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Should he stay or should he go: The Tyrod Debate

It’s shaping up to be the question facing the Buffalo Bills over the final month of what looks like another lost season.

Should the team pick up quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s contract option in March? To do so would require a significant financial commitment.

Here are the particulars: Taylor is due a $15.5 million option bonus by the third day of the 2017 league year, which comes March 11. If exercised, his $12 million base salary in 2017 becomes guaranteed, as does $3.25 million of his 2018 salary, meaning the Bills would be making a $30.75 million commitment.

If the Bills elected not to exercise the option, Taylor would become an unrestricted free agent, and the Bills would be left with a “dead money” hit of $2.853 million on their 2017 salary cap.

They’d also be left with the giant task of finding a new starting quarterback. If the Bills declined the option, then the only quarterback they would have under contract for next season is rookie third-stringer Cardale Jones.

Not surprisingly, Taylor has chosen not to address the issue publicly, choosing instead to focus on Buffalo's make-or-break game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at New Era Field.

But Taylor's silence hasn’t stopped his status from being a topic of conversation. There are arguments to be made for and against the Bills picking up the option. News Sports Reporters Tim Graham and Jay Skurski present theirs here:

TG: Tyrod Taylor should be Buffalo's quarterback next year. That's my thesis statement. Now, the reasons for this shouldn't be presumed. I don't necessarily think he's some superduperstar franchise quarterback. But Taylor has not been given a proper opportunity to show his true worth, and I'm skeptical of the Bills' current evaluators to find anyone better, let alone a franchise quarterback.

JS: In the spirit of keeping things simple, there is no way Tyrod Taylor should be the starting quarterback here next year. I need only use the most rudimentary statistic to state my case: The Bills rank 32nd in the NFL in passing yardage. That's dead last. That simple fact alone makes it absurd to hand Taylor nearly $31 million. But since we owe our readers a spirited back-and-forth over their morning oatmeal, I’m curious to see you lay out your case.

TG: I can think of a bunch of ways Taylor can be the starter in 2017. The most obvious way would be a restructured contract. But that takes some of the fun out of our little debate here, doesn't it?

When it comes to quoting the Bills' pass offense ranking, you've already conceded the chief problem with that statistic. You used the word "rudimentary." So let's take a deeper look at that number, which I believe reflects Rex Ryan's offensive philosophy more than Taylor's ability.

The Bills lead the NFL in rushing only in part because LeSean McCoy is having a fantastic season. They're atop the league in that category because the other 31 teams aren't interested in running it nearly as much as Ryan and his coordinators do. The Bills generate 47.1 percent of their offense from rushing. Next closest are the San Francisco 49ers at 41.2 percent. The league average is 30.2 percent.

And how about this stat? The Bills have rushed for more yards than they've thrown for six times this year. As our beloved senior columnist Jerry Sullivan tweeted this week, the entire NFC has seven such games.

So, of course, the Bills – not just Tyrod Taylor – rank dead last in passing. They don't do it. And I haven't even gotten into how their receiving corps has been staggering around like something out of "The Walking Dead."

JS: They don’t do it because they know Taylor’s not good at it. Rex Ryan practically said as much Monday in his postmortem of the loss to Oakland.

“We got to look, as coaches, what we’re asking our players to do,” Ryan said in response to a question about Taylor needing to take more accountability for the passing game’s failures. “Can they do it? I think that’s what you first start looking at. For some reason, (it’s) not getting done to where we need it to.”

That reason is the quarterback. Taylor has regressed as a passer. He’s completing 60.6 percent of his passes this season for 191 yards per game, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions and an 84.6 passer rating.

Last year, he completed 63.7 percent, averaged 216.8 yards per game, threw 20 touchdowns against six interceptions and had a 99.4 rating.

His average yards per game this season ranks ahead of only Colin Kaepernick (180.5) and Cody Kessler (171.1) among qualified quarterbacks. He’s never thrown for 300 yards – there have been 95 such games this year alone – and finished with fewer than 200 yards in eight of 12 games.

Not trusting your quarterback to throw the ball is like a baseball team not trusting its designated hitter to swing the bat. That player wouldn’t find himself in the lineup very long.

As for your idea that Taylor could remain the Bills' starter on a renegotiated deal, I'm not buying it. His session with reporters Wednesday ended with him storming away from the podium and declaring that he was "done talking." That doesn't strike me as someone who handles criticism – if the questions that he faced could even be called that – very well.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) beats Jacksonville Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny (51) for a touchdown in the third quarter at New Era Field Orchard Park N.Y. on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Tyrod Taylor has shown the ball's secure when it's in his hands. But is that an altogether good thing?  (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

TG: You know what Taylor does handle well? The ball. He's the NFL's most secure quarterback when you consider how much he runs. Taylor has thrown only five interceptions and fumbled four times. Three starting quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Alex Smith, have fewer than nine combined interceptions and fumbles. None of them runs like Taylor.

JS: Of course he doesn’t throw interceptions. That would require actually throwing the ball. Robust analytics website Pro Football Focus has clocked Taylor as having the most time in the NFL to throw, 3.03 seconds on average. It has also charged him with taking 12 sacks heading into Week 14, double any other quarterback in the NFL. That tells you he doesn't have a great feel for where to go with the ball and is hesitant to pull the trigger.

TG: I reject your statement the Bills don't trust Taylor to throw the ball. He has two great weapons in the passing game, and one of them happens to be his ability to tuck the ball and run. Taylor is damn good at it. He's the first Bills quarterback to rush for six touchdowns in 52 years.

JS: Call me crazy, but I’d prefer my quarterback’s best skill to be throwing the ball.

TG: Funny you should mention that. Taylor's most breathtaking skill is going deep. He throws the league's prettiest deep ball, but he hasn't been able to let her rip this year with Sammy Watkins and so many other receivers injured. All a defense needs to do is make sure Marquise Goodwin doesn't beat them deep. That's not Taylor's fault. The front office failed to provide any semblance of receiver depth through its slapdash efforts to find guys off the street or the waiver wire.

Taylor has been handicapped by Buffalo's roster all season. Chris Trapasso from Buffalo Rumblings divvied up the stats and found Taylor has played fewer games with Watkins and Robert Woods together than he has without one or both.

Buffalo Bills Sammy Watkins runs after a catch against the Oakland Raiders during first quarter action at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Tyrod Taylor's statistics are notably better when both Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are in the lineup. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

When Taylor has them both, and we're not talking Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens here, his quarterback rating goes up 21.2 points compared to when one is missing. In 12 games with Watkins and Woods, 21 touchdown passes and five interceptions. In 14 games minus one or both, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.

JS: I’ll concede that not having Watkins has negatively impacted Taylor, but what makes you think he’ll be 100 percent next season? I wouldn’t wager on that, especially given the Bills’ recent track record with injured players.

TG: Now you're suggesting it won't matter because whoever the quarterback is will be doomed?

JS: Not at all, just that it’s idealistic to say “If we have all of our best players healthy all the time, he can be successful.” That doesn’t happen. Ideally, quarterbacks lift up receivers way more so than the other way around. There can be a pack mentality on Twitter during games as it pertains to Taylor’s maddening habit of missing open receivers, but you and I sit next to each other in the press box and see it for ourselves. The truth is, Taylor does not seem to use the entire field, missing receivers or tight ends (hi, Charles Clay) who are open.

Another point worth making here is the way Taylor’s contract was structured to begin with. Clearly, the Bills’ front office needed more convincing he was the right guy for the job. That’s why the deal has such an easy out. Has his performance this season convinced you that he is?

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Walt Powell (19) drops a pass whilecovered by New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) in the second quarter at New Era Field in Orchard Park, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Tim Graham asserts that having receivers like Walt Powell hasn't done Tyrod Taylor any favors. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

TG: Taylor has been a pretty good quarterback even while short-handed. I'd love to see him get the chance to operate a healthy offense, one that doesn't rely on the likes of Walt Powell and Justin Hunter and Brandon Tate.

Even with all that spackle and chicken wire, just six teams have scored more touchdowns than Buffalo has. The Bills have managed to score 24 or more points and lose five times. No other team has done that. In the entire NFL, teams have scored at least 24 points and were beaten 45 times. The Bills account for 11 percent. And in those five defeats, Taylor threw five touchdown passes and ran for four touchdowns while averaging 7.2 yards a carry. In two of those games, the Bills lost by 16 points and 14 points.

My point is, if Buffalo's defense had held up its end of the bargain more often, Taylor would be a "winning quarterback," and everybody would be way more impressed with his role.

JS: Ah, yes, thank you for bringing that up. Get ready because I’m going to hit you with a blitz of football clichés. When the chips are down … When it’s crunch time … When the going gets tough … Taylor just does not come through.

As our colleague Nick Veronica has diligently charted this season, Taylor’s record is now 3-9 in games they’ve been tied or within one possession in the fourth quarter. He’s thrown three touchdowns and four interceptions in those games. Two of those wins came against Tennessee, last year in a season the Titans got the No. 1 overall draft pick, and a two-win Jacksonville team in Week 12.

The last time the Bills paid a quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick played his way out of here because he similarly could not produce at the end of games. General Manager Doug Whaley has pointed to those fourth-quarter situations when talking about where Taylor has needed to get better, and it hasn’t happened.

Ryan Fitzpatrick's downfall was his inability to deliver in the clutch. (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News}

Ryan Fitzpatrick's downfall was his inability to deliver in the clutch. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Here are just a few more of the unappealing statistics Taylor has produced. He’s 25th in the NFL in passer rating, 26th in completion percentage, 30th in passing yards per game and 28th in both attempts and touchdowns per game.

You mentioned earlier that you think Taylor should be the Bills’ quarterback next season. If only if it were that simple.

Picking up Taylor’s option effectively ties him to Buffalo through 2019. That’s because the dead money if he were to have the option picked up, according to the contract website spotrac.com, comes with the following price tags: $33,603,334 next year, $17,690,000 for 2018 (with an additional $9.75 million kicking in on the third day of the league year) and $10,660,000 for 2019.

That means he wouldn’t be going anywhere for at least the next three seasons.

TG: Now we've come to my next problem with moving on from Taylor after this season. I can't trust Whaley and his scouting department to pick the next one.

Although Whaley's predecessor, Buddy Nix, drafted EJ Manuel in 2013, Whaley had a prominent voice as the assistant general manager and director of pro personnel. Whaley was involved in "all football-related administrative duties and in the college talent evaluation process," the Bills' 2010 media guide proclaimed. So I can guarantee had Manuel worked out, the Bills media streams would be lauding Whaley for the pick.

If not Tyrod, can Doug Whaley be entrusted with pursuing Plan B? (James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

If not Tyrod, can Doug Whaley be entrusted with pursuing Plan B? (James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

Either way, it was Whaley who doubled down on Manuel by ignoring the position in the draft until this year. It was Whaley who chased his tail when it was clear Doug Marrone wanted nothing to do with Manuel and, days before the 2014 season began, signed Kyle Orton, who threw up the deuce sign as soon as the season ended. It was Whaley who doubled down on Taylor by signing project quarterback Cardale Jones when there was an NFL-ready option available.

Whaley wasn't alone in missing out on Dak Prescott, but with as much wheeling and dealing that Whaley does to move up for defensive players he likes, he obviously didn't think enough of Prescott to pull the trigger.

We don't need to rehash all the big names the Bills could've called over the past five years if they possessed the vision or evaluation savvy to identify a franchise quarterback. I'm dubious about moving on from Taylor to Jones, who hasn't dressed for a game and has been running the scout team. This front office has proven it can't figure out the position.

JS: But that doesn’t mean it should stop trying.

TG: Clearly not. What I'd suggest is keeping Taylor and letting somebody else find his replacement.

JS: I’m with you that the position has been largely ignored in the draft for far too long, but that’s exactly what would continue if Taylor’s option was picked up. His salary, while not exorbitant by starting-quarterback standards, would nevertheless prevent the Bills from investing in a viable backup plan. It takes special skill to be in salary-cap jail and miss the playoffs, but that’s what the Bills have managed.

I’m doubtful that the team would invest a high draft pick, say a first- or second-rounder, given the other needs on the roster.

So what would we be left with? A quarterback who has shown in 26 career starts that he’s slightly above average. Whaley has made famous the phrase “quarterback purgatory,” and Taylor is the new definition of it.

Getting off the 7-9 to 9-7 treadmill might actually require a step backward, but it’s one the team should take.

TG: Yeah, well, this NBA season looks pretty interesting.

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