Bills could opt out of the Losman experiment

By Connor Byrne  |   Friday, March 31, 2006  |  Comments( 0 )

Buffalo Bills
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Over the last few days, various league reports have come out that the Buffalo Bills are shopping their 2004 first-round draft pick, quarterback J.P. Losman. The news has come as somewhat of a surprise for many, since Losman clearly has great athleticism and a rocket for a throwing arm. However, his accuracy, attitude and field smarts are each major concerns at this point, which has led many of the NFL's scouts, front-office people, coaches and players to doubt Losman's ability.

After spending his entire rookie season on the Bills' sideline behind Drew Bledsoe, Losman was named the starter in the winter months of 2005 by Buffalo's ex-head coach, Mike Mularkey. It was a move that immediately separated Losman from his veteran teammates because most of them had to actually compete for their starting positions, and they wanted Bledsoe to stay on because he probably gave them the best chance to reach the playoffs. Because of that tension, most of the veterans sided with one of their own, backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Most of the abovementioned veterans, including receiver Eric Moulds, clamored behind the scenes to either allow a training camp and preseason competition, or let Holcomb start outright. In spite of the advice, Mularkey stuck to his guns and handed Losman the ball for the beginning of the 2005 regular season.

On September 11th of this past season, Losman started the opening game of the Bills' season against a Houston Texans that would eventually earn the worst record in the league. In that game Losman demonstrated great arm-strength, athleticism and smarts as he completed 17-of-28 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. As the Bills walked into their locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium at halftime that day, the crowd began to chant Losman's name, which prompted him to invigorate the sellout audience by essentially leading them in a confident cheer. It was as if Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly had returned to the Bills; however, it would have been Kelly reincarnated as a California surfer with shaggy hair. In the second half, Losman performed somewhat poorly, but the Bills went on to win 22-7. Unfortunately for Losman and the Bills, that poor second-half performance would be a sign of things to come.

In the next few games, Losman never regained his touch from the first-half of the opener as he and the Bills were defeated handily by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints in consecutive outings. Mularkey elected to start Holcomb after the trifecta of defeats, which perhaps signaled the beginning of the end of Losman in Buffalo.

The 32-year-old Holcomb started in four straight games, leading the Bills to a 2-2 record, but it was clear that he had neither the arm strength nor athletic ability to be a full-time starter. The misguided Mularkey was forced to go back to Losman in week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs after Holcomb got hurt, and Losman surprised many that day with two deep touchdown passes to young receiver Lee Evans in a 14-3 upset victory.

Losman then started the next few weeks, and in those games, the Buffalo Bills' offense sputtered. Outside of a terrific performance in a 24-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Losman was awful over a four-week span in which the Bills went winless. Week 14, a 35-7 loss to the New England Patriots, would be Losman's final start of the season as he went just 10-of-27 for 181 yards and a trio of interceptions. Mularkey elected to go back to Holcomb for the final three games of the regular season, and it was that pointless move that officially shattered the young quarterback's confidence.

In the end, it was his inability to handle Losman that may have ended up costing Mularkey his job in Buffalo.

When new Bills GM Marv Levy came to Buffalo in January, he said all the right things about Losman, but he was clearly noncommittal toward the 25-year-old. He and the Bills' new head coach, Dick Jauron, stressed the importance of competition at all positions, especially quarterback. For many disenfranchised Bills fans, that was a message indicating Holcomb could be the starter again; it couldn't have been worse news for many of these fans because Holcomb's game is about as exciting as watching a 24-hour "Wings" marathon.

During February's scouting combine, Levy stated that he would like to bring in a third quarterback in free agency to push Holcomb and Losman for the starting position. Levy lived up to that plan and brought 27-year-old Green Bay Packers backup Craig Nall into Buffalo on a three-year contract worth $6 million. Obviously, that isn't necessarily backup money for a quarterback who has attempted just 33 career regular season passes. It appears that Levy may be banking on Nall to become a diamond in the rough, much like Jake Delhomme was in New Orleans prior to taking the helm in Carolina.

If the Bills elect to make Nall and Holcomb fight for the backup's job in '06, that means the organization might be seriously considering taking Texas quarterback Vince Young or Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler with the eighth overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Frankly, that wouldn't be the worst thing for Levy to do; Losman was ex-Bills GM Tom Donahoe's experiment, so there's no reason for Levy to feel anchored to the youngster.

However, the thing that makes Young a long-shot for Buffalo is the fact that he scored embarrassingly low on his Wonderlic test at the combine, and Levy is looking for someone of high intelligence. At the same time, it's been a while since the Bills have had a proven winner at the quarterback position, and Young is undoubtedly a winner. He demonstrated that in last season's Rose Bowl national title game as he single-handedly led the Longhorns to victory over the USC Trojans.

As for Cutler, he scored well on his Wonderlic test, which has factored into his incredible vault all the way near the top of many franchise's draft boards. Although he went just 11-37 at Vanderbilt, Cutler has the arm-strength, athleticism and on-field smarts to become a franchise quarterback at the NFL level. Many of America's top draft "gurus" have Cutler as the best QB in the draft, even in front of USC's Matt Leinart. Therefore, Cutler would be a perfect fit for what Levy's attempting to build in Buffalo--a young team based on character, skill and intelligence.

Whether or not the Buffalo Bills actually decide to move Losman in the coming weeks or months remains to be determined. However, it's clear that it'll be now or never for the former Tulane quarterback next season if he is retained by Buffalo. Should he win the starting job over Nall and Holcomb, Losman would have to show significant improvement from a 2005 season that saw him complete just 49.7 percent of his passes.

Although it seems bleak for Losman, keep in mind that some of the NFL's best quarterbacks, such as the Saints' Drew Brees, the Giants' Eli Manning and the Eagles' Donovan McNabb all struggled mightily at the earliest points in their careers, but have since come on to join the elite status of NFL QB's or loom just shy of it. Given the fact that he has the skills, there's no reason why Losman can't be a success at football's highest level. The only question is whether he'll be the second-coming of Jim Kelly in Buffalo, or the second-coming of Rob Johnson.

--Connor Byrne can be reached at cbyrne@realfootball365.com
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