Last week, the Buffalo Bills cut their third string quarterback, a fifth-round draft pick who had played less than half a season.
And yet, it was national news.
Because it was Nathan Peterman.
The Nathan Peterman story has been a fascinating one, particularly from a media perspective. You saw this unfold on Twitter last week when the Bills cut him. You saw the story (Bills cut him) followed by the the narrative (Worst quarterback ever cut?) to the snark reaction (romanticizing his career) to the counter-narrative (he wasn’t that bad) to the earnest reaction to the snark (go easy on the guy) - all, like within the span of 30 minutes.
Which is weird. Because ... OK, yes, Nathan Peterman is a bad quarterback. Like, historically bad. Shockingly bad. But, there are a lot of bad quarterbacks. I mean, as a Bills fan, I’ve seen a lifetime of bad quarterbacks. My first NFL quarterbacks were Joe Ferguson and Joe Dufek and the decaying corpse of Vince Ferragamo — and Ferguson was the star of that group.
Also, he’s a pretty bland, ordinary guy. Think about it - what do you know about Nathan Peterman? Aside from the football. You know that he’s religious - the one quote you probably remember came after the Houston loss, where he said that his faith, not his football career, is what defines him as a man. By all reporting from the Buffalo-area media, Peterman’s generally a good guy. Works hard.
So why did Peterman become such a thing that John O’Hurley of Seinfeld fame was making a video about the quarterback?
A few thoughts from the media perspective. The first is the fact that he’s a safe guy to make fun of. Nathan Peterman sounds like a guy who advises you about your 401(K). To be honest, the first time Bomani Jones called him The Peter Man, it was all over.
The second is the idea of deviance. As a news value, deviance is the idea of something happening that’s out of the ordinary. Man bites dog, and that whole thing. Peterman’s career was a display of deviance, from a news perspective. Five interceptions in your first half as an NFL quarterback is a story. A guy who is statistically one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history is a story.
Combine this with the fact that he’s easy to pick on, and you’ve got a media narrative. And once a media narrative is formed, it is very hard to counter it.
Add to this, the idea of The Sport Ethic. One of its tenants is the striving for excellence, and that winning establishes distinction. By this token, our coverage of Peterman is justified. He stunk. He was a bad quarterback. All the mockery is justified because of the way he played.
And narrative ties to that, too.
It’s hard to remember that, for a rather large segment of Bills fans last year, Peterman was the savior. He was the shiny new toy, the potential diamond the rough. For a fan base starved for great quarterback play since Jim Kelly retired and in the middle of a historic playoff drought, Peterman was all potential and possibility. After a couple seasons of Tyrod Taylor’s OK play - Taylor ranged from OK to good as a quarterback, but he frustrated fans with his cautious play and his perceived inability to make the big throw. Peterman, who played well in the preseason, was the cure all. The decision to start Peterman, even while it was being questioned nationally, was praised locally. The hosts of The Bills Beat podcast praised McDermott for being bold, for taking a big chance that could yield big changes.
And then, he ... well, he Peter Man’d.
It’s not just that he had a historically bad half of football. It’s that he had a historically bad half of football after he had been thrown into the QB1 role in a controversial decision that appeared to torpedo the Bills’ playoff hopes. It turned the Bills into a national laughing stock.
And then, came training camp, where Peterman beat out veteran backup A.J. McCarron and first-round draft pick Josh Allen. That’s the narrative - but it may not be totally accurate, because even following Bills news at a distance, it felt like it was less of a competition and more looking for a reason to keep Allen on the bench as long as possible. But the narrative kept hold, Peterman was named the opening day starter … and he Peter Man’d against the Ravens.
And then, the Texans game. Allen gets hurt, Peterman comes in, throws a touchdown pass (which for the Bills this year, is a rare feat to be celebrated). What narrative is better than redemption, right?
And then … he Peter Man’d. And you’ve got your narrative.
Then there’s the race question.
Every time Peterman played and Peter Man’d, the tweets weren’t far behind. This game should be entered into evidence in Colin Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit. Stuff like that.
But honestly, this feels like an answer in search of a question. Look, we know why Colin Kaepernick’s not an NFL quarterback. No team wants to sign him because of his protests, because he’s viewed as too controversial. If it’s not legal collusion, it’s wrong and racist and should be punished. Nathan Peterman’s employment is no more evidence of this than, say, Blaine Gabbert’s is.
The thing about The Peter Man, in the end, is that he can fit whatever narrative you want to tell.
If it’s about a comically bad quarterback, if it’s about a team’s mismanagement of a position, if it’s about a lost season of football, if it’s about race and power in the NFL, if it’s about a fan base’s desperation for their team to be relevant, if it’s about a historically ineffective offense, or if it’s about how media narratives, practices and attitudes can color how we view a player, Nathan Peterman is the vessel in which we can fill whatever story we want.