There is never an easy time to be an NFL rookie quarterback.
It's not easy without pads on during OTAs, when the jump from college to the NFL's warp speed can still be felt. It's not easy during the preseason facing contact for the first time. And it's really, really impossibly daunting to make your first start at the most complex position in sports while also leading a team clinging to a playoff spot in mid November.
It's important to lay all that out immediately here as we assess the wreckage of Nathan Peterman's first start for the Buffalo Bills. His outing ended in another Bills drubbing, and a deep blow for both the young quarterback's psyche, and a fanbase thirsting for just a taste of playoff football.
There was a quick escalation to the terror of watching Peterman before the Bills yanked him at halftime of an eventual 54-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, their third straight pummeling.
When Peterman's third pass attempt resulted in a pick six with Chargers linebacker Korey Toomer taking it the opposite direction for 59 yards, it wasn't hard to lay blame elsewhere. The interception occured on what should have been a routine short completion that bounced off fullback Patrick DiMarco's hands.
Then it was still possible to shrug off the nightmare start to Peterman's NFL career even when he threw another interception on just his fifth pass attempt. His second pick was an awful decision in his own territory when the 23-year-old heaved a hopeless off-balance throw, all while under pressure.
The few optimistic souls among the tortured table-breaking Bills Mafia could shrug and hope rookie jitters had taken hold. Surely Peterman would ease in soon and look at least somewhat competent if the Bills held the AFC's second wild-card spot heading into Week 11, and chose to bench Tyrod Taylor in such a critical game.
The Bills coaching staff must have known something we didn't after seeing him in practice, and that's why they shoved Peterman onto the field while trying to end a 17-year playoff drought. But trusting the thought process of head coach Sean McDermott went from difficult to impossible as the interceptions mounted.
Peterman needed just eight throws to record his third interception. That's the same amount of picks Taylor had chucked in 2017, but he needed 254 attempts to get there.
Taylor has his deficiencies and likely isn't a long-term solution at quarterback for the Bills either. But as ProFootballTalk's Michael David Smith noted, he knows how to take care of the ball, a test Peterman had already failed in embarrassing fashion:
Peterman wasn't done there. He made a horrible read on his fourth interception, and allowed cornerback Casey Hayward to easily undercut an outside route, giving the Chargers possession on Buffalo's 14-yard line. A touchdown shortly after gave the Chargers 21 points off four turnovers, and it put the Bills at the bottom of the deepest, darkest crater early.
Then to make sure any shred of hope was shattered Peterman threw his fifth interception of the first half, this time on a clear overthrow. The final damage report belongs in a blazing tire fire: Peterman completed only six of his 14 pass attempts for 66 yards (4.7 yards per attempt), five interceptions and a passer rating of 17.9.
He was rattled, scattered and ready for the world to stop spinning by the time Taylor replaced him in the second half. But Peterman was also a fifth-round pick who had no business starting for a team hunting down a playoff spot with a winning record heading into the week.
Expecting an inexperienced rookie to swoop in and ignite an offense is foolish at best, and at worst, the way to suck whatever oxygen was left from the Bills' season. Buffalo has now been outscored 135-55 during a three-game losing streak, with many of their own points coming during fourth-quarter garbage time.
Worse, by the time the carnage stopped smoldering Sunday the Chargers' final tally was 31 points scored off turnovers. As ESPN Stats and Information noted, that was quite the generous holiday-season gift:
If McDermott felt desperate after repeated blowout losses that's understandable. But finding a way to improve a run defense that had given up a whopping 492 yards on the ground over two games was the better outlet for his desperation.
Even a modest improvement defensively would have allowed the Bills to stay with their winning formula, which is to ride running back LeSean McCoy, and trust that Taylor can be adaquate while not imploding when asked to make key plays.
It's true that he face-planted recently, too, and posted a passer rating of 33.6 in Week 10. But prior to that Taylor had thrown just one interception over his previous seven starts in 2017. He had also logged four starts when his per-attempt average topped eight yards.
Taylor was solid, if less than spectacular, and he knows how to manage an offense run through McCoy, who is averaging 97.4 yards from scrimmage per game. That average was boosted by his 114 rushing yards Sunday, even in a game when the Bills offense didn't run much while getting walloped.
The tentacles of Buffalo's recent plunge could stretch beyond Week 11, and even beyond 2017. It's fair to wonder if Peterman's confidence can rebound from such a thorough thrashing. He wasn't put in a position to succeed against a ferocious Chargers pass rush, and the impossible rookie learning curve won the day.
The collateral damage also includes Taylor, the athletically gifted quarterback who didn't agree with the benching, and now surely feels disrespected by his rookie head coach. McDermott doesn't appear to see him as a long-term answer, but his mid-round pick has now fizzled fast too.
So the Bills have mounting questions at an area of the roster where question marks of any kind can stall growth and derail seasons. That's a problem for the offseason, though, because thanks to the mangled demolition derby that is the AFC, the Bills still have life in 2017.
The only thing worse than fearing a late-season collapse is always being right. At 5-5 now the Bills aren't done yet, and are among a group of equally flawed teams fighting for wild-card life.
The teams that wiggle their way in won't necessarily be the best, or most talented of the bunch. They'll likely be the two teams best equipped to mask their weaknesses, at least for a short time.
Lately the Bills haven't shown any ability or interest in doing that, and soon the annual cycle of early-season hopes ending in crushed dreams could be complete.