BALTIMORE − If the Bills were the champions of the offseason, as coach Rex Ryan contends, then Tyrod Taylor was the undisputed offseason king, the MVP of the practice field, the weight room and the dotted line.
We’ve heard all the heady, optimistic reviews about the Bills’ quarterback in the months leading up to today’s season opener against the Ravens:
Great work ethic, emerging leader, even temperament, shows up early, stays late, great in the film room, lifts weights like a fiend, has mastered Greg Roman’s offense, sees the field better, throwing with newfound confidence over the middle.
I’m sure much of it is true. Maybe Taylor is primed to take the next step, to establish himself as an NFL franchise quarterback and make it easy for the Bills to pick up a five-year extension that will pay him $18 million a year.
But history tells Bills fans to take a breath and remember that, when it comes to quarterbacks, they tend to listen to their hearts rather than their heads. We’ve waited two decades for a franchise guy, since Jim Kelly retired, only to see initial promise turn into disappointment and disdain.
Didn’t we hear a lot of those glowing reviews about supposed saviors, from EJ Manuel back to Rob Johnson? They worked hard, too. It’s chic to say Taylor is the best Bills QB since Drew Bledsoe, but he hasn’t done significantly more in his first full season than J.P. Losman or Trent Edwards, or Ryan Fitzpatrick during his run from 2010-11.
Statistically, Taylor did things that exceeded those other QBs. He completed 63.7 percent of his passes, had a 99.4 rating, threw for 20 TDs with just six interceptions and rushed for 568 yards, a team record for a quarterback.
Give Roman credit for massaging a nice statistical season out of Taylor in his first year as a starter. But the surface stats don’t tell the full story. The Bills were 31st in the NFL in pass attempts. They were 21st on third down and 26th in the red zone. Taylor was 0-5 in games when he had to throw at least 30 passes.
So it’s a leap of faith to assume Taylor is the long-term answer. What we need is a leap forward, tangible evidence that he can be a reliable pocket passer for a contender, that he can make all the throws a franchise QB needs to make. That means not being reluctant to try throws over the middle of the field.
He’s bigger and stronger and has the full support of his offensive teammates and coaches. But we’re talking about the hardest position in sports, and a true franchise guy proves it on the field, over a full season. Taylor has to lift the franchise and the fan base and prove once and for all he’s The Man.
For any objective observer, doubts remain. Taylor got his new contract, but the Bills can get out of it after one year. Remember, Doug Whaley said at the end of last season that he needed to see more from Taylor.
“The biggest thing is he has to take that next step and that is the end-of-the-game situations where we can count on him like he did in Tennessee,” Whaley said. “To get that consistency in the end-of-game situations where we can depend on him and basically throw the game on his back and have him come through and deliver.”
Taylor hasn’t played a game since. You don’t lead comebacks in the weight room. You do it on the field, often on the road in front of hostile crowds and against sophisticated defenses that know how to close games late.
Last season, Taylor did little in those close, late-game situations. He wasn’t in many, for one thing. He played in only four games where the Bills were down by seven points or less or tied in the fourth quarter. They were all on the road: At Tennessee, New England, Kansas City and Philadelphia.
In the last three, all losses, Taylor completed 12 of 27 passes for 107 yards and no TDs in those late situations. Whaley mentioned Tennessee, when Taylor led a comeback largely with his legs. He also put the Bills in a hole by failing to complete a pass until midway through the second quarter that day.
Perhaps this is nit-picking. But if you’re going to use offseason workouts to validate a franchise quarterback, it’s fair to point out actual games. You can be sure Whaley and management took a long, hard look at those last three road losses when deciding whether to make a huge financial commitment to Taylor.
Look, the standard is higher for Taylor now. He’s playing for the big bucks this season. If he proves himself and the Bills activate the extension, he’ll be guaranteed about $30 million in 2017 alone. These are very big stakes, and Taylor should be judged accordingly.
“I don’t play for the money,” Taylor said Wednesday. “I never have. I love the game that I was blessed to play. My focus each and every week is doing what I have to do to find a way to win, and that’s my focus this week and it’s going to be it for the rest of the season.
“We have a lot of goals as a team,” he said, “and this is our first opportunity in real game action, regular season, to prove ourselves.”
When I asked about Whaley wanting to see him lead more late comebacks, Taylor’s reply was curt and to the point: “My focus is on winning. Whatever I have to do to win.”
He’s usually a tad indignant when he gets the tough questions. Taylor better get used to it, because he’s no longer the cuddly, unproven third-stringer looking to win a job. He’s the Bills’ new quarterback hope. Fans are desperate to see the reality rise up to the hope for a change.
Today, Taylor returns to the city where he served as the backup for four years, patiently waiting for his big chance. He’s the unquestioned starter, out to prove himself and help snap the Bills’ 16-year playoff drought.
This is the biggest season of his life, which makes this the biggest game of his career. Taylor is essentially betting on himself this season, which is an encouraging sign. He’s not afraid of the pressure, or the big moment, and that counts for something.
It’s been suggested that the Bills could miss the playoffs or have a losing season and it will still qualify as a success if Taylor plays well. He scoffed at the notion. It’s all about winning, not money or statistics. He’s right.
You become a franchise QB by being your team’s best player and lifting it in tough circumstances. Taylor says it’s about winning. He’s right. Today, he begins playing to his own high standard. I’ll be happy to hold him to it.