as well as a decision-maker. 

Webb’s first completion was a terrific play action pass to Tommy Sweeney.

Here Webb reaches the ball out in play action, stretching the defense to the right off-tackle. This created defensive flow to that side. The tight end Sweeney leaked back on a drag route away from the play-action fake into a wide-open area. Webb was able to adjust his feet and make his first completion of the game on this simple but effective play design.

With 23 offensive plays in the second quarter, Webb had more plays than the other Bills’ quarterbacks and he efficiently led the offense to their first touchdown. Webb scrambled for a first down on third-and-10, wisely checked the football down underneath the Lions’ coverage, and knew when to throw the football away to prevent any negative offensive plays. 

This impressive execution culminated in a touchdown pass to Devin Singletary from the same formation as Singletary released into the open flat off Webb’s play action fake.

Here, everyone stepped down to their left as Singletary released immediately to the right. The play-action fake from Webb was inconsequential as the entirety of the Lions’ defense mirrored the offensive blocking action. Webb had an easy completion for a touchdown and again made the play that was there to be made.

Webb converted another third down with his legs on a well-designed quarterback draw on the next series. Here, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll set the Bills into trips formation to the right and quickly motioned running back Matt Breida to the three-receiver side. This motion triggered the defense to react and commit to the overloaded offensive side and set up the designed quarterback draw to the weak side.

The key point from an evaluation standpoint is that Webb was able to use his athleticism and mobility, much like Allen, to get into the open field and then get out of bounds to stop the clock with 38 seconds remaining. Webb was aware of the situation and acted accordingly, again proving he can handle this important moment in the game. Ultimately, the Bills converted the field goal on this final drive of the half and took the lead 13-3.

Third quarter

Play selection: 11 plays – seven passes, five runs

Webb: 5 for 7 passing for 39 yards.

Performance grade: 91.6%

Score: Bills, 13-3.

Webb started the third quarter and played in two series, culminating in 11 total plays. He was again efficient and sharp, completing five of seven attempts, including this naked boot pass.

Here, Webb’s play fake to the left heavily influences the Lions’ defense to the run fake. Tight end Jacob Hollister slips underneath in the opposite direction and into the right flat. Hollister was Webb’s first read in his progression. This play went for no gain due to the throw, which was placed on the back shoulder and slowed down Hollister. The read was perfect, however, but the throw prevented Hollister from accruing the yardage that should have been gained.

Webb’s overall performance was impressive. We can now see why the Bills organization retained him. Webb has not played in a regular season game in his career. McDermott clearly wanted to see how he handled live action over a sustained period of playing time. 

Fourth quarter

Play selection: 16 plays – 13 passes, three runs.

Fromm: 8 for 13 passing for 65 yards.

Performance grade: 94%.

Score: Bills, 16-15.

The Lions scored 12 unanswered points in the fourth quarter as Jake Fromm entered the game. Fromm was sacked twice on his opening drives, leading to punts. Neither sack was Fromm’s fault, as he was engulfed twice due to poor pass protection.

The Bills found themselves trailing 15-13 with one timeout remaining and 1:33 to play in the game, providing perhaps the scenario Fromm had been dreaming about after not playing last season.

The Bills starter on their own 20-yard line, and Fromm’s first three attempts fell incomplete. On fourth-and-10, Fromm delivered this game-saving, clutch throw to Marquez Stevenson down the left sideline.

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Fromm recognized the Cover 2 man-under defense as well as the poor position of the Lions’ half-field safety defender Alijah Holder. Fromm recognized the defender was not wide enough to be over the top of Stevenson, then delivered a perfect pass over the top for the completion.

Next, on third-and-2, Fromm connected with Lance Lenoir on a nifty out route from a tight formation that gained a first down and stopped the clock, as the Bills were out of timeouts.

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Fromm knew the situation and delivered the throw to the outside, which allowed Lenoir to get out of bounds. This was well-executed and resulted in a field goal attempt that was five yards closer than if he hadn’t made the play.   


The philosophical approach to this game shows just how far this team has come. McDermott and Beane are confident they have the talent to win and contend for a championship as they used this first preseason game to find depth and stability across the roster. 

The quarterback performances illustrated that each player was well-prepared and capable of performing at a high level when called upon.  Quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey deserves credit for how the backup quarterbacks handled the important situations. Each knew his progressions and definitively executed within the system at the appropriate times.

It was great to see the camaraderie and teamwork between them as Dorsey was engaged and involved with each player with equal interest. That rarely happens anywhere in the NFL. Only teams led by coaches who are passionate about teaching the game and developing talent regardless of the value of their contract can cultivate this approach.

Daboll and Dorsey have done an amazing job situationally preparing everyone in the quarterback room for success. Bills fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

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