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Take-charge guy: Taylor grabs the reins for Bills

Walk inside the 95,000-square-foot Buffalo Bills fieldhouse and portraits commemorating every Pro Bowler in team history are removed. Gone. Collecting dust in storage. Blinding “BILLS” and charging buffalo sheets now hang from the sides.

Outside, an electric screwdriver growls as two workers revamp the ticket office. Wooden boards of quotations – from Phil Hansen to Thurman Thomas – are tossed into a pile.

The past has been eliminated. The franchise’s future is in the hands of a 26-year-old quarterback.

Tyrod Taylor moves in a glide of a stride toward a photo shoot. On Sunday, he’ll introduce himself to the world. Hype is building. Not that he’s paying any attention.

Twitter? His account is active, but the app on his phone is deleted. Instagram? He buried that app on his cellphone to resist temptation.

“I really haven’t let myself really get caught up in it,” Taylor says. “It’s definitely a great opportunity to be named starter.”

Taylor flips a football in his hand and leans against the back wall. Right here is the NFL’s greatest unknown. A man of mystery. The keys to a contender are being handed to a quarterback who hasn’t started a game that matters in four years, eight months and 10 days. All anybody has seen from Taylor are sanitized preseason snaps.

He might be Russell Wilson; he might fail miserably. The Bills might go 11-5; they might go 5-11.

One complete mystery – Tyrod Taylor – will swing that pendulum.

And yet, he’s not a mystery to everyone. Those close to Taylor – from Hampton, Va., to Blacksburg, Va., to Baltimore to Phoenix – are hopeful, no, borderline convinced that Taylor will excel in the NFL. They use words like “special” and “charisma” and “maestro.” Just wait, they promise, just wait.

They speak as if millions are about to discover what they already know.

Taylor? In a deep rumble, he’s direct.

“I want to be the best,” Taylor says. “When I step on the field, I want people to say, ‘Oh man, that kid is special.’ ”

The initiation

Hampton, Va.

Coach looked into freshman’s eyes and saw one thing: “Fire.”

“Fire coming out of his eyes,” Mike Smith said. “It was like looking at Secretariat before he ran the Belmont.”

This was Hampton (Va.) High School’s first scrimmage of the season and senior quarterback Michael Robinson broke his leg. A powerhouse, a team Taylor insists “did not lose,” was now turning to him: a scrawny 13-year-old. He spoke to Smith, entered the huddle and, three plays in, uncorked a 60-yard touchdown.

This was the “linebacker mentality” Smith saw constantly in Taylor. He never cowered under pressure – he attacked it.

Smiling, Taylor remembers the moment he crushed self-doubt like it was yesterday.

“It was a challenge,” Taylor said. “I’ve always welcomed challenges. I always knew that I was an injury away. Because that case right there, I’m going into my freshman year and some guys would say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to play. He’s a senior quarterback.’ Then, he breaks his leg and now you’re starting the season. That’s always been on my mind and that’s carried on with me throughout my career.

“Always prepare like you’re going to be The Guy.”

The freshman led Hampton to a 5-0 start. When the starter healed, Taylor blended in as a change of pace. Even here in his glossy No. 5 NFL uniform, he’s irritated at how that season ended in the postseason. On the game-winning score, TV highlights later revealed the opposing player’s knee down at the 10-yard line.

Taylor is still salty. “His knee was clearly down!” he snipes.

He’d start the next three seasons and win the state title as a junior.

Taylor had a magnetic effect, Smith explains. Players fight for him.

Said Smith, “He’s a guy you love to be around when you’re fighting. You’d take him to the alley with you.”

If he pitched the ball out of the option, Taylor then would lead block. On defense, he lit receivers up. Taylor calls it “a personality change.” He became Ray Lewis. In that state title win, Stone Bridge (Va.) drove deep into Hampton territory, threw a slant and – from safety – in stormed Hurricane Tyrod.

“Like ‘Boom!’ with a shoulder,” Taylor said, “the ball pops up, the other safety catches it, runs it downfield about 10 yards, we go out on offense, take a knee and won the game.”

Part of this is nature – Tyrod’s dad played for Smith and was all grit himself. Part was nurture. He grew up in a cutthroat-competitive environment. Taylor actually faced Bills receiver Percy Harvin often on the basketball court and Taylor, Harvin insists, was “an animal.”

As a kid, he watched Hampton’s Allen Iverson and Ronald Curry and Newport News’ Aaron Brooks and Michael Vick closely. They made it. They were idolized. But Taylor didn’t gaze at his TV screen in awe, as much as it drove him to be better.

So, yeah, Smith has an idea how Secretariat will attack Sunday.

“He’ll do the same thing he did when he had to step in as a freshman,” Smith said. “It’ll fuel him.”

The field

Blacksburg, Va.

The “Enter Sandman” intro music. The Hokie Stone mystique. Tyrod Taylor. Recruit Jarrett Boykin was sold instantly. On his visit to Virginia Tech, Taylor busted loose for a long run against Florida State and Lane Stadium shook.

“From that day on,” the wide receiver Boykin said, “I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”

On to college, Taylor dazzled.

But the hard-nosed athlete was also a green-as-grass quarterback. If his first read was covered up, he’d tuck and run. His quarterback coach at Virginia Tech, Mike O’Cain, recalls “happy feet,” recalls a bull itching for the gates to open.

“It’s a natural instinct,” O’Cain said, “if you get in trouble when the pocket breaks down to pull the ball down and go.”

For the coaches, this became aggravating. So many third and longs, Taylor didn’t trust his line, his receivers, anyone around him for that precious extra second. He was a scrambler without a cause. Of course, coaches didn’t want to neuter the creativity, either.

The occasional joy ride – the play that’s going to spike enrollment – is OK. Together, O’Cain and Taylor sought a balance.

“It’s a fine line,” O’Cain said. “The higher level you get, it’s even a finer line.”

With repetition, with experience, Taylor found his balance. O’Cain makes the differentiation.

“It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t make the read,” he said. “He didn’t have patience to make the read. He understood the game well enough to go from 1 to 2 to 3. He didn’t have that pocket presence yet. That changed over time.”

Virginia Tech planned to redshirt Taylor – twice – but never did. Taylor learned on the fly. By his senior year, “50, 60, 70 percent” of the time, O’Cain said he knew precisely where he’d be throwing pre-snap. The result was a senior season of 2,743 yards passing, 659 rushing, 29 total touchdowns and only five picks.

Such coaching is rare today. College coaches take a blow torch to that “fine line.”

Speed. Tempo. Running 80 plays a game takes precedent over a quarterback actually dissecting a defense. That’s why NFL coaches are so concerned about the future of the position. Most rookie quarterbacks in 2015 are third-graders taking a SAT.

At his critical juncture, Taylor learned the value of patience.

He learned how to inspire.

That 2010 season, the Hokies opened with a heartbreaking loss to Boise State and then effectively paid $400,000 to become a national laughingstock. Against JV-challenger James Madison five days later, Virginia Tech lost, 21-16. With the season crumbling, Taylor and the other seniors called a players-only meeting.

“We don’t want to feel like this again,” Taylor told the team.

Virginia Tech won its next 11 games and the ACC title.

“He will bring something to that team that you can’t put on paper,” O’Cain said, “that you can’t measure with his height, his weight, his speed. He’s got a knack. He’s got charisma. You can’t coach it, can’t teach it, the good Lord gave it to him. And people rally around that.

“You have to be around it. You have to experience it.”

Added Boykin, “We didn’t let that game define us. He didn’t let that game define him. Tyrod caught fire.”

So, no, Boykin wasn’t surprised to see Taylor spin away from one sure sack in the preseason as he stood on the Carolina Panthers sideline. “Classic Tyrod,” he says. Before hanging up the phone, Boykin cuts in.

Go to YouTube, he says. Type in “Tyrod Taylor, Stanford.”

Sure, they got smoked in the Orange Bowl. But who else does this? Taylor rolls left, stares down the barrel of a sack, spins, sets his feet centimeters from the sideline, rifles the ball into the end zone and running back David Wilson dives in front of Boykin for the catch.

“He can really make plays,” Boykin said, “remarkable ones.”

When, you know, he’s on the field.

The bench

Baltimore

He graduated, he disappeared. For the next four years, Taylor has been out of the public eye.

With his parents, Taylor watched as 10 quarterbacks were drafted ahead of him in 2011. It stung. Taylor believed he was better than most – if not all – of this group. And as Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker flopped, here he was in Baltimore throwing a grand total of 35 passes in four years as a No. 2 quarterback.

If anyone can solve the riddle that is Tyrod Taylor, it’s that team’s No. 1 quarterback: Joe Flacco. Next to a spouse, no one spends more time with a starting quarterback than the back-up.

So on the eve of his own 2015 season opener, Flacco makes time.

“I could see what he’s capable of doing,” Flacco said. “You just hope that at some point in his career that he gets a shot. I knew he could play. The biggest thing about Tyrod is that he plays quarterback. He goes out, goes through his reads, makes really, really good throws.

“And then he just adds that athleticism. He’s going to be able to do some things that other quarterbacks aren’t able to do.”

True, Taylor ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash at his combine. He’s a magician in open space. Asked for his “Tyrod Moment,” Flacco chuckles. Uh, yeah. That was called practice.

Yet above all, Flacco saw a true quarterback. Everything else, he says, is “a bonus.”

From that scrimmage at age 13 to 22, Taylor always played. Suddenly, he was on the bench. So the wild part of their relationship? As Flacco won a Super Bowl … earned a $120.6 million contract … and stayed healthy, Taylor never went stir crazy.

“And if he had to step in and play,” Flacco said, “he was totally ready to do it. You could see it in the way he prepared himself to play every week.”

Flacco believes the No. 1 thing Taylor picked up from him is preparation. They analyzed defenses together weekly. Then again, Flacco is also cut by the quarterback gods at 6 foot 6, 245 pounds. Taylor is 6-1, 215.

Can he really succeed long term? On the other line, Flacco doesn’t hesitate.

“Yeah. Come on,” Flacco said. “Height doesn’t have anything to do with playing quarterback. Obviously, it can help in certain situations. But at the end of the day, you still have to make good decisions. You don’t have to see over your 6-foot-8 offensive linemen. You’re usually far enough away from them and things spread out enough that you can see the field as well as you need to.

“It’s being about being able to process it all and make decisions. I think that he does that very well.”

And nothing, Flacco asserts, gives him any trepidation before Taylor’s defining moment.

“You play 16 games,” he said, “you’re going to have a couple bad plays here and there but I’d think he would have as little as anybody.”

The gym

Phoenix

Sometimes, Taylor was alone. Sometimes, he was with Colin Kaepernick. But at 6:30 a.m. – on an off day – Richie Incognito knew he could find the quarterback in the weight room at EXOS ripping through an hourlong arms workout or 1,000 crunches.

“Tyrod,” Incognito said, “is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around.”

Naturally, you picture a Rocky-like scene. Music blaring. Loud grunts. A booming “Cassel!” instead of “Drago!” After four years of waiting behind Flacco, the Bills granted Taylor a chance. The opportunity of a lifetime was closing in – his do-or-die moment – and never once did his trainer ever sense an inkling of anxiety.

Taylor was measured, not maniacal.

“That’s what’s crazy,” EXOS strength and conditioning coach Brett Bartholomew said. “I would’ve guessed that this guy’s been a starting quarterback 20 years already. Him not having that, ‘OK! I’ve got to live up to expectations, I’ve got to do this, that.’ If Tyrod comes out and doesn’t have a great start to the season – which I highly doubt – he will not panic.

“A lot of people think quarterbacks have to have this bravado. Right? If Tyrod has that at all, it’s very internal. There’s nothing artificial about him.”

That’s because all those life lessons stuck: Always ready for that broken leg. Always patient in the pocket, in his mind.

And for all of his physical gifts, Taylor realizes he must move with a purpose. Russell Wilson is fast, too. But what makes him dangerous is a feel for defenders, a sixth sense. So this is how Taylor trained. The raw athleticism, Bartholomew says, meshes with a mindset.

“You’ve got to be able to react quickly with strategy in mind,” Bartholomew said. “You have to see the field without letting emotions get the best of you. Guys who just let their athleticism take control typically don’t last in the game.

“You don’t get lost in the moment like somebody who might just rely on athleticism.”

So Taylor didn’t crank up the volume. Every exercise, every step had a purpose.

“Put it this way,” Bartholomew said, “if most guys in the NFL were soldiers, this guy’s Special Ops.”

Training camp began and Taylor won the job.

Friends all noticed the razor-sharp focus, too. Former Hokies running back Kevin Jones knew he couldn’t call up Taylor for a 30-minute convo, couldn’t shoot the bull with the quarterback who helps out at his football camp. Instead, Jones texted Taylor words of encouragement. He sent Taylor bible verses and, recently, a link to a podcast of one TD Jakes’ sermon.

The title: “Now is not the time to lose your head.” The message: Stay focused.

Shut out from social media, Taylor sent Jones a photo of himself in Hokies gear to tweet out before the school’s game against Ohio State — Jones is the assistant athletic director.

“Tyrod right now is extremely focused,” Jones said. “He understands the task at hand and knows this is a tremendous opportunity. … he’s seasoned, primed and ready to go.”

He reminds Jones of Wilson. Only faster.

“I expect him to play beautifully,” Jones said. “Like a musician. Like a maestro.”

And it’s not a matter of “when” Taylor takes over, he adds, it’s a matter of “how.”

That wait, finally, is over.

One Bills Drive

Orchard Park

There are believers in Buffalo. Take Harvin, the old basketball foe.

He played with Russell Wilson.

“I definitely think he can take the league by storm,” Harvin said. “Russell Wilson has a lot of speed where he can make that 20-30-yard scamper. But Tyrod? His 30 yards are going to go to 60.”

Inexperienced. Too short. He doesn’t want to hear any of that, either.

“I have all the confidence in the world,” he said. “Seeing Russell, and guys like that have success, I don’t see why not.”

The grand unveiling is set for 1 p.m. at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The 15th starting quarterback here since Jim Kelly takes center stage.

Inside the new-look fieldhouse, Taylor stands underneath an oversized Bills helmet. The image inside is faceless, almost by Rex Ryan’s design, almost like Ryan wants someone, anyone to become the face of his franchise.

Tyrod Taylor gets that first chance.

He wipes away sweat from his brow and grabs a protein shake out of a tray.

“I’m excited to go play and show people what I can do,” Taylor says. “I’m excited for this team to show what we can do. I think we’re going to turn a lot of heads.”

With that, he extends a handshake and trots back into the locker room.

This mystery is about to be solved.

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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