He is the Buffalo Bills’ 15th starting quarterback since Jim Kelly took his final NFL snap 19 years ago. With every game he plays and every throw he makes, Western New York wonders if the search for their next franchise QB might finally be over, or if it will be time to turn the page again
This is the final installment of our three-part series on the NFL’s “Corridor of Woe”—Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, proud franchises suffering through decades of hard times. In each city we looked at a pivotal element of team success—owner, coach, quarterback—to see what has gone wrong and what needs to change if these teams are to find the path to a Super Bowl.
PHILADELPHIA and ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was setting up to be one of those moments. It happens every Sunday. A play that feels like it can make or break a player, a team, a season.
Late Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, the Bills needed a field goal to force overtime in a must-win game against the Eagles. They got the ball back with 1:49 to play at their own 31-yard line. Tyrod Taylor hadn’t thrown an interception in a team-record 223 consecutive pass attempts. He entered Sunday with the best fourth-quarter passer rating, 117.0, in the NFL.
And then, he threw a fourth-quarter interception. Taylor, feeling the heat from an Eagles defensive line that had owned the Bills’ front all day, overshot his receiver. The deep safety, Ed Reynolds, who had been late over the top to give up a long touchdown earlier in the game, this time came shooting across the field fast enough. He snatched the interception, ensuring a Bills loss, and almost certainly guaranteeing that Buffalo’s streak of 15 seasons without the playoffs will extend to 16.
The common thread of that postseason drought, the longest in major North American professional sports, has been the Bills’ perpetual search for a franchise quarterback. Since Jim Kelly took his last snap—19 years ago next week—the 15 men who have started at quarterback for the Bills (16, technically, if you count Matt Cassel, who was under center for the first play of this season) have played with the same question, asked with increasing urgency, hanging over them.
Is this the guy?
Long-term questions often can’t be answered in the short term. Just as singular events—in this case a game-ending interception—don’t always reflect the big picture. Taylor’s biggest believer at One Bills Drive is an important one: Rex Ryan. Just like the Bills, Ryan’s albatross has long been the quarterback position. But the truth is that Ryan had been trying to get Taylor on his team for years. And, according to Ryan, he’s not the only one.
Taylor couldn’t pull out a magic trick on Sunday, and that, Ryan said a day later, is the next step toward becoming the quarterback they hope he can be. But right now, Taylor is a 26-year-old who has made 11 NFL starts (six of them wins).
You watch for progress, general manager Doug Whaley said on his way out of the visitors’ locker room Sunday afternoon. The Bills have seen progress, enough that they are prepared to give Taylor a second year under center. On a trial basis, of course. They will likely wait until the end of a second season, Whaley added, to make any determinations about Taylor’s future here.
“Is he the long-term starter?” Whaley says. “Let’s put it this way: He’s shown us enough that we can obviously keep trying with him. But it won’t preclude us from going out and protecting ourselves [in case] he’s not.”
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It was routine for Jim Kelly to get the request from fans even past his 50th birthday. Only within the past couple years, after his battle with squamous cell carcinoma, has the Hall of Fame quarterback heard it less: Can you suit up again?
For two decades, Western New York has been searching for the certainty Kelly brought, leading a prolific offense that keyed four Super Bowl runs. He retired after the 1996 season, “because I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “I had too many concussions; I could hardly raise my arm over my shoulder.”
Since then, the Bills quarterback position has been a carousel: Hop on, take a spin, get bumped off. It hasn’t been due to a lack of trying. Kelly was replaced by his back-up, Todd Collins, and in ’97 the Bills lost 10 games in a season for the first time in more than a decade. Since then, the Bills have drafted two quarterbacks in the first round (J.P. Losman, EJ Manuel), traded first-round picks for two others (Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe), and signed two to long-term contracts (Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick).
The only quarterback to take them to the playoffs post-Kelly might have been the least likely to do it: Doug Flutie, thought to be playing out his career as a back-up before wresting the starting job away from Johnson. (And, as the story goes, head coach Wade Phillips benched Flutie in favor of Johnson, at the urging of owner Ralph Wilson Jr., for a 1999 Wild-Card playoff game in Tennessee. That was the Music City Miracle. The Bills haven’t been back to the postseason since.)
While Whaley was the assistant GM under Buddy Nix, Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $59 million contract extension in October 2011. After a 5-2 start, Fitzpatrick finished that season like many of his ended in Buffalo, beaten up and worn down, winning just one of the team’s last nine games. Manuel, 16th pick of the ’13 draft, began this season third on the depth chart and is now Taylor’s backup.
“We haven’t won enough games around here for somebody to stick,” says center Eric Wood, who has snapped to 11 different quarterbacks during his seven-year career. “Stability year to year in an offense is really valuable. It would mean a lot to have that.”
Ryan was told by an NFL coach who had worked closely with Taylor that he believed Taylor could be as good as Russell Wilson.
This same adage is true in each of the Rust Belt cities we visited for this series, Detroit, Cleveland, and now Buffalo: They yearn for their team to turn things around, while always expecting that the other shoe is about to drop. Over the last 20 years, the Bills’ search for a quarterback has followed that pattern.
“After you see us falter, and really go through some bad times with a lot of quarterbacks,” Kelly says, “you start not getting so optimistic so quickly.”
But even amidst another up-and-down season, Kelly has optimism about Taylor. “We haven’t had his likes here in a long time,” he says, referring back more than a decade to Flutie and Bledsoe.
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To outsiders, Taylor seemed like he was the darkhorse in this summer’s three-way quarterback derby. Manuel was a first-round investment. The Bills spent a draft pick to trade for veteran Cassel. Taylor, who had spent the previous four years as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, signed as a free agent in March, to little fanfare.
In the first practice of organized team activities, Taylor hit receiver Percy Harvin on a perfect go route. That turned heads in the Bills’ fieldhouse, but Ryan wasn’t surprised.
His pursuit of Taylor dates back to January 2013, when he was still coaching the Jets. Ryan was searching for a new offensive coordinator, and Cam Cameron, who had just been fired after five years as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, was among the interviews. The Jets were coming off back-to-back seasons in which Mark Sanchez turned the ball over 26 times, eroding the coaching staff’s trust in the one-time “Sanchize.” Ryan was looking for options at the position, and he asked Cameron about Taylor.
“He said, ‘With your defense, and this kid at quarterback, you could win a Super Bowl,’ ” Ryan recalls. “I obviously remember that.”
Taylor was the Ravens’ sixth-round pick in 2011, the lockout year, meaning that he reported to training camp in August having had no coaching on the new playbook. By the end of the first week, he was working with the second team, the kind of quick study that impressed Cameron.
Ryan didn’t hire Cameron as his OC, but took his recommendation to heart. He also called Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Ravens defensive stalwarts who had practiced against Taylor every day for two seasons. Back-up quarterbacks lead the scout-team offense, and Lewis and Reed told Ryan simply: Just wait until this guy gets his chance. Prior to the 2013 draft, Ryan phoned Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome to inquire about a trade for Taylor, “but it kind of fell on deaf ears,” Ryan says. “Ozzie wasn’t having it.” If there was compensation the Ravens would have accepted for Taylor, the Jets weren’t going to offer it. The Jets drafted Geno Smith, and Taylor spent two more years behind Flacco.
Ryan has long been intrigued by dual-threat quarterbacks, fueled by first-hand knowledge of the headaches they create for opposing defensive coordinators. That’s why he signed Michael Vick during his last season coaching the Jets. Taylor grew up in the same Hampton Roads region of Virginia as Vick, and by high school had earned the nickname “Little Vick.” Following in Vick’s footsteps at Virginia Tech, Taylor set school records in not just career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, but also career passing yards and career wins.
Until the NFL, Taylor had never had to wait to play. He started as a 14-year-old high school freshman when the senior quarterback broke his leg; he was supposed to redshirt at Virginia Tech, but the coaches turned to him in the second quarter of his second college game. One of Taylor’s college football contemporaries was Russell Wilson. Taylor’s Hokies played Wilson’s N.C. State Wolfpack twice during their college careers. Tech won both, including a 2010 game in which Taylor staged a 17-point comeback and won the game with a 39-yard touchdown pass in the final 1:30.
Ryan’s vision for his team, though unrealized this year, has Wilson and Seattle in mind. They want to get to the point of having a stingy defense and a robust run game, while giving their quarterback time to develop, like the Seahawks have done with Wilson. Ryan was also told by another NFL coach who had worked closely with Taylor that he believed Taylor could be as good as Wilson—though the coach didn’t tell Ryan that until after the Bills had signed him. (In the NFL, when you think you’ve found a hidden gem, you protect that intel.)
“It kind of takes the pressure off me,” says Sammy Watkins. “Now we’ve got a quarterback who speaks up and talks in meetings, who is leading this team.”
Ryan was fired by the Jets two months before Taylor became a free agent, setting a course for their paths to intersect in Buffalo. Taylor had other options. His agent talked to the Eagles, Taylor says, though he never did. And the Broncos were courting him hard, particularly head coach Gary Kubiak, his offensive coordinator in Baltimore last year. Denver was offering more money, and while Taylor was at dinner with Bills brass at a Sicilian steakhouse during his free-agent visit to Buffalo, Kubiak called his former pupil multiple times.
“Maybe it was safer to go somewhere else,” Taylor says. “I was done being a backup. I was ready to bet on me.”
The Broncos couldn’t offer what the Bills could: An open competition to be the starting quarterback. Kubiak, John Elway’s long-time understudy, understood. In their conversation, they talked about the window of opportunity. Taylor bet on himself, and by the end of training camp, he had shown enough for the Bills to bet on him.
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After 11 starts, Taylor has a 6-5 record that mirrors the Bills’ roller-coaster season. But he learned many things from Flacco: One was the art of the deep throw, and another was the art of being cool.
As Taylor has adjusted to his first season as a starter he’s slowly taken on a leadership role. After the Week 8 bye, when he returned from missing two games with a knee sprain, he stood up in front of the offense and gave a speech borrowed from a favorite slogan of Ravens coach John Harbaugh. There are “Four Fights” you have to wage every day to be successful: Us vs. Them, Division From Within, Complacency and Fatigue. Taylor has made a routine of presenting weekly slogans for the offense now. One week, perhaps sensing a lack of togetherness, it was: Your brother is each and every one of you.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league,” Ryan says. “And I think we have our quarterback. I believe in this kid.”
Around the same time, Taylor also started leading weekly meetings with the offensive skill position players, for about an hour every Thursday afternoon—just like Lewis and Reed used to do with the Ravens defense. They’re optional, no coaches, but everyone attends. Taylor stands in front of a projector with the clicker and a laser pointer, running through cut-ups to show his teammates how an opposing defensive back can be beaten on a certain route or in what way the opponent will line up against a specific formation. Taylor has been charged with mastering a high-volume offense that can have as many as 300 plays in a weekly game plan, so he’s put in the extra time to get his teammates on the same page.
“It kind of takes the pressure off me, of being the first-round pick and being a leader,” says receiver Sammy Watkins. “Now we’ve got a quarterback who speaks up and talks in meetings, who is leading this team.”
The extra study sessions helped produce Watkins’ 44-yard touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 9. During the players’ only study group, they noticed the deep safety would sometimes cheat to one side. So in the game, Taylor got the safety to bite to his left, Watkins burned the cornerback in press coverage on the right, and the score was wide open. On the other hand, it makes the missed communications all the more frustrating. There was one late in the Eagles game, a third-and-14 on the Bills’ next-to-last drive. They’d hit the play earlier in the game for a 16-yard gain, but this time, Watkins pushed the route deeper based on the leverage of the DB, while Taylor threw to the original spot. The ball fell incomplete, a few yards short, and the Bills punted.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is restrained in reviewing Taylor. He lists his quarterback’s No. 1 strength as being able to be critical of himself. “I’m not impetuous,” Roman says, and perhaps that’s because of his experience in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, who led the team to a Super Bowl as a first-year starter then regressed. At the least, it plays into his approach in coaching a newbie.
“I’ve been down this road,” Roman says. “Two very different players, but there are a lot of similarities. Raw. Just raw. But does that individual learn from some teachable moments? That’s the key. Because it ain’t all going to be perfect.”
There has been both good and bad. Taylor throws a pretty deep ball, connecting on 10 pass plays of 40 yards or more this season, and the highest completion percentage of throws of that distance in the NFL entering Sunday’s game. Jim Harbaugh, Roman’s former boss in San Francisco, used to describe this skill as shooting a running deer—a spatial awareness to put the ball where the receiver is going to be. Taylor is averaging 5.2 yards every time he tucks the ball and runs, which allows coaches to scheme plays with a run-pass option to keep the defense guessing. And he’s tough. After painfully jamming his shoulder into the turf on a Monday night in Foxborough, he gutted out the last drive and was back under center six days later in Kansas City.
Taylor has also missed his fair share of throws, and here’s an example of how a lack of experience comes into play. On the opening play of the Bills’ Week 10 win against the Jets, Roman called what he says was a “Revis route.” The Bills thought the “Dino” post, which sent the nimble Watkins making a double move at full speed, could beat Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis deep and spook him for the rest of the game. But Taylor had never thrown that play in a game before, and they’d only practiced it at 80 percent speed.
Watkins indeed got a step on Revis cutting in toward the left hash marks, but Taylor opened up his left foot too much on the throw and didn’t place the ball far enough inside. With slightly different placement, it would have been a touchdown.
“This is everybody’s first year together, so we’ve just been going on the fly. Everything hasn’t been so perfect,” Watkins says. “But when you say elite, he’s going to be that in the next few years. You look at Peyton Manning, and Eli Manning, and Tom Brady, those guys are going to be gone in five, six years, and there is going to be a new crop of quarterbacks. I think [Taylor] is going to be in that race soon.”
When the Bills traded away Cassel to the Cowboys in September, essentially eschewing veteran insurance, that was as much of a sign of their faith in Taylor as anything. (“We didn’t have anybody that’s had any success as a starter in this league,” Roman says.) Another example was how ticked off Ryan got on his conference call with the Boston media before the Week 11 Patriots game. The question from a reporter that set him off: “Rex, I’m going to lean on you a little bit here because I haven’t watched all the tape of Tyrod, but he’s only had the one interception since Week 2 as you mentioned. That doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t been putting the ball in the hands of the defense, it means that maybe they’ve been dropping interceptions…” Ryan pretty much shut down the call after that.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league,” Ryan says. “There is no hiding it, no denying it. And I think we have our quarterback. Again, I could be proven wrong. Maybe I don’t know. But I believe it. I believe in this kid.”
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Corey Graham, a Buffalo native, wanted Taylor to understand the opportunity ahead of him if he signed with the Bills. They had played in Baltimore together, and Graham, now a Bills defensive back, had the same takeaway as Reed and Lewis after practicing against Taylor. Before Taylor’s free-agent visit to Buffalo, they exchanged texts.
If you come here, Graham wrote to Taylor, you have the opportunity to not only be the starting quarterback, but to be something the city hasn’t had in a long time.
Taylor’s not one to make bold proclamations. But of course he wants to make this opportunity stick, to be the solution to the city’s long-running quarterback quandary.
“I definitely want to be a long-term answer,” Taylor says. “Who wouldn’t want to?”
Taylor signed a three-year, $3.35 million contract with the Bills in March. He’ll earn a base salary of $1 million next season, plus incentives based on playing time or (the city of Buffalo prays) winning a playoff game—all in all a modest rate for a starting quarterback in the NFL. By playing more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps this season, a benchmark he has already surpassed, the third year will void. That means 2016 is a contract season, forcing a shorter timeline on that long-term question.
When’s the right time to make a decision on Taylor’s future in Buffalo?
“Probably after next year,” Whaley says. “You’ll have a good two years’ worth of body of work to really evaluate and see what you want to do. When you are looking at a guy, you want to have a longer résumé to hang your hat on.”
Whaley learned from the midseason Fitzpatrick extension. And from the history of false positives, stretching back long before he was hired by the Bills six years ago. They don’t know if Taylor is the answer, yet. But they don’t know he isn’t the answer, either. Whaley sees a young quarterback who is growing more comfortable in the pocket; figuring out when to throw the ball away and when to run; and, other than that interception Sunday, is becoming a better decision-maker.
“Anybody that has started just 11 games, you’re going to have some ups and downs, but we really are looking for the upswing on this guy,” Whaley says. “It’s going to be a slow process, but we are encouraged. We’ve got some time to figure this out, and time for him to figure it out, as well.
“I can’t tell you why” the quarterback has been so elusive here, he adds. “We just haven’t gotten the right one. There are a lot of franchises that are in the same predicament as us. If you get one, you’re not going to let one go. And hopefully, Tyrod is the guy.”
Emily Kaplan contributed reporting to this story