Matt Barkley had started a handful of NFL games before. Six, to be exact, but none quite like this one.
Just 11 days after signing with the team, here he was, ready to lead the Buffalo Bills against the New York Jets. With the sun shining down on a bright, but chilly November day in the Meadowlands, Barkley was stretching prior to the game. That’s when offensive coordinator Brian Daboll strolled up to him and asked, “do you want to go deep on the first play?”
What quarterback doesn’t want to do that?
The game kicked off and the Bills got the ball first. Barkley dropped back and launched a high-arching deep pass down the right sideline. Wide receiver Robert Foster made a great in-stride adjustment to bring it in just before going out of bounds for a 47-yard gain on the first play. On the next snap, LeSean McCoy took a handoff untouched into the end zone. The Bills were up 7-0 and never looked back, beating the Jets 41-10 in Barkley’s first and only start with the team.
When it was all said and done, Barkley finished the game 15-for-25 for 232 yards and 2 touchdowns. A 117.4 passer rating for a quarterback who didn’t even have the playbook two weeks before that. Watching on TV, or from the sidelines in my case, it looked like it all came about pretty easily. That was hardly the case.
“It was definitely hectic,” Barkley told me about that week’s preparation after learning he’d start. “Long hours. I will give credit to Shea Tierney, the offensive assistant, who helped me a ton. He was here in the morning. We stayed until about 10 o’clock at night that first week and the next week I was starting. It was definitely like cramming for four finals in a week. The whole semester, you had to cram all that info into one week. Thankfully though, I had run a similar offense in Chicago where I was with Dowell Loggins. Adam Gase's offense kind of comes from the same New England family. So the structure of it was really similar. The terminology is all different, so I just had to learn terminology, but visually and structurally it was football that I had played before.”
Chicago was the only other place Barkley had played an NFL game, but the Bears are hardly the only other franchise he’s played for. Since being drafted by Philadelphia in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, the former USC quarterback has signed contracts to play for the Eagles, Bears, Arizona Cardinals (twice), San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, and the Bills. Counting both stints in Arizona, Barkley is now on his seventh team in seven years. Not the path many expected from the former top high school recruit in the nation, who many believed would be an early first round selection following his junior year at USC.
“Well, the beautiful thing, which is sometimes detrimental in football,” he explained, “is it is a team sport and it takes all eleven guys and then some. And then a good coaching staff, coaches who believe in you and take players that work well with you. But those situations as a whole just just didn't work out with the timing and everything. Like in college, I went to USC thinking that I was going to backup Mark Sanchez as a freshman and I ended up starting as a freshman. [That was] out of my control and that just kind of happened. So there's a lot of things out of your control in the NFL to where just things won't go your way, but as long as, I think, you keep working, I knew I could learn from all those situations, whether it was in Philadelphia or behind Carson Palmer as the third string in Arizona, just learning from those guys. I mean some teams don't even take three quarterbacks and so just learning what it meant to grow and to help a team. It's been a wild journey.”
But Barkley, who will turn 29 the day before the Bills open the regular season against the Jets, believes he’s finally found his perfect home. That’s why he decided to re-sign a two-year deal with the Bills back in December.
“Yeah, that was a no-brainer,” he said of the decision to re-sign. “I love it here. Probably my favorite, just culture, that I've been in so far, where guys are playing for each other, believe in each other, and what coach McDermott is building is very unique, I think, among the NFL. The situation as a whole here has been in my favor, for whatever reason.”
A no-brainer to re-sign despite, at the time, not only understanding that he wasn’t going to clearly be a backup to Josh Allen, but maybe even the No. 3 quarterback behind Derek Anderson, whom the Bills also re-signed just a couple weeks later.
“I’ve seen enough football now and I'd been around enough to know what the situation is,” Barkley said. “And I am just pleased with how I put my best foot forward given that chance and knowing that the coaches see I can win in this league and they believe that I can play for this team is great. Do I want to play? Absolutely. Do I know my role on this team? Both what coach McDermott's culture he's trying to create in team players and having guys that believe in each other, I mean, that's what I believe in, as well. So if I can help Josh any way possible, whether that's playing and letting him see me play or backing up and helping him prepare to win a game, then I'll do it.”
Helping Allen was the primary reason Anderson was signed midway through last season, and he did just that. After missing four games with an elbow injury, Allen was a better quarterback when he returned after that Jets game. Studying film, preparing for practice and games. Even something as simple as a walk-through, Allen says he learned how to lead and take charge of by watching Anderson. The veteran’s presence around him every day was invaluable. That’s why the Bills wanted him back, and he agreed.
All that changed when Anderson decided he wasn’t up to putting in a 14th NFL season, leaving Barkley, for the first time in his career, as the oldest quarterback on the roster, and now the primary mentor for Allen. However, it’s a role he’s ready to embrace, also crediting Anderson with helping him into it.
“Derek was great just because his experience and the value that he brought,” Barkley said. “In terms of helping the both of us see schematically, and coming up with plays to attack the defense, he was huge. And I've been in that role, as well, where I've helped the starter come up with plays and see chinks in the defense to where we can attack. So, yeah, I'll definitely continue that role of helping Josh out, showing him just kind of what it means to be a pro. Little things. As he goes into year two, he's already grown, I think, in tremendous ways since last year. I didn't see him in camp or spring [last year], but from where he was last fall to where he is now he's already made great strides.”
Even though neither quarterback knew of Anderson’s plans when the offseason started back in January, they had already begun to forge that relationship, taking it beyond football, off the field. The two spent time working out in their home state of California and spent quality time together, getting to know each other even more than they already had. Barkley’s wife and Allen’s girlfriend, both named Brittany, even grew close.
“He’s just a cool dude and he loves ball,” Barkley said of the second-year Allen. “He wants to be great, which is something cool to see out of a young player. He doesn't feel like he's made it at all, which is refreshing. I feel like a lot of kids that come out, they think they made it, but he still has a lot to prove in his own mind and he's willing to work for it, which is refreshing.”
When Barkley’s new contract expires, he’ll be nearing the 31-year-old mark and having played a decade in the NFL. But in many ways, he feels like his career is finally just getting started.