Next Monday night, the two highest-rated quarterbacks in the AFC will square off when the Bills play the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady is first in the NFL. Tyrod Taylor is second in the conference and third in the league behind Brady and Arizona’s Carson Palmer.
But you won’t hear anyone billing this game as an epic showdown of elite QBs, a shootout at the Kraft corral. This isn’t Brady vs. one of the Mannings. Taylor is a first-time starter, an unproven quarterback still finding his way. Brady is, to my mind, the best ever to play.
Maybe I’m too tough on Taylor, who has done an admirable, and at times spectacular, job. He has completed 70.5 percent of his throws. He has a rating of 106.2. He won a game with his legs in Tennessee. He’s evolving as a player and a team leader.
Still, I remain unconvinced about Taylor as the Bills’ franchise quarterback. He has some gaudy statistics, and a 5-2 record as a starter. But there’s the numbers test and the eyeball test, and he’s failed the eyeball test too often to be the surefire answer at QB.
I’ll admit the standard is high. That’s how it goes with NFL quarterbacks. Heck, they’re questioning Andy Dalton again after the Bengals lost for the first time Monday.
We’ve been fooled too many times since Jim Kelly retired to leap to judgment. I did my share of gushing about J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick – even EJ Manuel on occasion – only to lose hope in the face of incriminating evidence to the contrary.
Very few passers win a shootout with Brady. You’d like to think Taylor could light up a shaky Pats secondary. But it’s not likely to happen. The buzz phrase on Media Day was “complementary football,” which means running the ball and limiting the number of times Taylor has to throw the ball.
“You know what?” Rex Ryan said. “I’m confident in the way we throw the ball. We better protect the passer better than we did in Week Two. We got sacked eight times.”
Taylor didn’t have great protection in the first Pats game. He also was skittish in the pocket and held the ball too long. He was 23 of 30 for 242 yards, with three TDs and three interceptions. But most of his numbers came in garbage time.
He has gotten better, though missing two games with a knee injury set him back. Taylor has thrown just one interception since the Pats game and hasn’t been picked off in his last 92 passes dating back to the Giants loss here on Oct. 4.
“I think I’ve improved each and every week,” Taylor said. “Decision-making, taking care of the football, proving I can throw from the pocket, orchestrating our offense and just being a leader. I think I’ve taken steps in the right direction. I’ve just got to continue improving my game.”
There’s certainly room for improvement. Taylor has suffered through some rough patches, especially early in games. He threw for 36 yards in the first half against the Giants and Titans. In four of his seven starts, he hasn’t completed a pass over 15 yards in the first half.
The Bills have not done a consistent job of putting drives together. They’re third in the NFL in percentage of three-and-out drives (Green Bay is first). You can’t blame it on Manuel, either. The three-and-out percentage is higher with Taylor.
“We have to be better at third down,” Taylor said. “That starts with me. In order to get in a better situation on third down, you’ve got to be better on first and second. It’s a combination of us executing on early downs so we can stay in third-and-manageable.”
In Rex’s world, that means running effectively on early downs. They’ve found their identity in the last two weeks, gaining 266 yards rushing against Miami and 148 against the Jets’ top-rated run D. That makes it easier on Taylor, who hasn’t had to throw 30 times in the five wins.
“That’s not our style,” said LeSean McCoy, who has 112 yards rushing in each of the last two games. “We don’t want to throw the ball 50-some times. We’re a base offense – run the ball, take shots, quick passes, and let Tyrod scramble some. You want to be a balanced offense against a team like this.”
Yeah, it’s nice to be balanced against the Pats. Pulling it off is a different matter. In New England’s last four games, opposing backs have averaged 2.6 yards a carry. The Patriots haven’t allowed a run of more than 10 yards to an opposing running back in a month.
Bill Belichick will stack the box and dare your quarterback to beat him. Opposing QBs have attempted at least 39 passes in each of the four games. You can bet that Belichick will load up against the Bills’ ground game and take his chances with Taylor.
So this figures to be the biggest test yet for Taylor, who has yet to prove he can carry a team when his running game isn’t working and he has to rely on the pass.
Much has been made about the Bills’ defense having a score to settle after allowing 466 passing yards to Brady at The Ralph in September. Taylor also has to atone for a failed first performance against the Pats.
“Every time I go out and perform, I take it personally,” Taylor said, “whether’s it’s good or bad. And every time you get a chance to go out and prove yourself, those bad performances are in your head. So you definitely want to go out there and show people what you can do and who you are.”
Taylor needs to prove he’s a franchise guy, someone the Bills can trust for the next decade. He was clearly the best man for the job this season, a fortunate signing. But being better than Manuel and Matt Cassel isn’t the same as being a legitimate franchise QB.
The next seven weeks will be critical for Taylor and the franchise. Former NFL offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who knows about quarterback play, says Taylor is more athlete than passer, that he doesn’t throw well in rhythm. The Bills need to decide if Taylor will grow into the job and be their long-term answer.
You can’t wait too long in today’s NFL. The Bills missed on Manuel, regardless of Doug Whaley’s infatuation. If Taylor doesn’t continue to make strides as a pocket passer, the Bills will have to go back to the draft for that elusive franchise guy.
Monday’s game isn’t going to make or break him. The Pats generally chew up Bills quarterbacks and spit them out in Foxborough. No one expects Taylor to go up there and outduel Tom Brady. No AFC quarterback has won a regular-season game that mattered there in seven years.
What Taylor has to do is look the part, and look like the future at the position. Like the rest of his team, win or lose, he needs to get that dreadful September game out of his head.