At the start of practice Wednesday, Tyrod Taylor looked like the new kid on the block who was excluded from a game in the sandlot. He paced around while spinning a ball in the palm of his hand, entertaining himself as if he lost interest during his final days with the Bills.
Taylor found out he was benched earlier in the day, a business decision that was made at the top of the organization. EJ Manuel will be the starter with rookie Cardale Jones backing up against the Jets. Taylor has less chance of playing Sunday than one of the kids in your neighborhood.
It explained why he stood in the distance, half-listening to the plays before turning his back to the offense and walking away. He treated the Bills how they treated him after Rex Ryan was fired Tuesday. They turned their back on Taylor, a sign they’re prepared to walk away from a five-year, $90 million contract extension.
Anthony Lynn made the plan for Sunday clear before the workout and attempted to console Taylor during the portion in which the media had access. The interim coach tried softening the blow during his news conference, saying he wished he had a full offseason with Taylor so they could build faith in one another.
“What I’ve seen is a young quarterback that has a lot of potential who can continue to develop,” Lynn said. “It would be interesting to have him for an offseason to see exactly where he can go. There are some (new) things you’re asking him to do during the season that a quarterback is just not going to do. There’s some trust there. You get that in OTAs and minicamp and training camp. It’s hard to get a guy to do something and trust it during the game when everybody is trying to win.”
Taylor is 27 years old. He has been in the NFL for six seasons, so we’re not talking about some raw, wide-eyed newbie like Jones. Taylor has been around long enough to know how the business works. He bet on himself as a free agent to win a quarterback competition involving three mediocre quarterbacks.
It must have humbling to see Manuel hold court with the media three stalls away and answer questions about the Jets. Taylor slipped into the locker room inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center before reporters were granted entrance. He later declined to speak, showered, dressed, grabbed his headphones and walked out.
You can’t blame the Bills for their decision to bench him. The last thing they needed amid the upheaval this week was Taylor suffering a serious injury and forcing the Bills into paying him $27.5 million next season. The next step is determining whether his body of work justifies paying him an average of $18 million per season.
Of course Taylor was upset. He was coming off the best game of his career. He was terrific Saturday in the 34-31 overtime loss to the Dolphins. He did everything in his power but win the game. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Taylor didn’t wilt after trailing by two touchdowns in the second half, like he has numerous times in the past. He threw a touchdown late in the third quarter. He came through in the clutch with a fourth-down touchdown pass to Charles Clay that gave the Bills the lead with 1:20 remaining in regulation.
Finally, it was all there.
Taylor could someday point to that performance and argue it was during the second half against the Dolphins that the game slowed down, when the proverbial light flickered on and altered the course of his career for the better. He has started 29 games in the NFL, about the time Drew Brees needed before his career took flight.
Brees completed 59 percent of his passes for 5,747 yards, 31 touchdowns and 33 interceptions over his first 29 starts. Taylor completed 63 percent of his passes for 6,058 yards, 37 TDs and 14 interceptions for the Bills. Both quarterbacks are about the same size. Brees learned to use the middle of the field, a knock against Taylor.
I’m not suggesting Taylor will turn into Brees, a Super Bowl winner and future Hall of Famer who has led the NFL in passing seven times in his 16-year career. Still, Brees’ success after a slow start makes you wonder if Taylor could evolve into a dependable passer for the next few years.
“There are some concepts that we didn’t have him throwing the ball in the middle of the field,” said Lynn, who took over as offensive coordinator for fired Greg Roman two weeks into the season. “We knew what we were dealing with: an athletic, mobile quarterback, not very tall. We’re going to move the pockets and let him throw outside the hashes, where he feels most comfortable.”
The Bills must be tempted, after watching everything come together Saturday, to eat the money for next season. The extended peek would cost more than $30 million, including bonus money, and amounts to a three-year, $50 million commitment against the salary cap. It’s a hefty price if they’re wrong.
The angst that comes with Taylor walking is the possibility of him blossoming into a star somewhere else. For him to iron out the kinks during his apprenticeship with the Bills and succeed for another team would be typical of Buffalo. What a bummer it would be for the Bills if they let a franchise quarterback slip away.
Taylor is entering the prime years of his career. He has been their best quarterback since Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will be running the Jets’ offense come Sunday. Fitz wasn’t a franchise quarterback, either, which is why the Bills released him in 2012 after one full season of a six-year contract worth up to $59 million.
I’ve been a harsh critic of Taylor, who has one win when throwing more than 30 passes in a game and one win this season over a team with a winning record, but I’m conflicted, too. He missed his share of open receivers, but he was compromised by the lack of talent around him. I have more confidence in Taylor playing well than in Doug Whaley making the right decision.
It was startling to hear Lynn suggest that Taylor needed a full offseason to effectively use the entire field. Apparently, the Bills’ offense under Roman wasn’t designed for Taylor to throw between the hash marks. It makes you wonder why they signed Charles Clay for big money in 2015.
“I want him to throw to the right places all the time, but throwing the ball in the middle of the hashes with some concepts and things like that,” Lynn said. “Those are the things that are drilled with footwork, timing and technique. Those are things you get done in the offseason.”
Taylor was a four-year starter at Virginia Tech. He rode the bench behind Joe Flacco for four years with the Ravens. He started the past two years in Buffalo. He’s been playing at a high level for a decade. The idea he was incapable of adjusting during the season, or the game, could be the most damning statement of all.
What to do? It depends on their direction.
If the Bills are pushing for a playoff spot, I would be inclined to gamble on Taylor. If they’re headed for a rebuild, Taylor should be on the next bus out of town. The Bills middle everything, so their quarterback is left twiddling his thumbs and fretting about his future while waiting for an answer.
Tyrod, join the club.