It was the final game of last season, and the quarterback the Buffalo Bills chose two summers ago to lead their offense stood quiet and alone under a goalpost.
Tyrod Taylor was dressed not in the Bills' game uniform but in a blue sweatshirt, the hood pulled over his head, as he watched his teammates prepare for the New York Jets. When a coach across the field blew his whistle to conclude pregame warmups, Taylor was already several paces into making his solitary exit from MetLife Stadium, beelining for the darkness of the locker room tunnel as a young Bills fan made a fruitless effort to hold out a hat and Sharpie in Taylor's direction.
The reticent Taylor is often praised by his teammates for his steady demeanor, but on that day, words were not necessary to describe how Taylor felt about the Bills deactivating him for Week 17 in a "business decision" almost certainly related to a $27.5 million injury guarantee in his contract. The divide between the quarterback and his team -- but not necessarily his teammates -- was obvious, and Taylor indicated as much when speaking to reporters the next day.
More than a month later, there has been no resolution to Taylor's future with the franchise whose faith in him clearly eroded last season. As the Bills face a March 11 deadline for over $30 million of Taylor's five-year contract to become fully guaranteed, their decision whether to keep or cut Taylor is one of the most complicated offseason questions around the NFL.
Here is a guide on what you need to know about his situation and what it means for the quarterback and team:
What are the Bills' options? The Bills essentially are figuring out whether they want to buy Taylor an expensive engagement ring, or if they want to start the search for a quarterback more suitable to marry.
This is a decision point the Bills built into Taylor's contract extension, signed last August after his first year as the starter and before what would have been the final season, 2016, of his initial contract with Buffalo. The deal gave Taylor little guaranteed money up front but called for either $27.5 million or $30.75 million to become fully guaranteed on March 12, 2017, if Taylor remained on the roster.
Former coach Rex Ryan was an ardent supporter of Taylor, but the Bills' front office, headed by general manager Doug Whaley, clearly had doubts about Taylor given its decision to bench him for the 2016 finale. Before the Bills hired new coach Sean McDermott last month, the team planned to move on from Taylor this offseason.
While Whaley retains control of the Bills' roster, he has indicated since McDermott's hiring that he will work with the coaching staff in deciding what to do with Taylor. Whaley told reporters at the Senior Bowl last month that the personnel department's meetings with McDermott's new coaching staff would take place in February.
There are several routes the Bills can take over the coming weeks with Taylor:
By March 11, exercise Taylor's option for the 2018-21 seasons and keep Taylor as the starting quarterback for 2017. Taylor would earn a $15.5 million option bonus and would be due a fully guaranteed $12 million base salary in 2017, while $3.25 million of his $13 million salary in 2018 would become guaranteed. In total, Taylor would be fully guaranteed $30.75 million and would be retained at a $15.9 million salary-cap hit next season.
Decline to exercise his option but keep Taylor at a fully guaranteed $27.5 million salary (and cap hit) in 2017 before his contract expires in March 2018.
Attempt to restructure his contract to lower the guaranteed money due this March or to delay when the money becomes guaranteed.
Trade Taylor after the 2017 league year opens March 9.
Cut Taylor before his guarantees become due March 12.
The most unrealistic option is No. 2, which would require the Bills keeping Taylor at a bloated cap hit in 2017 while still guaranteeing him a significant sum. Option No. 3 also seems unlikely given Taylor has little incentive to accept less money from the Bills when there are quarterback-needy teams (e.g., the Browns) flush with cap space likely willing to compete to sign Taylor. The Bills might also have a difficult time with option No. 4, trading Taylor, because teams know they could sign him without giving up draft selections when he is released.
Unless Taylor is willing to accept a pay cut or if a team is willing to give up draft assets for Taylor before he hits the open market, the Bills are left with essentially a binary decision: Either commit to Taylor for the foreseeable future or part ways.
Should the Bills decide to keep Taylor, it would mean they feel he can improve in his weak areas over the coming years of his career and develop into a quarterback capable of competing for a championship. Even if Taylor's development plateaus, as some of his 2016 statistics indicate, the Bills could view their LeSean McCoy-led running game and McDermott's revamp of the struggling defense as enough to get the team into the playoffs.
The Bills could also see Taylor's $15.9 million cap hit in 2017 as being appropriate for his production level. Taylor is slated to have the 20th-highest cap hit among quarterbacks next season, although he could rise up that chart depending on what happens with Tony Romo ($24.7 million cap hit) and Jay Cutler ($16 million).
What about that injury guarantee? As part of his contract extension, Taylor would be guaranteed a $27.5 million salary in 2017 if the Bills released him this spring while injured. If the Bills were certain Taylor would be their starter in 2017 -- and were certain they wanted to guarantee him $30 million this spring -- then the injury guarantee would be moot and Taylor likely would have played in the season finale.
Instead, the Bills chose to deactivate Taylor, which strongly hinted they had doubts about whether they would keep him on the roster this spring long enough for his guarantees to trigger. By keeping Taylor out of the finale and avoiding injury, the Bills also dodged a situation where they potentially wanted to release him this offseason but had to pay him $27.5 million because he suffered a serious injury in Week 17.
There was another wrinkle to Taylor's health: He had a lingering groin injury this past season that did not cause him to miss any time but that required surgery Jan. 5, after the season ended. The procedure led to questions about whether Taylor would be able to pass a physical before the Bills' deadline to release him and whether he underwent surgery against the Bills' wishes in order to trigger the injury guarantee. However, the decision to have surgery was made in consultation with team doctors and is not expected to cause a fight over whether Taylor should be due his $27.5 million injury guarantee if released.
On his Instagram page Tuesday, Taylor shared video of him practicing his dropbacks as part of his rehabilitation. The same day, he posted several videos to his Instagram story of him throwing passes inside the Bills' field house.
Why keep him? The natural place to start with defending Taylor's play over two seasons in Buffalo is his Total QBR, 69.2. That has been the eighth-best Total QBR since the start of the 2015 season and a better mark than Russell Wilson (67.6), Andy Dalton (66.0), Philip Rivers (62.9), Cam Newton (59.5), Eli Manning (56.6) and Derek Carr (54.4). Total QBR takes into account a quarterback's contributions "on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties," and in Taylor's case, his contributions as a runner are most impactful. Since 2015, he ranks 19th in the NFL on expected points added (EPA) on passes, but he ranks first among quarterbacks in run EPA, an advanced statistic used by ESPN.
Breaking down Taylor's contributions as a runner, his biggest impact has come on designed runs on first and second downs. Taylor has averaged 5.66 yards per carry on 58 designed early-down runs (excluding kneel-downs) since 2015, the second-best quarterback average in the NFL behind Tennessee's Marcus Mariota and better than all but two running backs with at least 50 such carries, Green Bay's Ty Montgomery and Oakland's Jalen Richard. Taylor's contributions as an early-down runner have been both better than the league average for quarterbacks (3.86 yards per carry) and better than what the Bills' running backs gain on first and second downs -- an NFL-best 4.82 yards per carry since 2015.
Taylor also has protected the ball better than most quarterbacks. He has averaged interceptions on 1.1 percent of his first- and second-down pass attempts, fifth best in the NFL since 2015. However, that rate has increased to 2.5 percent on third downs, 18th in the NFL.
The NFL named Taylor to the 2016 Pro Bowl as an alternate after five quarterbacks declined to participate. Taylor was also invited to the 2017 Pro Bowl last month but could not accept the selection because of injury.
Among Bills quarterbacks to start at least nine games in any season, Taylor owns the second-best (99.4 in 2015) and fourth-best (89.7 in 2016) passer ratings in franchise history. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly owns the best and third-best passer ratings in team history.
Why get rid of him? Taylor is rightfully considered one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL, but his abilities have not always translated into statistical results. While he has ranked near the top of the NFL on designed first- and second-down designed runs, he was stopped on all four of his designed third-down runs (excluding kneel-downs) last season, averaging an NFL-worst minus-2.0 yards per carry. Since 2015, he has gained first downs on only 23.5 percent of his third-down designed runs, considerably lower than the NFL average success rate of 56.9 percent for quarterbacks.
Taylor has been sacked on 7.8 percent of his dropbacks since 2015, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. That high total might be partly the result of an offensive line that allows pressure, but Taylor hasn't offered much of an advantage in escapability in such situations; when under pressure, he still has been sacked at a rate (23.2 percent of dropbacks) higher than the league average. When Taylor moves outside the pocket, he has been sacked on 19.3 percent of such plays since 2015, the highest rate in the NFL.
Taylor also has a propensity to scramble out of the pocket on third downs despite not facing pressure, a problem the Bills have attempted to coach out of his game. Since 2015, Taylor has gained first downs on only 46.2 percent of such runs, significantly lower than the league average of 59.1 percent. While quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick (87.5 percent first-down rate), Aaron Rodgers (69.2 percent) and Alex Smith (77.8 percent) seem to pick their spots wisely on such runs, Taylor has often misjudged his ability to scramble past the sticks instead of attempting a pass.
When Taylor did not scramble on third downs, he has completed passes at a 57.1 percent rate and averaged 7.16 yards per attempt, both slightly lower than league averages since 2015. He also has gained first downs on third-down throws at a rate (39.9 percent) shy of the NFL average. Taylor's third-down passing statistics declined in 2016, although some of that can be explained by the loss of top receiver Sammy Watkins for eight games because of a foot injury.
Another area where the Bills' front office has critiqued Taylor? Late-game situations where opponents knew Taylor would need to win a game by passing. On 20 fourth-quarter drives since 2015 in which the Bills were trailing by eight points or fewer, Taylor threw only three touchdowns and tossed four interceptions. Overall, he went 2-12 in such games, although one of the losses was a Week 16 game last December in which Taylor led a fourth-quarter, go-ahead drive only to have the Miami Dolphins tie the game and then win in overtime.
Since 2015 in such late-game passing situations, Taylor has a 46.0 percent completion rate (34th in the NFL and less than league average of 59.0), has averaged 6.24 yards per attempt (27th and below average of 7.07) and has gained first downs on 26 percent of passes (29th in NFL and less than average of 34.4).