MIAMI – Last November, Leodis McKelvin spiced up a fading rivalry by guaranteeing a win here for a Thursday night game against the Dolphins. McKelvin broke his ankle in the second quarter. The Bills got spanked, 22-9. So much for guarantees.
There were no guarantees this year, no defiant proclamations. Much of the swagger went out of Rex Ryan’s squad in last week’s humbling at the hands of the visiting Patriots. Suddenly, the theme at One Bills Drive was less talk, more action.
No one talks about hating the Dolphins anymore, the way they did about the Patriots. But while the animosity is gone, the fact remains that Sun Life Stadium has been a difficult venue for the Bills in recent years, in particular their quarterbacks.
The Bills have lost three of their last four here, producing just two offensive touchdowns. It took a Mario Williams strip sack of Ryan Tannehill to pull out a late win in 2013. In their last nine games here, Bills quarterbacks have thrown a grand total of five TD passes and they have averaged 13.6 points a game.
So this does not present the most rosy scenario for Tyrod Taylor in his first NFL road start. The league is challenging for any first-time starter. The road is even tougher. EJ Manuel – the new Buffalo backup – found that out the hard way two years ago in a harrowing road debut against Ryan’s old Jets team.
“Always is a bigger challenge offensively in particular when you go on the road,” Ryan said. “There’s no question about it, because of the crowd noise and everything else. The communication is a heck of a lot harder on the road. The fact that it is Miami’s home opener, it is definitely going to be a big challenge there.
“But we got to be sharp, we got to be vocal,” Ryan said. “We’ll mix in silent counts and all that, of course you will be ready for all of that.”
True, Taylor has some gaudy statistics after two weeks. He’s suddenly a hot play in fantasy leagues. He has completed 75.5 percent of his passes at 8.92 yards a throw. His QB rating of 103.9 is eighth in the NFL.
But those numbers are a bit misleading. For three quarters, the Pats made Taylor look like a confounded rookie. Through three quarters, he didn’t have a completion longer than 11 yards. He was sacked eight times and had three interceptions.
The Bills’ offensive players scoffed at the notion that the Patriots provided a “blueprint” for defending Taylor. Coaches don’t need Bill Belichick to tell them the best way to beat an inexperienced, mobile young quarterback is to contain him in the pocket.
Taylor looked like a raw rookie for much of Sunday’s game. He was uncertain, slow to identify open receivers, too quick to give up on plays and scramble his way into sacks. As Ryan conceded, he lacked a veteran’s skill for stepping up in the pocket.
“There were opportunities for that, yes,” Taylor said. “It was just the feel of the game. Looking back on it, there was definitely some times where I could have stepped up, but you learn from those and continue to move forward.”
Granted, Taylor has started only two games. Overall, it was a fairly promising beginning. But he’s not a rookie. He’s supposed to be the Bills’ hidden gem, a guy who gained valuable experience in his four years backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore.
The Bills aren’t expecting Taylor to win games on his own. But if he’s a budding franchise quarterback, he has to show continued improvement and put last week’s struggles behind him. There’s a rising urgency for him to perform well Sunday, with Ryan’s boys needing a victory to avoid falling into the AFC East basement.
As history suggests, it won’t be easy. Sun Life isn’t that raucous a stadium. I’m always surprised by the empty seats and the generally placid environment. But if the Dolphins’ defense gets rolling, it tends to rouse the mellow Floridian fan following.
Miami’s defense has been a disappointment in the first two weeks. Ndamukong Suh, the $114 million tackle, has three tackles and no sacks. Cameron Wake is hobbled by a bad hamstring. Jacksonville QB Blake Bortles threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns in an upset of the Dolphins last week.
Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, has been making strides for the Jags. He’s a rising franchise QB, which is a reminder that the Bills are still searching for their own. We’re still a long way from finding out about Taylor.
Miami confirmed Ryan Tannehill as its franchise quarterback in May by giving him a six-year, $97 extension. Only $21.5 million was guaranteed, so it resembles the deal Ryan Fitzpatrick got from the Bills four years ago. The Dolphins can walk away after a couple of years with minimal cap damage if Tannehill doesn’t measure up.
Many Bills fans and media treat Tannehill like some marginal talent. Until that game last November, he had played abysmally against the Bills. But he has made slow, steady progress in his career. Last season, he completed 66.4 perecent of his throws for 4,045 yards and 27 TDs.
Scoff all you like, but the Bills would settle for that sort of marginal play. They have had just one 4,000-yard passing season in their history. Drew Bledsoe did it in 2002. There have been 83 4,000-yard seasons in the league since then, none by a Bill. Only one Bill has thrown 27 TD passes in a season. Jim Kelly did it once, when he threw for 33 TDs in 1991.
I’m not pushing Tannehill for Canton, but highlighting the depth of the Bills’ issues at quarterback. Taylor is a heck of a talent, but the Bills still have the worst quarterback situation in the division. I’d certainly take Ryan Fitzpatrick at this point – oh, and the Jets are 2-0, as you might have noticed.
Tannehill was the best player on the field in the Thursday night game last year. He was 26 of 34 for 240 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. The Dolphins rushed for 125 yards and 5.2 yards a run on one of those nights when the Bills’ defense didn’t live up to its reputation and seemed morally worn down toward the end.
So if Taylor really is the quarterback of the present, as Ryan said Wednesday, he ought to at least hold his own with Tannehill on Sunday. The standard has been low for Buffalo quarterbacks here over the years. Let’s see him rise above it.
It’s wise to counsel patience with Taylor. But he’s not the conventional QB prospect. The Bills have little invested in him, beyond surging hope. They’re in a win-now situation and aren’t likely to wait long if his performance against New England is the rule rather than the exception.
Doug Whaley surely had that in mind when he traded Matt Cassel last Tuesday, nudging Manuel into the No. 2 position. Ryan was a weakened figure after the Pats game and Taylor’s play had raised questions about his long-term viability as a starter.
The general manager seized the opportunity to remind everyone that the franchise has a serious investment in Manuel and needs to find out sooner or later. I can guarantee this: The howling for EJ will intensify if Taylor stumbles in his road debut.