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Jerry Sullivan: Back on the road, Tyrod Taylor facing the same old questions

CHARLOTTE — One of the drawbacks of covering the Bills during the playoff drought is that the stories tend to repeat themselves. There's a redundant quality to persistent defeat, a hollow ring to the same old sad song.

I had expected to be finished with Tyrod Taylor by now. This isn't personal. Taylor is a fine man, a willing leader and an often spectacular player. But he's no franchise quarterback. By the end of last season, it seemed the Bills had reached the same conclusion and were ready to move on.

Whatever Doug Whaley's failings, he had apparently seen enough of Taylor. He felt Tyrod had hit his ceiling in Buffalo, much like J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and EJ Manuel before him. We knew about all of those guys after two seasons. At some point with marginal quarterbacks, you just know.

But the new regime of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane decided that Tyrod was their best option, their "best chance to win" in their first year in charge. With no other NFL team clamoring to pay him big money on the open market, Taylor took a $10 million pay cut and came back to Buffalo.

So here we are, ready for the first road game of Taylor's third season as the Bills starter, asking questions that have already been answered. We'll do the franchise QB dance one more time, while Beane and McDermott build for the future while waiting for a legitimate cornerstone to arrive.

Again, does Taylor have what it takes to lift his team on the road, to rise up in difficult times like the elite quarterbacks? There are times when a franchise QB has to be the best player on the field, the difference between winning and losing in a hostile environment, the defiant gunslinger.

There's been little evidence of that in Taylor's two seasons as a starter. In almost every significant measure — beating good teams, outplaying top quarterbacks, leading the Bills from behind late in games, making repeated big throws in obvious passing situations — he has been a failure.

Taylor doesn't have a significant road win, aside from a 16-0 win at New England last season when Tom Brady didn't play. That was his only win, home or road, against a team that finished with a winning record a year ago. The other six victories came against teams that finished a combined 24-71-1.

Last year, the Bills averaged 30.8 points a game at home, which was third in the NFL. They scored 19.1 away from New Era Field. Their home-road scoring differential of minus-11.7 was the second-worst in the league.

Whaley said he wanted to see more fourth-quarter comebacks out of Taylor. He has one such win on the road in his career. He pulled out a win against a bad Tennessee team two years ago after a dreadful passing day that had the Bills scoreless until the final two minutes of the third quarter.

The Bills are 1-10 in games when Taylor is asked to pass the football at least 30 times. In two years, he has beaten one quarterback who finished the year rated in the top half of the league. That was Andy Dalton, who ranked 15th last season and headed into his current precipitous decline.

Even in victories, Taylor often wasn't lifting his team, but riding the wave of a strong running game. During last year's early four-game winning streak, they led for at least the last 40 minutes of every game. In wins at the Rams and Bengals, Taylor's second-half woes kept the opponent in the game.

In all games when the Bills trailed in 2016, Taylor's passer rating was 67.2, ranking him 30th among qualifying quarterbacks. He threw only five TD passes on the road last season, one when the Bills trailed. He played a strong game on Monday night in Seattle, but couldn't close the deal.

Sunday could be a significant step for Taylor. A win on the road against Cam Newton would be the biggest of his NFL career and resuscitate, if only briefly, his possibilities as a potential franchise quarterback.

Newton regressed last season. He's coming off shoulder surgery and there's a feeling that the Panthers are vulnerable. But he's far superior to Taylor as a passer. Two years ago, while leading Carolina to the Super Bowl, Newton threw for 300-plus yards and five TDs in consecutive games on the road.

Taylor hasn't come close to that sort of dynamic road performance. His coaches are still trying to make him into a pocket passer. Greg Roman was going to get him to throw more over the middle before he got fired after two games last season. His successor, Anthony Lynn, later said he hadn't had enough practice time to teach Taylor how to throw between the hashes.

This year, Rick Dennison is asking Taylor to make three-step drops and throw from the pocket. But when Taylor struggled and had several passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, Dennison acceded to Taylor's request to throw more on the move. That's when Tyrod is most effective. He's in his seventh year in the NFL, but opposing coaches still talk about stopping the Bills by  "making him be a quarterback."

Meanwhile, the Panthers want Newton to run less to preserve his health and ensure a long, productive career. Taylor is a rickety bridge to the Bills' next real franchise quarterback. It's hard to imagine him back in Buffalo next season if they take a QB high in the draft, as is widely expected.

Taylor represents their best chance to win, at least in the short term. But if his road play doesn't improve dramatically — if the offense struggles today and in early October road games at Atlanta and Cincinnati — we could see rookie Nathan Peterman take over as the starter.

No quarterback has been the Bills' starter for three full seasons since Drew Bledsoe from 2002-04. Beane and McDermott have probably made up their minds by now. The question isn't whether Taylor is their franchise quarterback, but how long it will take them to publicly concede that he is not.

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