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Reading between the lines at One Bills Drive

Over the years, you learn to read between the lines at these Bills season-ending press conferences. The principal actors are well-schooled at hiding their true feelings, so you have to sift through their comments for organizational agendas.

In Monday’s post-mortem at One Bills Drive, General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan did their best to paint a picture of team unity, to emphasize the positives of a 16th straight non-playoff season and assure the fans that better times are around the corner.

Ryan actually said that if the season began anew today, the results would be a lot better, which had to be small comfort for a disgruntled fan base. They also said that while change is inevitable, there will be no plunge into free agency this season. The primary focus will be re-signing their own players to fortify a roster they believe is on the brink of greatness.

But the detective in me sensed that Whaley and Ryan were being purposely reserved in their praise of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Oh, they pledged their faith in Taylor as a potential franchise QB, and said he will go into next season as the No. 1 guy.

The coach and GM were careful not to gush too much about their first-year QB, because they’re not particularly willing or able to give him the sort of contract extension that Taylor and his agent, Adisa Bakari, would be seeking after a solid first year as an NFL starter.

When Whaley was asked if Taylor’s play this season warranted a long-term contract extension during this offseason, he suggested it was too soon.

“He’s warranted it enough for us to continue down the road to see if he can be the franchise guy of the future,” Whaley said.

Whaley said Taylor had “absolutely” earned the right to prove himself as a franchise quarterback next season after going 8-6 as a starter and putting up some impressive statistics, including a 99.4 quarterback rating, 20 TD passes and six interceptions.

“The thing we like most about him,” Whaley said, “is the locker room believes in him. We believe in him, and hopefully the fans believe in him.”

It was a roundabout way for Whaley to say, no, we won’t extend him now. No one disputes that Taylor has earned the right to be the starter.

The question is whether the Bills will reward him or send him out next year as the lowest-paid starter in the NFL.

The Bills need to see more before they’re convinced that Taylor deserves franchise money.

I’m not convinced he’s the long-term answer, either, not by a long shot.

But you can’t deny what Taylor accomplished this season. He was seventh in the NFL in QB rating and fifth in yards per pass at 7.99. The Bills had their most net offensive yards since the Super Bowl team of 1992, and the fewest interceptions in team history.

As Whaley said, the players believe in Taylor. Won’t it send a mixed message if management trots him out there in his second season at a $1 million salary, which would likely be the lowest of any established starter at the sport’s most important position?

“I’ll let you guys debate that,” Whaley said. “I know we have confidence in Tyrod. Tyrod has not voiced any displeasure. All he’s voiced is he wants to come in here and play the best he can and help us obtain the goal of getting to the playoffs.

“Everybody wants to be rewarded, but everybody has to earn it. He’s in the process of earning that, and I hope he does.”

Whaley said it was for me to decide if Taylor had earned a salary above $1 million. That’s beyond debate.

The pertinent question is how much Taylor and his agent feel he’s worth at this point. From what I’m told, Bakari will be shooting for the moon for his client.

You can’t blame the Bills for balking. It would be foolish to give Taylor true franchise money now. For one thing, they can’t afford it. They have too many other pressing financial needs, starting with offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Cordy Glenn.

This is what happens when you spend dearly to upgrade your roster, as Whaley did for LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay last offseason. There was also the $100 million bounty for Marcell Dareus. The Bills spent $91 million on guaranteed money last year, the most in the league.

Those bonuses, spread over the life of a deal, come back to bite you. According to Players Association figures, the Bills have about $155 million committed to next year’s cap, which will put them right around the new cap before they begin cutting guys to create room.

The Bills have saved money for years by not having to invest big bucks in a franchise quarterback, without a playoff berth to show for it. They would like to preserve that benefit for another year by waiting on Taylor. It’s an understandable, but risky, strategy.

Whaley was asked if he was worried that Taylor would improve on next season and push his price skyward (the $18-$20 million range).

They could lose him on the free market, assuming they don’t slap a franchise tag on him.

“I think if you ask the Pegulas, ask Russ Brandon, ask Rex and myself, if he’s playing good and we’re winning, we’ll be happy to pay him,” Whaley said.

What does Whaley think Taylor must do to prove he’s worth a lucrative, long-term extension?

“There’s things he can do that he needs to do better,” Whaley said. “One of the major things is consistency. The second thing and we tell him all the time, learn to slide.

“And thirdly, it’s going to come down to those last-second heroics where we have to put the team and the ball and the game in his hands and he carries us down and wins the game. He did it in Tennessee, so it’s there. We just need to see it more often.”

Ryan said the Bills needed to “have an efficient passing attack, which I think we have the ability to have.” Again, it seemed like an attempt to soften public praise for Tyrod. At times, it sounded as if they were negotiating with Taylor’s agent through the media.

This isn’t to say there won’t be any talks about an extension. If the Bills believe in Taylor, they should try to sign him to a reasonable bridge contract, something in the $10 million-a-year range, and make the necessary roster tweaks to make it work.

Considering the Bills’ financial constraints, and Taylor’s confidence in his own possibilities, it won’t be a surprise if Tyrod plays out his contract next season and positions himself for a monster payoff in free agency.

It’s a risk for both sides.

What if Taylor tears up the league at the start of next season? Would that be enough for the Bills to sign him to a new deal during the season, the way they did with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2011? Whaley said recently that deal is one thing that gives him pause.

“It’s case-by-case basis,” he said. “I know you want to lock me in. I would not rule it out. I’m not saying we’re not going to do it. But we’re going to do what’s right for the Bills – at the right time.”