Early Thursday morning, while standing in line at the Noco station, I glanced at the front page of the sports section and saw it right there above the fold. The Bills were two-point underdogs in the preseason opener.
A betting line. On a preseason game. Oh, I was vaguely aware that Las Vegas set lines on NFL exhibitions, but it was still jarring to be reminded that people actually bet on these games. What sort of monumental loser wagers real money on preseason football? Oh, that's right.
And how do they set the betting lines? On what scientific basis did they determine that the Bills' 90-man camp contingent was inferior to Minnesota's? Did they have some secret inside dope on the Vikings' backups?
Well, the lines reflect the national perception, and the wise guys don't have a very positive impression of the Bills. It's based largely on the assumption that they lack talent, depth and a genuine franchise quarterback.
I happen to share that dubious perception, which won't come as any surprise. It starts with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, whom I dismissed long ago as the sort of passer who could not carry an NFL team to the promised land, or anywhere close.
What new impressions could I possibly draw from watching Taylor and the starters for a quarter-plus of a preseason game against a team using the basic schemes of early August? Skepticism hardened over 17 years without playoffs wasn't going to change in 17 minutes.
Regrettably, I was not in attendance on Monday when Taylor led a stunning two-minute drill in practice. After capping the 70-yard drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Charles Clay, Tyrod looked toward reporters while trotting to the sidelines and yelled, "Write about that!"
Bills QB Tyrod Taylor tells reporters on sideline, "Write about that!" after he leads 70-yard drive in... https://t.co/SH198KZbmb
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) August 7, 2017
You'd think it was the dastardly media who decided Taylor wasn't worthy of real franchise quarterback money on the open market, or that cut his salary by $10 million to bring him back to Buffalo for a Groundhog Day do-over season.
Write about that? Seriously? Taylor isn't some novice QB. He just turned 28. He played four years of major college football at Virginia Tech, four more as a backup to Joe Flacco in Baltimore and two as a starter with the Bills. That's TEN years at the top levels of American football, and he's still learning to throw over the middle and read defenses?
Rick Dennison, the new offensive coordinator, says that he wants Taylor "listening to his feet, getting the ball out on time." Dennison also talked about Taylor running the play that's called and going through his reads.
This sounds all too familiar. Taylor is a better fantasy QB than a real-life option because he's such a dynamic runner, a guy who'll give up on a pass play and break off big runs. Presumably, there will be more plays called for Taylor to run this season. But there's a reason the contenders encourage their mobile quarterbacks to run less nowadays. They want them to stay healthy.
So there's little reason to believe Taylor will be a different player this season. After a couple of years, we knew what we had with J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick. I don't expect any great transformation from Tyrod, either.
He looked like the same guy Thursday night. Taylor was 5 of 8 for 46 yards in three series that extended just into the second quarter. He completed his first three passes, all short, quick throws to Sammy Watkins. It was an encouraging sign for Watkins, but those short tosses won't come so easily when the real bullets fly.
"I thought we got off to a good start on offense," said head coach Sean McDermott. "The offense was in a rhythm. Tyrod was going through his progressions and Sammy was the open receiver. It was good to see."
Taylor's only remotely deep throw was tipped by a Vikings linebacker. He took a sack and escaped another in his typically dynamic fashion. He tweaked his knee on the sack and spent a few minutes under a medical privacy tent, but returned for the next series as Bills fans gave a collective exhale. They were probably fighting back yawns at the end of a 3-3 first half.
It was troubling to see Taylor go down. The offensive line again looks strong in the running game – second-year back Jonathan Williams looked terrific – and shaky in pass protection. That suggests another run-heavy attack with Taylor giving up on plays early and taking an inordinate number of hits.
"You're always concerned when a player goes down, in particular a quarterback," McDermott said. "He's a tough young man and I loved the fact that he bounced back and led the team and showed a little mental toughness."
Taylor is a tough customer. I lost count of the times last year when I wondered if he would get up from a big hit. But he's relatively small and can only take so much punishment.
The Bills can't afford to lose Taylor to injury. Their backup quarterback situation might be the worst in the NFL. T.J. Yates didn't throw a pass last season and has struggled in camp. He was brutal Thursday. Rookie Nathan Peterman offers the inevitable, inflated promise that comes when a team has been chasing a franchise guy for two decades.
There's a sense of muted expectation around Taylor. The Bills traded for Kansas City's first-round pick in next year's draft to position themselves for one of the top prospects in a great quarterback class. That doesn't bespeak any great confidence in Taylor, who is trying to prove himself for a third time.
McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane brought Taylor back because they didn't have a better option. He was their best chance to be .500 in their first big NFL jobs, their best shot at average. Even then, I wouldn't bet on it.