WASHINGTON, D.C. – After the Bills’ loss in Kansas City, someone asked Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor if he felt it was important to respond in the critical moments – in the popular sports parlance, to do it in money time.
“I feel like every game is a money game for me,” Taylor said.
He didn’t mean it in the literal sense. Taylor says he doesn’t have time to think about his financial circumstances, or what sort of contract might be waiting down the road. But as a first-time starter, he knows every game is a chance to prove himself to the world.
As money games go, the last three could be crucial for Taylor. Granted, the Bills’ chances of making the playoffs are remote. But his performance down the stretch could further his case as a franchise quarterback – with the equivalent financial reward.
Taylor isn’t alone Sunday. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins is in the final year of his rookie deal and is positioning himself to strike it big in free agency, either in our nation’s capital or some other NFL team in desperate need of a starting QB.
In fact, this isn’t merely a battle of 6-7 teams. It’s a matchup of the two lowest-paid No. 1 quarterbacks in the league. Taylor and Cousins are the only quarterbacks who began the season as their team’s starter with a 2015 salary cap hit of less than $1 million.
Taylor and Cousins were both named the starter on Aug. 31, the Monday before the season opener, and have made the most of it. Taylor is fifth in the NFL in passer rating at 100.9 and fifth in yards per pass attempt at 7.9. Cousins leads the NFL in completion percentage at 69.2. He has 3,306 passing yards and could break Jay Schroeder’s team record of 4,109 set in 1986. Like Taylor, he has much to gain in the next three weeks – and considering that his team is tied for first, maybe the playoffs.
“Tyrod certainly was a guy who only needed an opportunity, and he’s taken it and run with it,” Cousins said. “I got to meet him late in college. He and I were at a quarterback camp in high school together at Penn State before our senior years of high school.”
Cousins laughed when I asked if he thought Tyrod should play out his contract next season and go for broke on the free-agent market. He didn’t have much leverage last offseason while coach Jay Gruden was deciding between him and Robert Griffin III as the starter.
Taylor is in a more favorable position. He will have a full year as the starter under his belt, albeit with mixed results. He proved he could be a two-way threat, a dangerous scrambler who threw good deep balls and avoided interceptions.
By playing more than half the offensive snaps, Taylor voided the third year of his Buffalo deal, which was a friendly $778,000 cap hit this season and will pay him $1 million next year. The question is what, if anything, the Bills do with his contract now.
Rex Ryan, who was instrumental in getting Taylor to Buffalo, gushes about him. Ryan says he believes in Taylor and sees him as the franchise guy; he also said it would be nice if Taylor could lead more fourth-quarter comebacks.
General Manager Doug Whaley was more circumspect. In a recent article in SI.com, Whaley said the Bills will “obviously keep trying” with Taylor. He said that doesn’t mean they won’t have a backup plan in the event that Taylor doesn’t measure up.
Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator, described Taylor as “raw” and said he’s been down this road before. He was with the Niners when they gave Colin Kaepernick a six-year, $114 million deal that’s hanging off the franchise like an ugly Christmas tree ornament.
Taylor could have signed for more money with Denver after his four-year apprenticeship in Baltimore. He chose the Bills because he had a chance to start and was “ready to bet on me.”
The Bills seem to be hedging their bets. Whaley told SI.com that he expects to deal with Taylor’s future after next season. That means he’s willing to let Taylor play out the last year of his contract and risk losing him in free agency at the end of 2016.
Whaley remembers the contract the Bills gave Ryan Fitzpatrick after a rousing six-game start in the 2011 season. That six-year, $59 million deal is perceived as a mistake, because Fitz was gone after the 2012 season. But the big mistake was not signing him before the season, when the number would have been much lower.
So this is risky business for the Bills, assuming they have faith in Taylor long-term. I’m not sold on Taylor as a franchise quarterback. Based on Whaley’s comments, it appears he hasn’t fully bought in, either.
Still, the Bills would be foolish to let Taylor play next season on his existing deal without trying to hammer out a new contract. If they truly believe he’s their man, they should at least attempt to work out an extension with some guaranteed cash.
The question is, how much is Taylor worth? The price of a true franchise QB continues to rise. There are currently 18 quarterbacks making $16 million or more per season, eight with overall contracts over $100 million.
Of course, the need to identify a franchise quarterback and pay him accordingly can lead to some very dubious deals. The Kaepernick deal is a prime example. There’s also Jay Cutler’s seven-year, $126.7 million contract; or Ryan Tannehill’s at six years, $96 million.
Taylor’s agent will be angling for that sort of contract. The sports salary site Spotrac did a study on Taylor, comparing his statistics to similar NFL quarterbacks. Their calculation projected a four-year, $82 million deal, which they admitted was unrealistic.
The Bills have waited a quarter century for a franchise QB. But they’d be crazy to pay Taylor the top rate after 11 starts, at least five of which qualify as weak. It makes more sense to give him a middling figure that ensures stability at QB for the next few years.
Taylor has improved during the year, but he might already be at his ceiling. He’s too much of a one-read quarterback who hasn’t won a game in which he had to throw more than 30 times. For all the hoopla about his QB rating, the Bills are 28th in the league in passing yards.
I wouldn’t invest top money in Taylor now. The Bills have been too willing over the years to overpay for the sizzle, something they can sell to their fans. But if they believe in Taylor, they should try for a bridge deal that keeps him here for the next few years.
Something along the lines of three years, $27 million sounds fair. They’ll need to cut some salary to make it work, but they need to do something. You don’t call a quarterback your leader and send him out for another playoff push at $1 million a year.
My sense is that Taylor will reject a middling deal. He has an outsized belief in his ability. His agent gave him the leverage to void a third year in his Bills deal for a reason. Taylor’s objective all along might have been to get to free agency in two years.
There’s risk for both sides if Taylor plays out his contract next season. If he believes he should be paid like one of the elite, so be it. By now, the Bills should know you can’t create a franchise guy by writing a check. He has to do it on the field.