105.5 The Team – There’s a telling trend that coincides with the Bills 16-year playoff drought. No, it’s not the relocation of their annual training camp from SUNY Fredonia to St. John Fisher College. That’s nothing more than an unlikely coincidence.
Instead, it’s the insanity inducing cycle of quarterback mediocrity that Buffalo has dealt with since 2000. The exact number of quarterbacks that have started a game for the Bills since the turn of the century is 15 – an embarrassing figure, suited for sports trivia night at Applebees.
The list includes memorable names like Drew Bledsoe (acquired via trade from the Patriots in the spring of 2002), first-round pick J.P. Losman and of course the now journeyman, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Along with many not so recognizable names such as Kelly Holcomb, Brian Brohm and Thad Lewis.
In many cases they’re all names Bills fans try to forget. All part of a sickening 16-year history that has never quite provided an answer to the question, Do the Bills have a franchise Quarterback?
That is until Tyrod Taylor burst onto the scene last year in training camp and stole the starting job away from first-round pick E.J. Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel, in a classic underdog story that’s a Super Bowl victory away from becoming ESPN’s next 30-for-30.
Taylor’s duel threat ability has captivated fans and even earned him the clever nickname T-Mobile. And that deep ball, oh that beautiful deep ball – which accounted for 10 touchdowns of 25 yards or more in his first year as the Bills signal caller – proved to keep opposing defenses honest. He’d cap off a solid first season ranked in the top 10 in QBR (67.84) and yards per attempt (8.0), throw only 6 interceptions, and earn himself a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
This guy seemed different from the 14 other QBs that came before him.
Still, there was room for improvement. Among qualifying quarterbacks, Taylor ranked 29th in the league in passing yards per game (216.8), 21st in total TD passes (20), 16th in completion percentage (63.7) and managed to lead only one fourth quarter comeback against a Tennessee Titans team that ultimately finished 3-13. Not only that but his ability to read opposing defenses and throw over the middle of the field were questionable at best.
Those factors are exactly why when the 27-year-old showed up to training camp in August as a free agent to be, Buffalo didn’t quite seem ready to break the bank for Taylor.
Or so it seemed.
On August 12 the two sides agreed to terms on a very team friendly deal that will pay the Virginia Tech product $92 million over the next five years. The contract came with a loophole for the Bills though, who have the power to decide whether or not he’s truly “the guy” ahead of the 2017 league year and only absorb a minute $2.85 million dead cap hit if they cut ties with the QB. If they come to the opposite conclusion, well that means a whopping $27 million of Taylor’s contract suddenly becomes guaranteed.
Essentially, the deal bought the Bills one more season to evaluate Taylor without having to over pay him, while simultaneously locking him up long-term in the event that he proves worthy of the contract.
Through the first eight weeks of the season it appeared that Buffalo’s plan had backfired horrifically. Taylor had amassed just 1,480 passing yards and nine touchdowns, recorded a 58.7 completion percentage, and he his ability to read defenses remained very much a mystery. Passing wise the only thing anyone could say he did exceptionally well this season was protect the football – his 3.3 touchdown to interception ratio ranks in the top 10 in the NFL.
Fittingly, Taylor’s best asset has been his legs – hence the aforementioned nickname T-Mobile – and it’s his elusiveness in the pocket that have allowed him to build a reputation as the “best running quarterback in the NFL,” which just sounds like an oxymoron.
There’s no denying that the Bills value his running ability, in fact offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has plenty of plays in his arsenal designed specifically for Taylor to run. But at the end of the day a quarterback needs to be more than a glorified running back who takes care of the football. And that’s exactly where Taylor’s Week 9 performance could serve as a decisive turning point for his future in Buffalo. The stats from that Monday night loss to Seattle – 27-of-38, 289 yards, one TD, one interception, plus another 43 yards and a TD on the ground – were respectable in their own right. However, they don’t paint the full picture of just how special he looked, even in defeat.
Taylor looked like a quarterback. His legs weren’t a crutch, but an asset. Usually when things break down, Taylor’s instinct is to take off and run. In Week 9 he used that mobility to avoid pressure, kept his eyes downfield and completed passes. His most impressive play of that nature came during that near game-winning, final drive when he escaped the pocket, rolled to his right and found Robert Woods tiptoeing the sideline for a pickup of 22 on third-and-21.
In the end, the Bills comeback efforts came up seven yards short of a potential game-tying touchdown, which would have been the cherry on top of what was by far the best performance of Taylor’s career.
At the very least he showed he’s capable of leading that type of drive in crunch time, a feat he’s still accomplished only once in his 23 starts for the Bills.
Nonetheless his overall numbers this season still leave much to be desired. A yards per game average of 196.6 ranks 30th in the league. A completion percentage of 60.4 ranks 25th. 20 other quarterbacks have more touchdowns than Taylor (10) and his average yards per attempt is down nearly a yard and a half from last season (6.6).
Through it all, Rex Ryan has continually come to the defense of Taylor, and for good reason. Numerous injuries at wide receiver haven’t left him with much to throw to at times. Regardless, for Buffalo to truly anoint him their franchise QB and promise him $27 million next season, they need to see more of Week 9.
Should he revert back to the inconsistent passer he was through the first half of the season Buffalo would be left in the ultimate lose-lose situation, where they’ll have to decide to move on from this experiment and be left with a whole lot of nothing at quarterback, or pick up the option and overpay for just another average one.
Assuming he does perform like he did in prime time two weeks ago, the decision becomes much easier. For all intents and purposes Buffalo will have found their franchise quarterback.
As far as the next seven weeks are concerned they could determine a lot more than whether or not the Bills make the playoffs. Only Taylor has the power to avoid simply becoming “number 15” on the list of Bills drought era QBs.
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