Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan enjoys a well-constructed soundbite. He always offers fresh ones and is creative in his delivery. They range from his now iconic urging to embrace snack time to the first official words he spoke after being hired in Buffalo in January.
A cross-sport comparison was the weapon of choice during offseason training activities when Ryan assessed his quarterbacks.
"It's safe to say we won't have LeBron at quarterback," Ryan said in June, via USA Today’s Leo Roth. "We may have a LeBron at defensive tackle and at defensive end, but we won't have him at quarterback.''
At the time, Ryan was choosing his starter while evaluating Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel. He eventually selected Taylor, making it easy to be skeptical of any real progress ahead for the Bills offense during Ryan’s first season.
Sure, plenty of defensive pillars populated the depth chart from a unit that had ranked fourth in 2014, starting with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. And sure, the Bills had remodelled their offense by adding running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Percy Harvin—who’s since landed on the injured reserve to the surprise of no one.
The quarterback picked to lead that shiny new offense attempted a mere 35 regular-season passes over four years as a backup for the Baltimore Ravens. Taylor brought intrigue because of his mobility, but it was overshadowed by uncertainty for a franchise craving stability at the position after Manuel was benched in favor of Kyle Orton in 2014.
Taylor has now made 10 starts, and he’s still not LeBron James. But the Bills never needed one of those at quarterback.
Their run-oriented offense needed a careful passer who could minimize mistakes with the arm strength and accuracy to capitalize on opportunities deep downfield. If Taylor checked those boxes, he would give Ryan a reason to fist pump violently.
He’s jumped far above that low bar while creating believers with precise, laser-like long balls.
You know that carnival game with the impossibly tilted buckets? The one haunting the dreams of every man on a first date? Taylor surely has a few giant SpongeBobs at home. He’s regularly deposited footballs into imaginary buckets with high-arcing throws that sail far, far away.
In Week 13, he faced the Houston Texans’ third-ranked secondary, which is allowing only 6.9 yards per pass attempt. So of course Taylor’s YPA finished at 10.0 during the Bills’ third win in their last five games. Of Taylor’s 11 completions that afternoon, three went for 40-plus yards. The Texans had given up only seven such completions throughout their 11 games prior to Sunday.
Taylor has become an unlikely deep-throwing Picasso for a 6-6 team trailing the AFC wild-card leaders by only one game. Unsurprisingly, the high-volume chunk yardage he delivered against Houston led to rapid-fire scoring against a defense not exactly known for its touchdown generosity.
Sunday marked the fourth game in which Taylor has posted a per-attempt average of nine-plus yards.
That’s nearly half his starts—he missed two games because of a knee injury—and during that time the 26-year-old has become remarkably effective when his crosshairs are zeroed in on a long-range target.
Taylor has completed 48.9 percent of his pass attempts traveling 20-plus yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus, which puts him in some rather star-studded company.
|Highest completion percentages on 20-plus yard attempts|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Three of the quarterbacks on that list have combined for 14 Pro Bowl appearances. Then there’s Taylor, who has only stepped onto an NFL field during the regular season 23 times.
He’s a late bloomer only because of the years spent developing behind Joe Flacco. There was no shortage of athletic intrigue around the height-challenged, 6’1” passer after he accumulated 2,196 rushing yards during a standout collegiate career at Virginia Tech.
The questions hovered around his confidence as a passer. During Taylor’s time with the Hokies, he completed just 57.2 percent of his pass attempts. NFL career graveyards are becoming increasingly littered with those who are athletes first and quarterbacks a distant second.
But Taylor hasn’t descended into that pit of despair. As Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com noted, he’s the first Bills quarterback since 1965 to have both a passing and rushing touchdown during the same game three times in one season.
Maybe that statistical nugget is a little too trivial pursuit for your liking. Let’s turn to what separates Taylor as both an athlete and, more importantly, a deep thrower.
Danger inherently comes with exploring deep areas of the field. Disaster awaits when a ball hangs in the air just a little too long or drifts a touch away from its intended target. That makes Taylor’s mistake-free approach pretty impressive.
On Sunday, he set a Bills franchise record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception. His streak now sits at 187 throws without one landing in enemy hands. At 17 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, he’s throwing 4.25 TDs for every one pick.
Once again, Taylor is in some highly decorated company because of that ratio, as noted by the Toronto Sun’s John Kryk:
Precision can be seen repeatedly when we roll back the tape on Taylor’s debut season in Buffalo. His success is rooted in the perfect harmony of arm strength and ball placement.
Both were prominently on display in Week 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Taylor faced another tough matchup, this time against a pass rush ranked fifth. The Bills eventually blew a 10-point lead and lost, largely because their offense shifted away from Taylor and his dart throwing.
The highlight of that afternoon for Taylor came when he nestled a 28-yard touchdown throw perfectly into wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ palms.
The journey his throw went on was a long and treacherous one, the football equivalent to those stories of your grandparents walking eight miles to school—or for a more modern comparison, the stories kids are now hearing about dial-up Internet.
Take a moment to soak up all the chaos in this freeze frame.
That’s Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith trailing and flailing as the ball spirals downward to Watkins. Although he was beaten badly off the line of scrimmage when Watkins blazed by on a vertical route, Smith actually recovered well and had decent coverage there.
Approaching fast as the ball hits Watkins’ mitts is safety Eric Berry. He was in position to intercept, bat down or dislodge an even slightly inaccurate throw that traveled away from the boundary.
Taylor was then forced to lob a ball 36 yards from where he stood in his own backfield, making sure it arced high enough—and far enough—to fall in the cramped space between one defender’s outstretched arm as he trailed closely in coverage and a second defender who was closing in fast.
The above snapshot of a ball whistling downfield before navigating its way to Taylor’s specific coordinates has become a familiar one. Names and jerseys changed in Week 13 against the Texans, but the outcome was the same.
Taylor connected with Watkins again, this time on a 53-yard completion when he dropped his throw into an area out of reach for two defenders. One of them was following the receiver tightly and diving to narrow an already tiny window of opportunity.
The caveats to all of this praise of Taylor lie in the sample size he’s offered, both in terms of his games started and the amount of passes attempted.
His smaller frame and playing style leaves him vulnerable to injuries, which led to those two missed games and a shoulder issue late during a Week 10 win over the New York Jets. The missed time and Buffalo’s run-first offense have limited chances to fire away. Taylor has only attempted 271 passes, which ranks 30th among all quarterbacks who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF.
But when healthy, he’s played at a high level. Taylor holds the league’s fourth-highest passer rating at 104.3, and his season is also highlighted by four games with three passing touchdowns. He’s scored three times as a runner too while adding 318 rushing yards.
The Bills have a favorable schedule during their playoff push and get to tour the league’s mud-pit division, the NFC East. Of their four remaining games, three are against NFC East opponents. Only one game is left against a team that’s currently done more winning than losing—the New York Jets in Week 17.
They’re facing an Everest-sized posteason hurdle, as the Bills haven’t played playoff football since 1999. To clear it, shifting more of the offensive burden onto Taylor’s booming arm would be wise, especially as his connection with Watkins grows.
Or maybe the Bills are content with asking him to be LeBron James in scattered moments and just be Tyrod Taylor the rest of the time.