ORCHARD PARK – Ten days ago, he was home in Buffalo, watching the game like the rest of us on television. Thad Lewis was a practice squad player for the Bills at that point, too far down the quarterback depth chart to even travel to the Browns game in Cleveland.
But things change rapidly in the NFL. A helmet to the knee knocked rookie starter EJ Manuel out of that game and the lineup for at least a month. And when his replacement, Jeff Tuel, showed he wasn’t ready for primetime, the Bills became desperate.
They tried out a few free agents before ultimately deciding that their best option, at least for the short term, was Thad Lewis, the practice squad journeyman from Duke University who had all of one start on his NFL resume. That came last year in an emergency situation with the Browns in their season finale. He played decently in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but not well enough to stick on Cleveland’s roster. He hooked on with the Detroit Lions, who traded him to the Bills late in the preseason. They, of course, cut him before the regular season began, then re-signed him – to the practice squad.
No one was expecting much from Lewis Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at the Ralph. But the three-year veteran actually played well enough to win in a 27-24 overtime loss. Facing relentless pressure that resulted in five sacks and a lost fumble, Lewis showed some moxie, especially in the fourth quarter, when he fired touchdown passes of 22 yards to Scott Chandler and 40 yards to Marquise Goodwin to send the game into OT. His final stats were impressive: 19 for 32 for 216 yards, two scores and a 100.5 quarterback rating.
Had the Bills defense not missed so many tackles that turned short passes into long gains and had the special teams not allowed a 29-yard punt return in OT to set up the winning field goal, Lewis’ first start as a Bill might have had a storybook ending.
The severe dropoff from Manuel to Lewis wound up not being so severe after all. In fact, Lewis played as well as if not better than Manuel might have. He throws a better deep ball than the much-hyped rookie, is a better ball-handler and also showed a break-your-ankles, crossover move on one scramble that would have made Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski proud.
And Lewis displayed some grit, too, injuring his right foot early in the game, but not missing a play. The injury was bad enough to require him to be placed into a walking boot afterward, but he is expected to be ready to practice by Wednesday.
So, it appears that Lewis will do OK tiding the Bills over these next, however-many weeks it takes Manuel to heal.
That doesn’t mean Buffalo is going to go on some winning streak with Lewis behind center. But they weren’t going to with the inexperienced Manuel in the lineup either. The Bills are heading into the teeth of their schedule with road games at Miami and New Orleans before a return to the Ralph to play Kansas City. They very well might be 2-7 by then.
I said this was going to be a transition season. The Bills remain a work in progress. But there are positive signs.
And one of those positives might be Lewis, who looks like he’ll be an ideal backup quarterback for the Bills.
OFFENSE: It was good seeing a Bills QB make long-ball connections to T.J. Graham for 47 yards along the sidelines and to Goodwin on the game-tying touchdown. The Bills need to get Robert Woods more involved. And they need to get C.J. Spiller healthy. GRADE: B-minus.
DEFENSE: Despite the returns of safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Andy Dalton threw for 337 yards and A.J. Green had six receptions for 103 yards. The Bills tackling was atrocious at times as the Bengals turned short catches into long gains. Cincinnati also rushed for 165 yards. That’s way too much yardage. The Bills defense came up really small in the second quarter when it allowed the Bengals to drive 98 yards in nine plays. Jim Leonhard did have an interception. GRADE: D
SPECIAL TEAMS: Dan Carpenter remains a great pickup. He connected on a 51-yard field goal, making him 3-for-3 from that distance or beyond and 12-for-13 overall. Brian Moorman had a triumphant return. The greatest punter in Bills history pinned his first boot at the Bengals 1-yard line and averaged 48.8 yards on five kicks. Unfortunately, the Bills coverage unit cost them the game, allowing Brandon Tate to return a punt 29 yards to set up Mike Nugent’s winning field goal. GRADE: C
OVERALL: Lewis was encouraging and it’s obvious the Bills have a much faster receiving corps. That bodes well for the future. Sadly, this was a winnable game and Buffalo didn’t get the job done. The Bills might very well go zero-for-October. GRADE: C-minus.