Ex-Bills QB Nathan Peterman no failure to 1970s counterpart

Nathan Peterman has 12 interceptions in 130 career passing attempts. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

As quickly as Nathan Peterman’s interceptions piled up earlier this season, criticism of the former Buffalo Bills quarterback reached the point of mockery.

Peterman was intercepted 13 times on 133 regular-season and postseason pass attempts for Buffalo. He completed 52.3 percent of his passes for a 32.5 passer rating. The 2017 fifth-round draft pick used on Peterman will not be remembered as a success for the Bills, given how he played in eight games before being waived last month.

But should Peterman, who completed three touchdown passes and ran for another, be forever known as one of the NFL's great failures? Should he be sarcastically awarded for his generosity to opponents and ushered by some on social media to his next job flipping burgers?

Kim McQuilken, who started five games at quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons from 1974-76, has seen enough of what he believes has been bashing of Peterman’s career.

"I think he took it like a man, but I don't think he was treated like a man in some circles," he said.

McQuilken can identify with Peterman. He is one of only two quarterbacks since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with as many regular-season pass attempts as Peterman (130) and a higher interception rate than Peterman (9.2 percent). McQuilken was intercepted on 29 of the 272 passes (10.7 percent) he attempted in 26 games for the Falcons and Washington Redskins.

The other QB with a worse interception percentage than Peterman was Don Horn, who was picked off on 9.3 percent of his 257 post-merger passes for the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns in the early 1970s.

While saying it is unfair to compare quarterbacks' statistics over different eras of the league, McQuilken can empathize.

"To say, 'Nate failed,' that's not putting it completely in perspective," McQuilken said. "This is a guy who played high school ball, had a dream to play college ball, played college ball, had a dream to play professional ball, and he's played professional sports. He hasn't played it as well as I'm sure he'd like to. But I don't view Nate as a failure. And nor should he view himself as a failure."

Among quarterbacks with as many regular-season passes as Peterman, only McQuilken (17.9) and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Scott Bull (24.8 from 1976-78) have a lower passer rating than Peterman. That statistic has landed both McQuilken and Peterman on recently published lists of the NFL's worst-ever quarterbacks. Seeing his name on such lists has made McQuilken feel like a "punching bag," and he disputes the label.

"I knew I wasn't All-Pro material, but I didn't think I was the worst quarterback in the league at the time," he said. "To me, the worst quarterback in the NFL is the guy who threw one pass and on one play and didn't make it. It's not a guy like Nate, who's actually started games and been in the league [two] years. That's a higher standard."

Changing the criteria for the NFL's worst quarterbacks since the 1970 merger produces a starkly different set of names. There have been 48 players categorized by Pro Football Reference as quarterbacks who attempted at least one pass but no more than five passes between 1970 and 2017.

That group includes Mike Elkins, a 1989 second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs who completed one of his two career passes and was intercepted on the other. It also includes Rick McIvor, a third-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984 who did not complete any of his four career passes, and 2010 seventh-round Bills draft pick Levi Brown, intercepted once on three NFL passes.

"I don't think I would have lasted [seven] years [in the NFL] if I truly was the worst," McQuilken said.

Whether Peterman lasts more than a season-and-a-half remains to be seen. He visited the Detroit Lions last month and was scheduled to work out for the Denver Broncos this week, according to NewYorkUpstate.com.

Teams are still taking a look at Peterman, whose debut as an NFL starter last November ended at halftime when he threw five interceptions in a blowout loss at the Los Angeles Chargers. Again, McQuilken can relate. He was intercepted five times in a 38-0 loss at the Minnesota Vikings in November 1975.

"It was in a complete sleet storm played outside, back in the day, at Metropolitan Stadium," McQuilken recalled. "It was absolutely horrendous conditions and I completed 5 of 26 passes for a total of 43 yards passing. The Vikings [who improved to 8-0] were on their way to the Super Bowl. We were on our way to a 4-10 season. I was told to air it out. Let it go. Let it fly.

"The opposing quarterback in that game was Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton. [He went] 11-for-22 for 47 yards but he won 38-0 because they rushed for 220 yards and we rushed for 43."

McQuilken offered that game as one example of how the circumstances of his career were not always reflected in box scores. He played under five head coaches in his first five seasons in the NFL (four with the Falcons and one with the Redskins) and under four offensive coordinators over that span. In 1976, McQuilken was forced to create his own game plan against the Cleveland Browns after general manager Pat Peppler took over as coach and most of the offensive staff followed fired coach Marion Campbell out the door.

Circumstances around Peterman’s career in Buffalo were not as extreme as those faced by McQuilken, but were not always conducive to his success. In some cases, Peterman was the victim of bad luck.

In his disastrous Los Angeles debut, Peterman's first of three career interceptions returned for touchdowns came on a pass that deflected off the hands of fullback Patrick DiMarco. Another pick-six went to the Houston Texans in October after Peterman replaced injured rookie starter Josh Allen in the third quarter.

In the Bills' 10-3 AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in January, Peterman was tasked with saving the game on fourth-and-3 with 1:17 remaining in the quarter after starter Tyrod Taylor was injured. He converted a first down before an interception ended the Bills' chances.

"I'm not feeling sorry for myself and I don't think Nate is feeling sorry for himself," McQuilken said. "But typically the backup quarterback during the week gets zero snaps with the first-team offense. You typically are running the scout team for the defensive days. ... When you're coming into those situations, you're coming in without the benefit of [running] any of your [team's] routes that week. You're running the opponent's plays at practice. It is a disadvantage.

"I'm not crying in my beer. That's part of the job. That's what you get paid for. And but it's not the easiest thing to pull off."

Peterman's 30.7 passer rating this season is the worst of all NFL quarterbacks who started at least one game this season. The second worst (56.0) belongs to current Bills backup Derek Anderson, who was intercepted three times in his first start for Buffalo less than two weeks after being signed.

"A lot of writers like the sensationalism and the stats, but they don't do their homework," McQuilken said. "I think this applies to Nate. Buffalo is having a real tough year in a lot of different ways, not just at the quarterback position. And that of course, filters down and certainly affects his performance."

While acknowledging the highly public nature of Peterman playing quarterback in the NFL, McQuilken lamented the "mean-spiritedness" of some scrutiny faced by Peterman that calls into question more than just his football ability.

McQuilken, 67, has done more than flip burgers since his departure from the NFL. He joined Turner Broadcasting several years after his playing career ended and rose to become an executive vice president of sales and marketing for Cartoon Network.

"I was using football skills and quarterbacking skills to be successful in the business world," he said.

McQuilken's ascension up the corporate ladder did not come without regret. After turning 30 in 1981, he told incoming Redskins coach Joe Gibbs that he was done playing football -- a mistake, he believes. McQuilken wanted to prove he was better than his football career showed, but he encourages Peterman to continue to pursue his NFL goals.

"You don't get those years back when you're young and it's it's an occupation that you can only play when you're young." he said. "This doesn't have to be the end of the road for him. I don't think he's injured physically. So if I were him, I would keep in shape. And I would keep trying to sell myself and look for that next break."

Meanwhile, McQuilken is at peace with his time in the NFL.

"I'm happy to get up in the morning and look in the mirror," he said. "When I reflect on my playing days -- and the stats are what they are, and I catch criticism for that -- I'm prepared to accept it, look myself in the face and say, 'I did the best I could given the circumstances.' And move on."