raining-camp huddles aren’t like game huddles. They tend to be a whole lot looser, because you have to do something to break up the monotony of daily repetition. Sure, the plays will vary from time to time, but the opponent’s always the same. The surroundings don’t change. Morning after morning, that red ball in the sky is just going to keep beating down unmercifully. ¶ So during those idle moments as Tyrod Taylor is getting the play from offensive coordinator Greg Roman and boredom sets in for everyone else, the two senior members of the Buffalo Bills’ offense − Richie Incognito and Eric Wood − take it upon themselves to provide a little entertainment. ¶ “We’re usually messing around and we keep things light,” Incognito says. “We’re always messing with Shady (McCoy) or Sammy (Watkins). We’re always debating something or talking some trash. Wood will start with Shady or I’ll start with Shady, or Shady will start with us. We might do some fake boxing, but mostly just talking trash.” ¶ That is, until No. 5 joins the huddle. ¶ When that happens, the playful banter stops. The smiles disappear. All eyes and ears belong to Taylor. ¶ “You know, Tyrod will give us a little, ‘Hey, lock in,’ ” Incognito says. “And then the switch flips. It’s like, as soon as Tyrod steps into that huddle, he has that presence like, ‘Hey, get your (act) together and focus in.’ ” ¶ Maybe that’s what they do now. ¶ A year ago, during the same grind at St. John Fisher College? Maybe not so much.
In the summer of 2015, Taylor wasn’t the commander. He was a candidate, one of three for the starting quarterback job. He shared reps with Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel. He was far too consumed with understanding Roman’s complex offense – with all of its shifts and motions and various personnel groupings and multitude of ways to attack – as well as his own responsibilities to concern himself with being a leader.
Also, having spent the previous four years backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore, he hadn’t done a whole lot of leading in the NFL since the Ravens made him a sixth-round draft pick from Virginia Tech in 2011. And he didn’t really know any of his new teammates or coaches, and they didn’t really know him. Nor, for that matter, did a whole lot of other people around Western New York.
Standing with his back to the wall outside the Bills’ locker room at training camp, Taylor, 27, nods in the direction of the giant photograph of him on the team store across the way.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says, smiling. “Last year, nobody even knew who No. 5 was. Y’all were probably calling me Tyrone Taylor at the (media interview) podium.”
Today, people know the name, the face and the hope they represent for a team looking to end a 16-year playoff drought. That’s what happens when your first full season as a starter was the best your team has had in many years (with a completion percentage of 63.7 for 3,035 yards and 20 touchdowns to an NFL-low six interceptions), when you get what could prove to be a lucrative contract extension, when your style of play is exciting.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Taylor says. “I was a backup for four years, so I’ve seen the side where people may not even know your name. You take it now, I’m definitely blessed to be in this situation, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about playing football, it’s about winning games and doing whatever it takes, understanding that the quarterback can’t do it alone. It takes 10 other guys on offense.”
“He’s taken more of a leadership responsibility this year and a lot of that’s because he’s the guy,” Wood says. “Last year he was one of three guys. None of those guys wanted to step on people’s toes. A lot of times it was myself saying what needed to be said.
“This year, a lot of times it comes from Ty. He’s taken over that role tremendously. He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever been around and he leads by his actions. And when he speaks, people listen because he earned it and we all have a lot respect for him.”
The work ethic
Wood long believed he set the tempo for the Bills when it came to hard work and dedication.
“And then I noticed, ‘Man, I feel like I get here extremely early in the building, and Ty’s truck’s always here first. How about that?’ ” Wood says. “And then I’m like, ‘Man, Ty works out every single morning. And he stays late. His truck’s always there when I’m leaving and I generally felt like I was one of the last ones to leave.’ So just day by day, his actions speak even louder than his words.”
This was Taylor’s daily routine during training camp:
Wake up: 5 a.m.
Work out: 5:30 a.m., in a mostly empty gym. “The rookies start to lift at 6:45, so I like to be finished around that time,” Taylor says.
He starts with cardio, using either a VersaClimber or stationary bicycle. After that, he goes through his lifting routine. He does bench presses with dumbbells, having pretty much stopped using a full barbell since college.
“I can get up to 120 an arm if I want to,” he says.
He is, in fact, wearing the prize he received during the offseason for being one the team’s best lifters. It’s a gray T-shirt with the sleeves cut off above the muscles threatening to rip through the short sleeves of the white shirt underneath. “Lifter Of The Week” appears on the back, over a question: “Did You Get Better?”
When it comes to working out, almost no other player on the Bills can match Incognito’s dedication. Few offensive linemen around the league – or, for that matter, players at other positions – share the intensity of his offseason conditioning regimen at the EXOS training facility in Phoenix.
Yet, Incognito doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that Taylor surpasses even his lofty standard.
“He’s an animal. I mean, he’s an animal,” Incognito says, shaking his head. “I trained with him during the offseason in Phoenix a season ago before the 2015 season (before either player had signed with the Bills) and we had an off day where we’d come in, we’d stretch out a little bit, maybe do a couple of quick circuits. And this guy would be doing arms and abs for like an hour. Then he’d be out there running routes. Then he’s going to meet with the throwing coach. You know, he’s just nonstop.
“There’s guys at this level, like me, who are above and beyond and who take it to another level. And there’s guys like Tyrod, who really just take it to a whole other level and they’re just kind of in a group by themselves.”
Breakfast: 7 a.m. Taylor has the team nutritionist prepare the same meal to go each morning: Oatmeal, egg whites and three turkey sausages.
After that, he follows the team schedule of meetings and practice. At day’s end, Taylor takes about 30 minutes to decompress. Then, he goes over the plays on the next day’s practice script.
Taylor’s meticulous preparation hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I knew nothing about him prior to him being here and he came in and grasped our offense faster than anybody in the room,” Wood says. “And the reason was because he was drawing all of the plays at night, so when he was calling all of the plays, he was seeing them as opposed to memorizing them. And it really impressed me. I hadn’t been around guys who had done that in the past.”
Ask Roman for Taylor’s top quarterbacking trait, and he pauses. “He’s got a lot of them,” the coach says.
Finally, he gives the answer: “Poise. Through ups and downs, highs and lows, he is a rock. That’s what you need at that position.”
Roman has more.
“Accuracy, completion percentage, deep-ball percentage (he ranked 10th in the NFL by completing 44.9 percent of his throws 20 yards or longer), speed, quickness, protecting the team in either-or situations, not throwing stupid picks,” he says.
Taylor is mostly a loner. Every Friday night, he goes to his favorite downtown restaurant and sits by himself. He insists he isn’t anti-social or aloof. He has friends, on and off the team, but he’ll readily tell you that the closest people in his life are his parents and some cousins.
“I think it’s the only child in me,” Taylor says. “I’ve never been shy to do things by myself.”
His lifestyle helps him to stay focused on football, on the job of playing quarterback. The more people you let into your world, the more distractions it can create.
“Same guy every single day, no matter what happens,” Roman says. “That’s what you need at that position. I don’t need a roller coaster at quarterback. Does anybody? I mean, if we’re trying to win, we don’t. There’s too many things going on for a quarterback when the ball’s snapped to become emotionally hijacked by this, that or the other. The guy’s got to have ice water going through his veins.”
Says Incognito, “He’s just in the zone all the time and it’s consistent, it’s constant and I think, for an NFL quarterback, that’s how you have to be because there’s going to be some good, there’s going to be some bad. I’ve been in the huddle where quarterbacks are freaking out and they’re cussing everybody out. I’ve been in the huddle where quarterbacks don’t say anything. Tyrod, he’s to the point. He gets guys lined up, he gets everybody going. He’s a good communicator.”
Taylor doesn’t let his emotions run too hot or too cold. He shows his support and enthusiasm for a good play, but nothing over the top. And when someone messes up, he won’t get in his face.
“That’s not his demeanor,” Incognito says. “His demeanor is, if you make a mistake, you’ve let Tyrod down. Because you know Tyrod is going that extra mile. Tyrod’s working out, Tyrod’s in the film room, Tyrod’s in the playbook. And, when you make a mistake, it’s more of disappointment. It’s like letting your parents down. And he kind of gives you that look or he’ll come talk to you and say, ‘Hey, maybe I didn’t communicate it right. Let’s get on the same page.’ It’s a great kind of quality to have in a leader.”
There’s nothing that indicates Taylor is a different person because of the contract extension the Bills gave him on Aug. 12 … because he will make the most money he has ever had in his life, $9.5 million this season, rather than the $3 million he was due to receive under the terms of his original deal … because he’s in a position to earn an average of $18 million per year beginning in 2017.
Taylor had given his agent, Adisa Bakari, strict orders during negotiations: Call me when it’s done and not a minute before.
“I started playing football when I was 5, and I’ve always played it for the love of the game,” Taylor says. “I understand it’s the National Football League, guys get paid, it’s a job. But I love to play football and I told my agent from Day One, ‘I want to focus on football. If you take my focus away, I’m not going to be able to go out there and play with the mindset that I’ve always played with. And until it’s done, leave me alone.’”
He appreciates the trust and faith that the Bills’ ownership, front office and coaching staff placed in him with the extension, but he didn’t need it to solidify his status as “The Guy.”
“I’ve always carried myself with the mindset of a starter,” Taylor says. “Knowing I was a backup in Baltimore, I still prepared on a day-to-day basis as if I was the starter. And that’s just how I’ve always carried myself, even from a freshman at Virginia Tech, knowing that I was going into a redshirt year. They pulled my redshirt the second game of the season (a 48-7 road loss against eventual national champion LSU). They didn’t go to the No. 2 guy or the No. 3 guy. They pulled my red-shirt off, so if I didn’t prepare as if I was the starter mentally, I’d have been out of luck.”
“I love to see guys rewarded that work as hard as he does,” Wood says. “I mean, you can say what you want about him being elite or not elite, and you can run through that debate all day long. But I want to play with a guy that’s got his skill set and his work ethic because he’s always going to put himself in a position to be successful. Will he play perfect? No. Will I play perfect? No. Will anybody? No. But he’s always setting himself up to do the best of his ability and his abilities are high.”
Says Roman, “The organization’s fully committed to him, because they renegotiated an existing contract. Period. End of discussion.”
When it came to grasping Roman’s scheme, Taylor was at a distinct disadvantage last season. With the quarterback competition, he received fewer offseason and training-camp repetitions than he has this year.
Meanwhile, Roman was installing the offense at a rapid-fire pace that didn’t account for the limited exposure Taylor or any of the other quarterbacks had to it. There was only so much time for implementation. Taylor would just have to catch up as quickly as possible.
“It certainly wasn’t fair to expect a guy to have total ownership of what we were trying to build here,” Roman says. “We were throwing a lot at him, and it takes a little while to assimilate it and have full mastery of it.”
Right after the Nov. 1 bye, Roman was satisfied Taylor knew enough about what he was doing. Roman relinquished to him leadership of the weekly Thursday meeting of the quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, and running backs.
Now, Taylor was the one working the clicker during video review of practice or select plays from games. He was the one starting the discussion about route concepts that might be more effective against certain coverages and, therefore, should merit consideration for the game plan.
“I’m basically the coach of the meeting,” Taylor says. “And I allow guys to talk as far as getting on the same page with another position, such as if a receiver has a tip for a tight end, because receivers run more routes than tight ends do.
“I can ask Robert Woods, ‘What would you tell Charles Clay as far as getting open on this particular route?’ You’re also going to learn about how guys think, how guys prepare. And you’re teaching yourself as far as watching film. Some of those plays, it’s the first time I’m seeing them as well with the team, so we can talk through it and take ideas back to the coaches.”
As a backup in Baltimore, Taylor remembered what it was like when the coaches permitted Flacco to take over a similar weekly meeting. At first, Flacco resisted, because “he’s kind of a reserved guy.” But when he began doing it, “it opened up the communication and allowed him to get on the same page with everybody on the team. I definitely learned from that.”
Roman saw the biggest breakthrough in Taylor’s development during OTAs last May and June. One day in practice, there was a pass play on which Taylor repeated a mistake he had occasionally made last season.
When the play appeared on the screen as Roman and Taylor reviewed video of the session, the coach hit the pause button. Taylor got the message. He hasn’t made the error since.
“He saw it, took ownership of it, and moved forward,” Roman says. “He took great strides in certain things that he was doing, which everybody can’t do.”
By now, Taylor has a solid understanding of the types of plays Roman likes to run, and how and when he prefers to run them. “Basically, I’m just trying to be him on the field,” he says.
Running remains an important aspect of Taylor’s game. Rex Ryan, Roman and pretty much everyone else connected with the Bills would prefer Taylor not run as much as he did last season, when he was the NFL’s second-leading rusher among quarterbacks behind Carolina’s Cam Newton and contributed greatly to the Bills being the league’s top rushing team.
But Taylor’s mobility is and will continue to be an important part of the offense, whether by design on keepers, read-option plays or as a response to a situation such as the one he faced in the Aug. 20 preseason win against the New York Giants. Knowing full well the Bills had done minimal preparation for blitzing, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo nevertheless sent Janoris Jenkins after Taylor from his right cornerback spot (while also blitzing an inside linebacker and the nickel back from the opposite side).
Taylor was barely able to set his feet as Jenkins closed in. Then, he instantly spun to his right, causing Jenkins to twist himself into the ground, and bought enough time for Clay to shake free on a 59-yard completion.
Is it a play Taylor would have made last year?
“He could have, but I don’t know that he would have done that,” Roman says. “It was a unique pressure. That was somebody trying to make a name for themselves, I guess. That didn’t work out too well, did it?”
How will it all work out?
The Bills can get out of the contract after one season, and all it will have cost them was $6.5 million − peanuts, relatively speaking, when you consider it gives them the flexibility of allowing a five-year, $90 million extension to kick in if Taylor plays as well as or even better than he did last season.
“He’s taken a unique path,” Roman says. “How many quarterbacks that were late-round draft picks and were backups went on to flourish? So I think he’s in some uncharted waters.”
Taylor will tell you he anticipates the journey taking him to the top of his profession.
“That’s what drives me, being the best,” he says. “I understand I have a unique skill set. God has blessed me with a tremendous talent. I want to take that talent and be the best that I can be. When it’s all said and done, when my career is over, I want to be known as one of the best quarterbacks to play the game.
“And going into my second year, people may hear that statement and not believe it, but that’s what I believe in my heart and that’s what drives me each and every day, is wanting to be the best. And I think, ultimately, that’ll help the team as well.”