Walk and talk with Tyrod Taylor out of the locker room, toward the weight room at One Bills Drive. It’s a quiet moment in the life of the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback. For four years, he was Joe Flacco’s sidekick. A back-up.
Now, he’s in the cockpit of a 5-6 team at a crossroads. Stirring a post-practice shake, he speaks in a scratchy confident rumble.
There have been highs, lows. A sprained MCL, a right shoulder injury. Errant throws, dimes.
Taylor rarely speaks in specifics with reporters, but he makes one opinion clear here.
“I definitely think that I can play — I definitely showed that I can play quarterback in this league,” Taylor said. “It’s a work in progress. I’m always working on my craft. Never satisfied.”
So here the Bills are again. After a coaching change… a quarterback change… skydives, dog biscuits and Clemson football helmets, they’re at a painfully familiar December juncture. Yet again, Buffalo is a team dubbed “In The Hunt” on every AFC playoff graphic. Yet again, Buffalo is figuring out if its current quarterback is a long-term solution. Quite possibly, these two questions are one and the same these final five games.
The Bills are about to see the Real Tyrod Taylor. Does he believe he’s the answer long term himself?
“It’s up to the management,” he said. “I’ll just continue to approach each and every day the same way. Hard work. Attitude. Continue to keep working.”
While it hasn't been a conscious effort, Taylor is taking on a greater leadership role. He now leads the Thursday offensive meetings, telling receivers how he wants certain routes run and dissecting all protections. In the huddle, fullback Jerome Felton said Taylor "will get on you more" to make a point.
Nine starts in, throwing for 1,960 yards, rushing for 290 and scoring 16 touchdowns with four interceptions, he’s naturally become more assertive.
“It just comes with the position,” Taylor said. “I’ve always been a leader. Vocal or not, I’ve always led in my own way. ... Anything I can do to get their attention and get them focused in the right direction, I’ll do that.”
This isn’t a quarterback shouting “You like that!?” a la Kirk Cousins after a win. This isn’t a quarterback Dabbin' after a touchdown a la Cam Newton. Far from it. After throwing a touchdown last weekend, he leaped into Sammy Watkins. At the podium, he’s often C-SPAN exciting.
This has been the temperament driving Taylor through constant commotion around him. From his No. 1 wide receiver requesting 10 targets a game, to his starting running back limping through a September hamstring injury, to a head coach always setting the team's bar high, Taylor has stayed even-keeled. His expression never changes. Pointing to safety Corey Graham walking by, Taylor jokes he's just trying to stay as cool as him.
“I just try to be the same person each and every day," Taylor said. "Approach work with a hungry attitude, looking to learn, not complacent at all."
One early believer is former NFL MVP Rich Gannon. He’s worked multiple Buffalo games this season for CBS and, as a quarterback who stumbled early before reaching the Super Bowl late in his career, he gets the big picture.
At some point, he believes, Taylor must take charge.
“I think that temperament has to change at some point," Gannon said. "As you earn more stripes and it becomes your team, then I think you can be more demanding of the players around you and that huddle. All the great ones have the ability to put their foot down. They have the ability to make the corrections on the field, as opposed to Monday in the film room. And they’re very demanding.”
Take Tom Brady barking at his center for not snapping the ball or Peyton Manning directing receivers like an orchestra director at the line. This is the next step: Know the offense as a whole, first, then be the one-man encyclopedia for everybody else. Be it LeSean McCoy’s splits or Charles Clay cutting a route off at 14 yards instead of 11, Gannon said Taylor must be the man with every answer or every situation.
So, no doubt, this is the process speeding up at One Bills Drive with the team's season on the line Sunday. To Gannon, a quarterback must harp on all minute details Thursday, into Friday, again on Saturday and all game Sunday so there's less and less maddening X-and-O discoveries in the film room on Monday.
Thinking back, Gannon wishes he was more vocal himself when he was in Minnesota.
“All the Jim Kellys, Dan Marinos, John Elways, Joe Montanas, Peyton Mannings, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers — you can go right down the list — they’re all wired that way,” Gannon said. “The ones who aren’t, I don’t want to start naming them, but you can figure them out. It’s just not their temperament, not their demeanor, not who they are.”
He mentions Andy Dalton as one quarterback who turned a corner after getting sat down by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
“I don’t know Tyrod well enough to know where he’s at with that but that, to me, would be the next conversation I’m having with him,” Gannon said. “You can’t have that conversation with a guy until he’s earned his stripes. You earn that right by your production, your consistency, your performance, your ability, your durability, you don’t miss practice and your level of play.
“When you play at a Pro Bowl level, then you get that respect and can crack the whip a bit on guys that need it.”
Such is the challenge of a first-year starter leading a team full of veterans.
The veteran Felton sees his quarterback in more of a “comfort zone.” He knows Taylor will never be loud, but teammates appreciate his authenticity.
“He’s true to who he is,” Felton said. “I think people see how hard he works, how smart he is and the understanding he has of the offense — that means something too when it comes to leadership. He’s got that down pat. He’s more and more vocal as we go by. He’s never a yeller or anything like that but when he needs you to do something he expects it to be done.”
Center Eric Wood describes himself as the “space-filler" leader. Whenever it’s quiet, he breaks silence with a “Let’s go!” or “Lock in! Lock in!” jolt of energy.
Taylor doesn’t do this, no. But when he speaks, Wood said, “people listen.”
Maybe Western New Yorkers are conditioned to expect the trip off the cliff. J.P. Losman showed promise in 2006 with 19 touchdowns — one bomb after another to Lee Evans — before flaming out. Trent Edwards morphed from cool customer to Captain Checkdown in record time. The “Fitzmagic” ran out. EJ Manuel is now a back-up.
There's always been glimmers of optimism, reasons to invest one more season into the quarterback before that quarterback inevitably lets the team down.
So when fans see Taylor reading defenses on a simple level, they get skeptical. He’s often been zeroed in on half of the field, one read. Former NFL offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, for one, doesn't see Taylor throwing on time yet.
Gannon isn't ready to declare Taylor a franchise quarterback. Not yet. He does, however, sees traits in Taylor he loves.
He's not turning the ball over. “That’s something to embrace. I know Rex Ryan, he lost a lot of games in New York because he had a guy who couldn’t take care of the ball.”
He’s smart. Taylor impressed Gannon in their pregame production meetings. “You can tell he puts the time in. Very disciplined, very detailed. That’s something you can build around.”
He's elusive, yet doesn’t take unnecessary hits. He can heave the deep ball with touch. And to Gannon, what's the shame in more of a vanilla passing attack? He thinks Buffalo can win with defense, McCoy and efficient quarterback play. Both Taylor and Gannon point to third down. Above all, this absolutely must improve if Taylor’s going to steer Buffalo to the postseason for the first time since 1999. Buffalo ranks 24th in third-down percentage.
Said Taylor, “That falls in my hands. So I take it as a personal challenge."
A third-and-4 defense differs from a third-and-10 defense. Man? Zone? What pressures are coming? Are the cornerbacks in press or off coverage? Defensive coordinators spend hours plotting for this down alone, Gannon explained, so these questions must always be on his mind.
Of course Taylor wishes the Bills had more than five wins but he vows they’ve learned from the losses. He has learned from the losses. Behind the scenes, everyone sees progress.
Now, urgency rises to a must-win Sunday and Taylor is one holding the lantern in the dark, trying to lead the franchise back to relevancy.
“It’s not anything that I’m forcing,” Taylor said. “It’s more so just letting it come to me.