- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Tom Donahoe, less than 24 hours removed from a dismal 19-7 loss to the Saints in San Antonio, is back in his Orchard Park, N.Y., office trying to make sense of the wreckage.
The Buffalo Bills president and general manager has issues in all sectors of his 1-3 team, but the inept play of second-year quarterback Jonathan Paul Losman -- who completed only seven of 15 passes for 75 yards, tossed an interception and suffered three sacks against the Saints -- has drawn the fire of national pundits.
"We haven't played well on defense in three of the four games, not like we're capable of playing, and because of that a lot is getting hung on J.P.," Donahoe said Monday in a measured tone. "He's had some good moments in all the games and he's had moments he'll learn from.
"His performance is not why we're 1-3. You know what? It's the whole football team."
Then why did head coach Mike Mularkey yank Losman in two of the last three games in favor of backup Kelly Holcomb? While most regard Losman, a first-round draft choice last year out of Tulane, as the future of the franchise, Mularkey's attempt to inject some life into the offense -- he said he was looking for a "spark" -- raised more questions than it answered.
"J.P. is the starter, and we're going with J.P." Mularkey said Sunday through the gloom in San Antonio. "I think everybody understands that."
Well, maybe not everybody.
"I'm not happy," the 24-year-old Losman admitted. "You're never happy when you're pulled. I'm trying not to take it personally -- but it's tough."
So, is Losman headed to the bench?
ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli reported late Wednesday night that although there has been no official announcement from Mularkey, the Bills plan to start Holcomb in favor of Losman against the Dolphins on Sunday.
"Well," Donahoe said earlier this week, "that's not my call. That's up to Mike and the coaches. Mike's feeling is that he'll do what's in the best interest of the team. If he got to the point where he believed that a change would make a difference, he'd go in that direction.
"He's looking at everything. Mike wanted to take [Monday] and [Wednesday] to reevaluate everything on the team. There could be some changes this week."
It's a classic decision. With playoff viability swiftly slipping away, the Bills find themselves in a ticklish position. Do you allow the future quarterback to learn on the job and suffer along with him, or do you try to win games now with a more experienced veteran? How do you balance long-term success vs. the short-term need to win?
Last year, when the Steelers thrust their own first-round rookie, Ben Roethlisberger, into the lineup (following an injury to Tommy Maddox), the team finished the regular season with only one loss. Although Roethlisberger, the No. 11 overall pick, was less than impressive in the team's two playoff games, he came into 2005 a vastly improved player.
The Giants came at it from the other direction. Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall choice last year, threw only nine passes in the first nine games as Kurt Warner started. With the team 5-4 and coming off two losses, Tom Coughlin switched to Manning. He lost his first six starts before winning the regular-season finale against Dallas. This year, Manning has shown surprising poise in leading the Giants to a 3-1 record. He has completed 43 of 76 passes for 648 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games.
With Losman under center for all but nine passes, the Bills' offense has scored only two touchdowns in the last 14 quarters and produced a total of 208 yards. Losman is not listed among the NFL's top 30 passers in the categories of yards or passer rating; he's averaging 108 yards per game with an anemic passer rating of 55.9. The Bills' offense has scored exactly three second-half points in four games.
But is Holcomb -- who is a problematic 4-9 as a starter in his 10-year career with the Colts, Browns and Bills -- really the answer? He produced only two first downs in his first three drives Sunday in San Antonio. Would any potential short-term windfall -- and it is arguable whether Holcomb would provide any -- be negated by the blow to Losman's confidence he would suffer by getting sent to the bench?
"They've got to make the ultimate decision," wide receiver Eric Moulds said after the Saints game. "At some point, you've got to decide whether you're going to leave J.P. in there and let him learn, or put Kelly in there and see what happens. It's up to management and coaches to make that decision.
"Hopefully, they'll make it easier on a lot of us."
A deceptive start
Much was made in Buffalo of the fact that Losman was the first quarterback drafted by the Bills in the first round since Jim Kelly, 21 years before him. After playing for two years behind Patrick Ramsey, he had a terrific career at Tulane, completing 570 of 987 passes for 6,754 yards and 60 touchdowns. His interception percentage (2.73) was the lowest in school history.
Losman broke his leg in 2004 training camp and watched from the sideline as Drew Bledsoe led the Bills to a 9-7 record, falling short of the playoffs. Five pass attempts, three completions and one interception were all Buffalo had to go on, but the Bills let the immobile Bledsoe go in the offseason and anointed Losman the starter.
When Losman was solid in the opening 22-7 win over the Houston Texans, it looked like a good decision. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown and produced a passer rating of 89.9. But that result was deceptive; who knew the Texans were destined to be 0-3 and score only a touchdown per game?
The last three games have been a disaster. Losman was a combined 28-for-66 with a paltry 263 yards and two interceptions. The one against the Saints was particularly telling.
With the Bills leading 7-3 in the second quarter, Losman lobbed a ball into double coverage that was intercepted by Jason Craft and returned 39 yards. The pass, intended for Moulds, demonstrated that quarterback and receiver were not on the same page. Losman anticipated Moulds would run a skinny post, but the receiver broke the pattern off short. It was a costly miscommunication because the Saints went on to score the touchdown that put them ahead for good.
Quarterbacks, the football truism goes, always get more than their share of the credit when things go well. The same is true when things go poorly. Losman, it should be pointed out, has numerous partners in crime.
The Bills front office can be fairly criticized for not bulking up and solidifying its offensive line (which lost left tackle Jonas Jennings in free agency) to protect a neophyte in the pocket. The offensive game plans, even adjusted for a work in progress like Losman, have been, well, interesting. The Falcons fielded a gimpy secondary, but the Bills chose to run more than pass. Against the Saints, Willis McGahee ran only 23 times, despite the fact that he was averaging better than 5 yards per carry.
"The frustration level is just unbelievable right now," guard Chris Villarrial said. "I'm frustrated. My teammates are frustrated."
Buffalo's defense, thought to be playoff-ready, has been disappointing. The Saints won the game by dictating terms on the ground. As a team, the Bills were penalized 12 times, which is no way to support a quarterback starting the fourth game of his career.
Donahoe, in response to a fan's question last week on Buffalobills.com, predictably supported the quarterback.
"Any young player, regardless of position, needs time and our patience and support to develop," Donahoe said. "There is no easy way to gain experience to get better. Players must play and learn from their mistakes. J.P. Losman is a very talented football player who is growing and developing, and all of us are extremely confident in his abilities."
Mularkey, when asked Sunday if he was worried the two late hooks would affect Losman's confidence, said, "No, based on what I watched him do on the sidelines, the way he responded again. He's a competitor. I haven't seen it mentally, and I don't foresee it."
Mularkey would be advised to do some light reading to see if that statement will hold up. Early in training camp, Losman was quoted as telling USA Today he already felt the pressure of leading "older men."
Older men? Pressure and anxiety? To people who read between the lines, it was a curious admission. Quarterbacks, regardless of their personalities and almost by definition, are expected to be leaders. Would Roethlisberger voice those kind of doubts, even if he felt them? Would Eli Manning? How about this year's top pick, Alex Smith, who will take over as San Francisco's starter on Sunday?
Ten weeks ago, Losman saw all of this coming. Maybe that's part of the problem.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With a struggling young QB in J.P. Losman, the Bills find themselves in a bit of a jam, writes Greg Garber.