Rex Ryan was about three minutes into his postgame news conference Sunday, so forgive him if he was swept up in euphoria. He was celebrating his first victory with the Bills over a Colts team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season. And, as he said, he still hadn’t cracked his first beer.
Ryan was asked about Tyrod Taylor, who had seduced 70,319 screaming fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium after he beat Andrew Luck in his first professional start – more on that later – when Ryan broke into song. Rex wasn’t really singing, thank goodness, but he was carrying a classic Buffalo tune.
“At the end of the day,” Ryan said, “this guy’s got some magic to him with his legs.”
Ah, yes, magic.
Years ago, when Ryan Fitzpatrick won a few games for the Bills, Fitz-magic became a catch phrase around town. But it always rang hollow. Fitz was brilliant, but he was an average quarterback who helped an average team during their long playoff drought. Anyone watching Sunday found a different kind of magic.
Let me get this out of the way: Flutie was a pompous, arrogant, self-centered phony away from the field, but the man could play. He helped rescue a troubled franchise during a time in which Ralph Wilson was threatening relocation. He also was the last quarterback to guide the Bills into the postseason.
Taylor has played one game, but not since Flutie spent Sunday afternoons running around and driving defenses bonkers have the Bills had someone with the same combination of passing ability, instincts and ingenuity. If what we saw Sunday is the real thing, brace yourselves for a wild and entertaining ride.
“He beats you with his arm,” Ryan said. “He’s smart. You can’t trick him. I mean, it’s hard to trick him. Obviously, he has that added dimension with his legs. You know, he’s great. He’s got a great feel for it. … The great ones, they just got that presence. He has a presence to him.”
Taylor was the best player on the field Sunday. He completed 14 of his first 16 passes for 195 yards before misfiring on his final three. He showed how he won the quarterback competition with a perfect 51-yard touchdown pass to Percy Harvin. He scrambled for 31 yards to set up another score. He was in command all day and injected confidence into his teammates.
And he didn’t cough up the ball.
“It was everything I envisioned it to be,” Taylor said. “The fans were super loud and created a great atmosphere to play our style of ball. We came out 1-0. And that was the main focus.”
Taylor’s quiet and unassuming nature behind the scenes contradicts the electrifying style on display Sunday. Much was said but less was known about him when he arrived as a free agent. He served a four-year apprenticeship in Baltimore. He showed off his strong arm and athleticism in the preseason game against Pittsburgh.
The game Sunday wasn’t Taylor’s first trip to the tavern, by the way. He started as a freshman for a Virginia high school superpower and again when he arrived at Virginia Tech. He grew up in the same region that produced Allen Iverson and Michael Vick, two other undersized athletes who became superstars.
“That area is flooded with a bunch of talent,” Taylor said. “They were guys I could learn from growing up, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Still, there’s no way of judging a quarterback’s effectiveness until he’s under center in the regular season. Taylor needed to prove he could stand up against a heavy pass rush, various blitz packages and complex coverages. He actually started the game in the slot with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
The Bills were content with Taylor sitting in the pocket and managing a conservative offense while he gained his footing. He was dinking and dunking down the field with passes EJ Manuel or Cassel could make before – kaboom – they turned him loose and unleashed the full range of his ability.
Taylor exploited a weakness in the Colts’ secondary with a perfect pass to Harvin down the sideline for the Bills’ first score. In the same situation, Manuel likely would have checked down rather than let it fly. Cassel doesn’t have the gun required to drop a pass high enough and far enough to find Harvin.
“I keep trying to tell people; Tyrod’s got an arm, man,” Bills safety Aaron Williams said. “He’s not just a guy that runs around and gets first downs. That guy is an actual quarterback. He can sling that ball. I’ve been seeing it since minicamp. I’m very proud of No. 5 going out there and controlling this whole game. It was very entertaining.”
The only thing holding back Taylor was an opportunity. Flutie endured the same problem in the NFL. Scouts claimed he was too short and ran around too much. He didn’t play a conventional style, so coaches who were intent on protecting their jobs were slow to give him a chance.
Taylor has an opportunity and should only get better. The Seahawks weren’t entirely sure about Russell Wilson during his rookie year, but they watched him win one Super Bowl and come within a play of winning another. He has blossomed into one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league.
Too early to make bold comparisons to Wilson? Perhaps, but there’s little disputing that Taylor has many of the same qualities.
Both are difficult to contain in the pocket and have strong, accurate arms. The Bills may have stumbled upon something special here. Someday, they might look back and conclude it wasn’t magic.
It was talent.