The News examined 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
Any number of variables will decide whether the Buffalo Bills can end the suffering of their fans by making the playoffs in 2016.
But without a doubt, one question looms over all the rest – Is Tyrod Taylor truly a franchise quarterback?
If he is, it will solve a riddle that has confounded the franchise for 20 years. If he’s not, the chances of the team’s postseason drought reaching 17 years go through the roof.
Taylor enters training camp in a far different position from this time last year. Gone is the idea of a three-man quarterback competition between Taylor, EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel. Instead, the QB depth chart can easily be filled out today: Taylor, Manuel, rookie Cardale Jones.
“Tyrod had the ability to get a body of work underneath him and really study it hard throughout the offseason,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last month. “We pinpointed some things we wanted to work on specifically, tried to orchestrate those situations in practice as much as possible.
“Bottom line: I don’t care who you are as a coach – I don’t care if you’ve been coaching five years, 30 years – in order to take those steps … (it) has to come from the player. The player has to embrace the challenge of self-examination, self-awareness. He has done that ‘A-plus-plus.’ Couldn’t be happier with his commitment to that process.”
There were signs of that during spring practices. Taylor was far and away the best quarterback on the field. He delivered the ball with confidence to all parts of the field – albeit against a defense that wasn’t going to sack him.
“Of course knowing the offense, having a full year, actually getting those reps last year – naturally you feel comfortable,” Taylor said. “The main thing is to just keep improving, taking it one day at a time. Keep spreading the ball around and take in the offense.”
Make no mistake – this is Taylor’s offense now.
“Being the quarterback, guys look to you for motivation, they look to you for a number of things,” he said. “But more so, the execution starts with you. If you can get everybody in the right place, if you’re going out there and executing at a high level each and every play, the guys can trust you and rely on you. So it starts with me and I have to lead by example out there on the field and continue to spread the message to my teammates, offense and defense.”
That certainly sounds like something a franchise quarterback should say. As far as offseasons go, Taylor’s has been close to perfect. He’s said all the right things and seemed to take positive steps on the field.
“I think if you’re looking for a grade I am going ‘A, A-plus’ or whatever,” coach Rex Ryan said at the end of minicamp. “What he did to prepare, the learning thing, studying the tapes, studying the plays, this guy has got it nailed. He wants to be the leader of this team, but you have to earn it. I think he’s clearly done it. I’m not big on giving those ‘C things’ (captains), but I think if you were you would give it to him.”
Don’t mistake that for Taylor being a finished product, though. While his first-year statistics were promising (seventh in the league in passer rating, 20-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio), there are question marks.
• The Bills ranked just 31st in the NFL in passing attempts. That does not scream overwhelming confidence in the quarterback.
• Durability is a major concern. Although Taylor missed just two games last season, the Bills bombed in those two games with Manuel at quarterback. The loss to Jacksonville in London was a particularly brutal blow to the team’s playoff chances.
Franchise quarterbacks have to be durable. Taylor’s build – 6-foot-1, 215 pounds – and running ability will be a constant balancing act for the team. His 568 yards rushing set a single-season franchise record for quarterbacks, and is a big part of the NFL’s top running offense. But every time he tucks the ball and runs, fans hold their breath. His knee injury last year against the Titans came at the end of an incredible run. The Bills, and Taylor, have to be smart about when, and how, he runs.
• The offense struggled on third downs (ranking 21st in the NFL by converting 37.9 percent) and in the red zone (ranking 26th in the NFL converting 61.1 percent) – two areas where the quarterback is often asked to make a play.
The Bills clearly are aware of these issues. The team appears poised to let Taylor enter the final year of his contract in 2016. That alone shows they’re not sure of his status as a franchise quarterback.
For that, they shouldn’t be faulted. The last time the Bills handed out a big contract to a quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick let them down. With the possibility of using the franchise tag on Taylor after the 2016 season a viable option, there’s not much pressure to negotiate a new deal for him now.
Taylor has said all the right things about his contract status, too. He’s committed to proving his worth on the field – and at the same time answering the Bills’ most pressing question.