To this day, Tyrod Taylor doesn't know what he did to deserve a pay cut.
His passing numbers for the Buffalo Bills didn't dramatically change from 2015 (3,035 yards and 20 touchdowns, with six interceptions) to 2016 (3,023 yards and 17 TDs, with six picks). The win total dropped by one, from 8-8 in '15 to 7-9, but Taylor wasn't even on the field for the final game of last season.
So what, in his production, caused him to go backwards financially? He shakes his head.
"Maybe a couple less touchdowns, but as far as yardage, I did what I did to get that deal in the first place," Taylor said recently. "So whether they thought that I didn't deserve it, I don't know. That's up to them."
It's fair to say the marketplace also had a say in the Bills' decision to slash Taylor's salary by $10 million over the next two years.
Had another team stepped forward with a strong desire to acquire him, the Bills could have either kept him under the terms of the six-year, $92-million contract they gave him in August of last year or allowed him to become a free agent. But after inquiring with three quarterback-needy teams (the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers), Taylor's agent concluded his client's best option was to stick with the Bills and live with the restructured deal.
As Taylor stood in front of his dressing cubicle, shaking a plastic bottle of water in which he mixed a powder to replace amino acids he had lost during a just-completed practice, he nodded.
Of course, the pay cut hurt. It still hurts. And he isn't just feeling it in his bank account.
"Especially coming where I come from," Taylor said. "Sixth round (where the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the 2011 NFL Draft), given little opportunity to go out there and play. And then for me to produce two years in a row.
"No, we didn't win, ultimately, the games that we wanted to win. But we were two games outside of the playoffs the first year and a game outside last year. Yes, it definitely hurt, but it's also motivation moving forward and I take that with me each and every day I step on the field."
There's the motivation to prove his contract should have remained intact, even though he stresses that money has never been a driving force and that he plays the game because he loves it.
There's also the motivation to prove that Taylor should, in fact, be the Bills' long-term answer at quarterback rather than rookie Nathan Peterman or anyone else the team might select in next year's QB-stacked draft, for which the Bills own six picks in the first three rounds.
Taylor spoke during the preseason, prior to suffering a concussion in the Bills' Aug. 26 preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. ESPN reported Tuesday that he was out of concussion protocol, but he wasn't permitted to speak with the media until the team officially announced his return to action.
On this day, however, Taylor had plenty to say about all of the challenges he faces.
Besides the pay cut and rampant speculation the Bills plan to replace him next season, there were two big blows: the loss of his best receiver, Sammy Watkins, who was traded to the Los Angeles Rams after the first game of the preseason, and the loss of highly accomplished veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who retired only two weeks after being signed.
The Bills' top three receivers – Jordan Matthews, rookie Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes – hardly figure to have opposing defenses overly concerned with deep coverage. Therefore, they're likely to crowd the line to shut down the run and create predictable passing situations.
Following mom's advice
As Taylor knows, that can quickly make life miserable for a quarterback. So can preoccupation with matters beyond his reach.
"Like my mom tells me every day, stay focused on the vision that I had going into the season, the vision that I've always had as a player," he said. "And focus on the things that I can control. Everything that happens around me, players retiring or players getting traded, is really out of my control. It's a test of this team as far as character, a test to myself – faith and character – just to see how we're able to stay focused during the midst of all this.
"The guys that we have in our receiver room are very capable of going out there and making plays. Those other guys that we lost, yes, they could have added to our play-making, but they're not here and we're not going to make excuses. I'm not going to make excuses. We have to go out there and compete at a high level with the players that we have, and I'm excited about the opportunity."
There's nothing about Taylor's approach that suggests he's the least bit distracted or has lost the tiniest bit of incentive because he's playing for significantly less money. His post-practice routine is the same, taking the time to make sure to replace those amino acids.
"Got to take care of the body," he said.
On the top shelf of Taylor's dressing cubicle is a container bearing the label "Spark." The quarterback explained that it's something athletes usually consume before a workout, especially weight-lifting, because as the name suggests, it has an effect similar to consuming a large dose of caffeine.
Taylor said he takes it "every now and then," normally to help make sure he stays awake during meetings because he gets up so early to work out. But never before practice because when he's on the field, he wants to be as calm and as poised as possible.
"My position is relaxed," Taylor said. "I don't need to be out there like this (opening his eyes wide). I know some guys can play off that, but I tried that one time my second year when I was in Baltimore before a preseason game. Luckily, it wore off at halftime. I hadn't gone in (to the game yet), but I was on the sideline, thinking like, 'Man, what is going on?'"
He could be asking himself that question a lot these days. He insists he doesn't.
Taylor knows that he can't allow his thoughts to be anywhere but in the here and now.
"When you're out there playing, your main focus is, first off, going out there and performing at a high level yourself," he said. "And from a quarterback perspective, it's not just about me. It's about rallying the guys and bringing them in. So if they see my mind is elsewhere or that my full commitment isn't to them, then I can't control or manage or lead that group the way that I should be doing.
"My mind has to be focused on one thing, and that's doing whatever it takes to get the team to playing at a high level. And that's my focus each and every day. My preparation is still the same, if not better than what it was before, because you learn each and every year."
That's what Taylor's teammates see – someone who is fully concentrating, fully committed to doing whatever he can to help his team win.
They don't hear him complaining about his contract. They don't hear him talking about feeling less love than he did in 2015, when, after four seasons as Joe Flacco's backup in Baltimore, he soared from the bottom of the Bills' depth chart to win the starting job.
They see the Tyrod Taylor they've always known.
"He's locked in," guard Richie Incognito said. "He's about as locked-in a teammate as I've ever been around. He's calm, cool, collected. His demeanor's the same every single day.
"He's a grinder, so honestly, (Taylor's contract situation) doesn't even factor into any of our thinking. It hasn't factored into his actions. He's the same guy, he's still a great leader and he's competitive."
Still chasing goals
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander can relate to Taylor's circumstances. He joined the Bills last season on a modest, one-year deal that reflected the expectation that he would contribute mainly on special teams and serve as a backup outside linebacker.
After first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson underwent shoulder surgery, Alexander was thrust into the starting lineup. His 12.5 sacks earned him a Pro Bowl berth, which Alexander, in turn, hoped would allow him to cash in when he became a free agent. However, no team was interested in investing big money in a player who was turning 34 in May.
The Bills weren't, either, but they did re-sign him and he accepted a contract he knows would have been much larger had he been under 30. But once he signed it, there was no looking back.
"I worry about how can I go out there and do a job so that I don't let my teammates down, and being around Tyrod, that's what he's thinking about," Alexander said. "He's not under center like, 'Man, I took a big pay cut. Man, I'm going to make a bad read now.' That's just not how the human mind thinks when you're a competitor.
"Now, when he's at home, thinking, maybe. I'm the same way. You're thinking about, 'Ok, maybe something could have happened differently.' But when you're in here working, working out, that doesn't affect you on the field. You're locked in, because you're trying to go out there and prove people wrong now. Like, 'Hey, I'm the guy. And I'm about to show why I'm the guy.' And that's the approach he's taking and guys normally take when things aren't ideal contractually or the way you planned or what people's perspective of you is. It's, 'OK, let me go to work and let me prove to you that I am that guy and prove you wrong.'
"You end up playing worse when you're worried about that stuff when you get out on the field. So you've just got to focus on your fundamentals, trust your teammates, and go out there and just let it loose."
Taylor will tell you his mindset is the same as it was when he first laced a pair of cleats to play football at five years old. His first goal was to one day play quarterback in the NFL. Check. His second goal was to win a Super Bowl. Check.
"I was on a team that won a Super Bowl (the Ravens), but still have goals of being the one that's calling the shots winning the Super Bowl," Taylor said. "So still chasing goals each and every day and every year and each and every opportunity that I get to go out there and prove myself, I'm going to continue to keep doing that.
"Talk is always going to be talk, good or bad. There are only a couple of guys in this league that they love anyway."
Such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, perhaps?
"I'm not saying," Taylor said with a wry smile. "But you win enough games, you get that type of respect."
Otherwise, you carry a chip on your shoulder. For Taylor, it has been sitting there since the Ravens made him a sixth-round draft pick and continues to grow.
He thinks about quarterbacks selected ahead of him who are no longer in the league. He thinks about the criticism that kept him from being drafted higher and that he has been hearing ever since.
Too short. Too quick to pull down the ball and run. Too fearful to make high-risk throws.
"That's one of the reasons why I don't listen to what other people say, because there's always been that talk my entire career and I've been able to prove people wrong every time," Taylor said. "They say I can't do this, 'Well, I've showed you that I could do this.' They said I would never start, 'Well, I showed you that once I got that opportunity, that I would take advantage of that.'
"So people are going to talk. That has never swayed me."
Nor, apparently, will having his salary slashed by $10 million.