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Tyrod Taylor's late-game struggles should give Bills pause on the future at quarterback

By standard statistical measures, Tyrod Taylor has given the Buffalo Bills better play than just about anyone could have been reasonably projected.

The first-year starting quarterback ranks fifth in the NFL in passer rating (100.9), ahead of Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. Taylor’s yards per attempt of 7.9 also ranks fifth in the league and is likewise better than Newton and Tom Brady, the two leading candidates for MVP.

Taylor’s five interceptions are fewer than all the full-time starters in the league with the exception of Kansas City’s Alex Smith, who has thrown four, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who has matched Taylor’s five.

Despite those impressive numbers, there is one area in which Taylor has failed to come close to producing the way a “franchise” quarterback is expected to – fourth-quarter comebacks.

Those are defined by leading an offensive scoring drive to either the tying or go-ahead points when starting a possession down by one score, ultimately resulting in a win. Taylor has had three opportunities to do that in the past four weeks, but failed in each instance.

“I think all the other numbers are telling you that this young man has a real chance,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. But you can “never be considered a great quarterback until you can bring your team back and win in those situations. So yeah I would say that, that is the next stage in being able to bring his team back in those situations.”

In his 11 NFL starts, Taylor has one fourth-quarter comeback in five total opportunities, leading an eight-play, 80-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown with 5:25 left against the Tennessee Titans.

“You would love to be able to see that on a consistent basis,” Ryan said.

Taylor’s other four opportunities, however, haven’t come close to achieving that kind of success.

• In Week Two against New England, the Bills got the ball back at their 20-yard line with 1:15 remaining and no timeouts, trailing 40-32. Taylor was intercepted on his first throw to seal the game for New England, although it should be noted the pass bounced off receiver Sammy Watkins’ hands.

• Against the Patriots again in Week 11, Buffalo got the ball back at its 16-yard line with 1:51 remaining and no timeouts, trailing 20-13. The Bills managed a pair of first downs, but it took more than a minute off the clock to get to their own 40-yard line. After an incomplete pass to running back LeSean McCoy, Taylor was sacked on a second-down play. By the time the Bills got set again, only 7 seconds were left in the game. Taylor completed a pass along the sideline to Watkins at the Bills’ 48-yard line, and the clock should have stopped with 2 seconds remaining. Officials, however, incorrectly wound the clock, letting time expire and preventing the Bills from a chance at a desperation Hail Mary to the end zone.

• In Week 12 against Kansas City, the Bills got two possessions in the fourth quarter while trailing the Chiefs. After a Kansas City field goal put the Chiefs up, 27-22, the Bills crossed midfield on a 10-yard scramble by Taylor to set up a first and 10 at the KC 43-yard line with 10:47 remaining. The Bills, however, managed just 1 yard on three plays and elected to punt on fourth and 9.

After another Kansas City field goal made the score 30-22, the Bills got the ball back at their 10-yard line with 3:26 remaining and two timeouts. Buffalo picked up a first down on a 6-yard run by Taylor out to the 20-yard line. After that, McCoy was stopped for no gain, a pass to Chris Hogan was ruled incomplete – and should have been challenged by coach Rex Ryan, but wasn’t – and on third down, a pass to tight end Charles Clay gained only a yard. On fourth down, Taylor scrambled close to the first-down marker, but fumbled the ball out of bounds a yard short of the 30-yard line, turning the ball over on downs.

• Sunday against Philadelphia, the Bills got the ball back at their 31-yard line with 1:49 remaining and one timeout, trailing 23-20. On a third-and-8 play, Taylor was intercepted by Eagles safety Ed Reynolds on a deep throw down the right sideline intended for Robert Woods.

In total, that’s five drives, only one of which reached opponent territory. In the four drives that came in situations where it was clear the Bills were not going to get another possession, two ended on interceptions, another was halted by a fumble out of bounds and the last failed to reach opponent territory. In other words, the Bills have made the most exciting moments in football rather anticlimactic.

“It’s something we’re certainly going to look at,” Ryan said of the Bills’ end-of-game failures. Is it … during the course of practice, us putting in more of those game-ending situations? Maybe so.”

Now more than ever, winning close games is a must in the NFL. Through Week 14, 108 games have been decided by seven points or less – the most in league history. Counting the Jacksonville game started by EJ Manuel, the Bills are 2-5 in games decided by eight points or less (one possession).

Not surprisingly, the Bills’ most recent starting quarterbacks before Taylor have failed in the clutch – a big reason they’re not in the job anymore. Manuel has one fourth-quarter comeback in four opportunities in his 16 career starts, failing three straight times. Kyle Orton had two fourth-quarter comebacks with the Bills in 12 starts last season, but failed to do so in the Week 16 loss to Oakland that knocked the Bills out of the playoff race.

Ryan Fitzpatrick went 5-22 with the Bills in fourth-quarter comeback situations over four years, potentially the biggest reason the team parted ways with him after the 2012 season.

Given that he’s only 11 games into his starting career, it’s far too soon to say definitively that Taylor won’t develop the clutch gene. The two games against New England were particularly tough situations. But the losses to Kansas City and Philadelphia were particularly disheartening.

“It is so rare that you see him throw an interception,” Ryan said Monday. “I think that caught us all off guard at the end. He’s got to get that ball out of his hand a little quicker. I think that was big thing. I thought he made a good decision. He saw the one safety double Sammy, the other safety was in the post so he makes the throw on the wheel route. You just got to get rid of it a little quicker. Because Robert was open.”

Will that type of decision-making develop over time? That’s an important question the Bills will have to answer. Through a playing-time clause in his contract, Taylor has voided the third year of the deal, meaning next year is his last. He’s scheduled to make $1 million in base salary and has the opportunity to earn another $1 million based on playing time.

That’s highway robbery for a starting quarterback in the NFL – especially one who has performed as well as Taylor has. Surely, that’s something Taylor’s agent, Adisa Bakari, will take to the bargaining table.

The Bills are in somewhat of a tough spot. For as good as Taylor has been, he’s still not shown he’s capable of carrying the offense. The team is 6-0 when he attempts fewer than 30 passes and 0-5 in games when he’s forced to throw more than 30 times. His 2,439 passing yards ranks just 25th in the league.

None of that screams “franchise quarterback” – nor does the fact the team is all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season.

Taylor, though, has shown enough to suggest the Bills would have a hard time finding a better option. At 26, and with low NFL mileage, he’s entering his prime. He’s one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, capable of picking up first downs with his feet. If he gains 106 yards rushing over the Bills’ final three games, Taylor will break the franchise single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback of 476 set by Doug Flutie in 1999.

“I definitely showed that I can play quarterback in this league,” Taylor told The Buffalo News before the Week 13 game against Houston. “It’s a work in progress. I’m always working on my craft. Never satisfied.”

The Bills may understandably not want to take the chance Taylor gets away from them if he reaches unrestricted free agency after the 2016 season. Finding agreeable contract parameters, however, could be a challenge.

Last week, the website published an article exploring Taylor’s current market value. It established a “market” value of four years and $82.77 million.

Take a second to clean up whatever beverage you just spit out.

Those numbers were established by comparing Taylor to quarterbacks who had similar numbers and signed their second contract at about the same age. It came up with Rodgers (who actually signed his third contract), Newton, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.

The problem with comparing those players to Taylor is they were all more established. Rodgers and Wilson had Super Bowl rings, Kapernick fell just short, and Newton has playoff experience and is a former No. 1 overall pick.

Taylor will have just 14 career starts should he finish out this season. While it’s not quite like the Bills handing Rob Johnson $25 million after one start, those visions would have to be dancing through the head of Jim Overdorf, the team’s chief contract negotiator. It wasn’t that long ago the Bills gave Fitzpatrick an extension worth up to $59 million and watched it blow up in their face.

The going rate for quarterbacks, however, will demand a huge raise for Taylor. St. Louis’ Nick Foles, for example, has an average annual value of $12.27 million on his contract that ranks 20th in the league. There are nine quarterbacks with average annual salaries of $20 million or more.

If you concede that Taylor is better than Foles, but not yet a top-10 quarterback, the league’s 15th-highest paid player at the position is Kansas City’s Alex Smith. He signed a four-year extension prior to the 2014 season worth up to $68 million, which works out to an average of $17 million per season.

It might seem hard for the Bills to justify handing out a 1,600-percent raise for such an unproven commodity, but as it stands now, Taylor has more of the leverage. His numbers are in that ballpark, and it’s not like EJ Manuel or Josh Johnson are legitimate threats to take his job.

The only leverage the Bills really have is time. Taylor can’t go anywhere in 2016.

That’s why the topic of drafting a quarterback will undoubtedly pick up steam now that attention has largely turned toward building next year’s team. Until it’s reasonably certain a franchise quarterback is under contract, the Bills need to keep searching under every rock until they find one. Since the first round of the draft is still the best place to look, the Bills should be open to that idea.

That may offend Taylor, but the potential for hurt feelings can’t stop the Bills from trying to get off the quarterback carousel the’ve been riding since Jim Kelly retired.

The Bills could draft a quarterback early and have him sit behind Taylor, buying them time to get more of a complete picture on what they have in both players. If Taylor proves capable of becoming the “franchise” guy, then the team should pony up accordingly. And if he doesn’t, the hope would then turn to the drafted rookie.

The other option would be to get to work on a team-friendly contract extension with Taylor now, one that gives the Bills flexibility to make other changes they deem necessary to the roster. Doing so would show a commitment that Taylor is the starter for the foreseeable future.

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