Coach Rex Ryan is out, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor might be following close behind.
ESPN was first to report Tuesday that the Buffalo Bills are planning to bench Taylor for Sunday’s season finale and start EJ Manuel. That follows Ryan’s ouster and the promotion of offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn to interim head coach.
Bills are planning to bench QB Tyrod Taylor vs Jets on Sunday to start EJ Manuel, per league sources. This is a... https://t.co/DocxCVFj9f
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 27, 2016
On Monday, Ryan gave a long, convoluted answer – boiled down it was “yes” – when asked whether Taylor would start against the Jets.
Doing so, however, would put the Bills at major risk. If Taylor were to suffer a major injury in Week 17 – one that left him unable to pass a physical in March, when the new league year starts – the Bills could be on the hook for $27.5 million. That’s the amount of Taylor’s base salary in 2017, and it would become guaranteed if he couldn’t pass a physical because of an on-field injury. In Week 16 alone, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Titans starter Marcus Mariota were lost to season-ending leg injuries, underscoring the risk involved in playing Taylor in a meaningless game.
By sitting Taylor for the season finale, the Bills remove that risk. Ryan on Monday made it clear that was not his intention.
“As a coach I just want to win, I think these players deserve it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our team, you know, not to play Tyrod.
“The way I look at it is this: ‘if I sit Tyrod Taylor down, OK, and I don’t sit Kyle Williams down is it because, Kyle you aren’t as important as Tyrod or this player is not as important as this guy or whatever?’ … I want to win the game – that’s how I look at it. The next opportunity we have, I want to win the game.”
In the next breath, Ryan seemed to allude to the possibility of the decision being taken out of his hands.
“If there’s something that happens and there’s something I don’t know, that I’m not aware of, you know injury wise or whatever, that can affect anything,” he said. “Whether it’s Tyrod or anybody else. But to my knowledge, Tyrod is fine.”
Ryan’s contract stipulated that he got final say over which 46 players were active on game day, and who started.
If ownership and/or other members of the Bills’ front office wanted Ryan to sit Taylor because of his contract status and the coach refused, that very well could have been the final straw in the marriage and the reason the coach was fired after giving a press conference Monday, just days before the season finale.
Benching Taylor does not preclude the Bills from picking up his contract option, which would guarantee him nearly $31 million. It does, however, seem to send a signal about management’s intention in that regard.
It also makes the possibility of Taylor reworking his current contract – in the form of a pay cut or restructure to lessen the cap number – seem remote. After all, why would he do the team that benched him any favors, especially if he thinks he can get a better deal from another quarterback-needy team?
If the Bills do move on from Taylor, they will face an uncertain future at the game’s most important position. Manuel is in the final year of his rookie contract and it would be shocking if the team were to bring him back. Rookie third-stringer Cardale Jones has been inactive the entire season, and may not be appealing if a new coaching staff is brought in.
That leaves the Bills in the unenviable position of having to find a new starter through free agency, via a trade or through the draft. As a general rule, teams do not let good quarterbacks get away, so the first two options are usually unappealing.
As with Ryan’s firing just two days after Christmas, the timing is not great on benching Taylor. The second-year starter is coming off his best game with the Bills, throwing for 329 yards and running for another 60 against the Dolphins. He finished 26 of 39 for 329 yards and three touchdowns against Miami, with a passer rating of 118.4.
Overall, though, 2016 has been a step back for the 27-year-old. He’s seen his completion percentage, passer rating and yards per attempt drop from 2015, and will likely finish with fewer touchdown passes and more sacks. His 3,023 passing yards ranks 25th in the league. He does have 580 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, both of which are tops among quarterbacks in the NFL.
As a team, the Bills rank 31st in passing offense, averaging 191.6 yards per game. They are tied for the fewest passing attempts per game, at 29.5.
Taylor has a record of 15-14 as a starter in two seasons with the Bills, but has struggled in late-game situations. With the Bills’ loss to Miami, his record in games in which the Bills have been tied or trailed by one possession in the fourth quarter fell to 3-11.
Because of that, and the pending coaching change, it’s possible Taylor has taken his final snap as a member of the Bills.