If you were to believe The Internet, Jeff Tuel is destined to fail in Buffalo because he didn't win games at Washington State*, didn't have stats that jump off the page, didn't get drafted, and struggled to hold onto his starting job in college. The Internet is a reactionary place, and those reactions were out in full force following the news that Tuel will likely start for the Bills in the season opener.
*Using quarterback wins as a means of evaluation is stupid. Don't do this. No quarterback was saving Washington State, especially behind the offensive line Tuel played with.
The Internet is wrong. It's understandable, perhaps, that a starting quarterback from Pullman that played on some real bad teams might be misunderstood and underestimated. There is, however, more than meets the eye when it comes to Tuel.
It's been interesting to watch the reaction as Jeff Tuel was thrust into the national spotlight seemingly out of nowhere -- a spotlight placed upon him for good reasons no less. It's been a while since a Washington State quarterback has been mentioned in the same breath as opening day NFL starter. It's been quite a while since Washington State and "good football" were mentioned in the same breath as well. Both of these things can be seen as contributing factors to the "Huh? Who?" reaction elicited when Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marone announced Tuel as the team's probable opening day starter.
Outside of those watching the Cougars closely over the past five years, few probably understand Tuel's potential. Maybe fans living in Washington do. Maybe Pac-12 fans have seen glimpses of his potential. But a starting quarterback on a bad team that was rarely in the national spotlight -- and only was when the team was getting its face kicked in -- comes with a bit of mystery. Add in stats that don't exactly jump off the page and it's a recipe for NFL fans wondering why in the world this kid is starting.
There's also a default element to Tuel perhaps starting in the Bills' opener; we'll go ahead and acknowledge that -- Kevin Kolb may have to retire due to concussions and EJ Manuel, drafted as the franchise quarterback, is injured. At the same time, Tuel has taken advantage of the preseason and shown himself to be capable of running the offense. He has potential, and we've seen glimpses of it over the last four years.
This is how Jeff Tuel introduced himself. You'll note he spends a ton of time running for his life. This is a theme throughout his career in Pullman.
That probably doesn't look like much, but consider just how good USC was in 2009 and just how bad Washington State was. It inspired hope, which was something WSU fans didn't have a ton of at the time. Tuel looked like a player that could make plays, and he was only a freshman -- a freshman who walked into The Coliseum and didn't get killed, not to mention held his own.
Five games later, each of which he started, Tuel suffered a knee injury that ended his season. This is another theme.
Somehow, Tuel didn't die in 2010. Not only did he survive the season, but he turned in the best overall performance in his career at Washington State. Playing behind a horrible line that allowed Tuel to be sacked 48 times -- and this number actually might've been higher -- he had his best year statistically. And he didn't die. I just need to emphasize that again, because it was incredible.
In 2011, Tuel broke his collarbone on the first drive of the season. He covered, played one game against Stanford, then got a half in against Oregon State before leaving with an injured ... everything. The worst of these injuries manifested itself later that night -- ACS is real bad, and something few of us knew about until both James Montgomery and Tuel were diagnosed with it about a year apart.
Remember that thing about themes? Great performances followed by untimely injuries is the underlying theme of Tuel's WSU career -- this time it was a fun 2010 season followed by an injury-plagued 2011.
Then there was the coaching change, the new philosophies and system of Mike Leach and a season that was somewhat of a trainwreck. Tuel also suffered a sprained MCL -- sorry, he was "happy and healthy" -- that sidelined him shortly after the season began. He did, however, bounce back, reclaim the starting job and, eventually, he led the team to a thrilling comeback win in the Apple Cup.
That's the short version of Tuel's career at Washington State. It was a career I watched up close, spending many hours watching Tuel at practice and in games, as well as listening to him in the interview room. To understand why Tuel isn't just an afterthought, you need to understand Tuel himself.
There was his high school career, where he moved and threw himself into the mix at Clovis West, a team that already had a quarterback. He played wide receiver, and only started his senior year -- though he had done enough before even seeing the field as a quarterback to earn an offer to play D1 football.
There was his first fall camp, where he came in, picked up the offense and was immediately in the mix for the starting job. Tuel was going to play -- though it was delayed a bit. The redshirt wasn't going to stay on, despite what most of us on the outside thought at the time. He was that good that quick.
And there was a career at Washington State that left him battered, bruised and sometimes broken -- limping into the postgame interviews just about every time he took the field, always shrugging, smiling and saying "I feel fine." Tuel played behind some incredibly awful lines, ended up on his back way more than he should have, and still kept getting back up and asking for more. He was never able to truly establish a rhythm due to injuries and system changes -- he played in three systems during his four years in Pullman, two of which were under the same coordinator -- but he rolled with the punches and persevered.
Nothing has been easy. Plenty of Tuel's teammates gave up and walked away, or were forced to give up due to injuries, during what's been a terrible stretch of football in Pullman. The team wasn't good. The line in front of him wasn't good. And if you asked Tuel, he didn't care, didn't make excuses.
There's something in Tuel that makes him intriguing. He's got potential, and always has. He has the mental makeup to keep pushing through.
A few things stick out in my mind when looking back upon Tuel's career at Washington State. The first is above, the first glimpse we got of the kid. It was, we hoped, a sign of things to come.
The second is this:
This game is Jeff Tuel. It is the Jeff Tuel game -- a game where he almost singlehandedly snapped Washington State's Pac-10 losing streak, all while getting knocked silly. It was Jeff Tuel's career in one handy, 60-minute package. Watch the highlights and understand that Tuel needed an incredible performance just to win a single conference game during an era where Washington State lagged incredibly far behind its Pac-10 peers.
I was always impressed with the way Tuel handled himself throughout his career at Washington State. When he made a mistake, he owned it and learned from it. There was a maturity and leadership aspect to his character that showed from the moment he joined Paul Wulff's team, and you're seeing that in Buffalo right now. With all the turmoil, Tuel was the steady hand for the Cougars.
As Mike Leach mentioned on Monday, Tuel has never been able to get into a rhythm as a quarterback. The closest he's come was that 2010 season, when he actually survived the year without a major injury. He showed flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but the theme here is a constant cycle of starts and stops. He dealt with it and made the best of it he could, but it was at times difficult for Tuel to thrive.
Few expect Tuel to light the world up and forever seize the starting role in Buffalo for the rest of his career. The Bills invested heavily in EJ Manuel, and the NFL is a business. However, it's worth giving the undrafted kid from Washington State a shot before jumping straight to ripping him.
Given the chance, Tuel might surprise some folks. At the very least, he'll impress with poise, character and toughness. He did it in high school, then at Washington State. It's not exactly far fetched for him to do it again in the NFL.