The great Tyrod Taylor debate

Kimes: 'Taylor's always been overlooked' (1:29)

ESPN senior writer Mina Kimes joins SportsCenter to discuss why many are split on Bills QB Tyrod Taylor. (1:29)

Editor's note: This story was originally published in early November, two weeks before Tyrod Taylor was benched by the Buffalo Bills.

IN EVERY BILLS game, Tyrod Taylor performs a feat of athleticism that makes you question your prior understanding of how human limbs are supposed to move -- how legs and arms and hands normally work in tandem, restricting one's ability to, say, hopscotch and type at the same time. In early October, when Buffalo went down to Atlanta, it happened in the second quarter amid a scoring drive. Taylor took a snap and faked a handoff, then found himself face-to-face with a pair of irate-looking Falcons linemen. He danced to his right. As he cocked his arm, eyes downfield and feet still whirring, his left leg rose in the manner of a prima ballerina taking flight, and he flicked a 44-yard bomb to tight end Charles Clay. All of his body parts seemed disjointed but somehow perfectly synchronized at the same time.

It didn't really make sense.

The Bills, who were nine-point underdogs that afternoon, went on to defeat Atlanta. For Taylor, the win offered a temporary reprieve from the critics who have hounded him ever since he became a starter two years ago, but his peace was short-lived. A week later, after he struggled against Cincinnati, the calls for his benching returned, and Bills coach Sean McDermott was asked (for the umpteenth time) whether he believed in his quarterback. "Tyrod's working hard to continue to improve," he said. "I've got all the confidence in the world in Tyrod Taylor."

Many in Buffalo don't. On Monday during the following bye week, the bar at Duff's Famous Wings -- the best or second-best wings place in the city, depending on whom you ask -- is brimming with Bills fans. Baseball is on, but the conversation turns, as it so often does around here, to football. A middle-aged woman in a Bills sweatshirt starts to explain why she's optimistic about the team (then 3-2), with its unexpectedly strong defense, but she's interrupted by her friend. "Tyrod blows," he says. "He can't throw the ball far enough." He adds that Taylor is no better than draft bust EJ Manuel. "They're the same quarterback."

The woman sighs. She's partial to rookie backup Nathan Peterman, a pocket passer selected in the fifth round, and she wants Taylor to sit. "He hasn't done anything for us for the last couple of years," she says.

Some quarterback-starved towns would kill for a player with Taylor's abilities, but Buffalo is no ordinary town. It's a city that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1999 and has watched division rival Tom Brady calmly dissect the team's defenses from the pocket for years, cycling through more than a dozen starters in that time. Taylor has now played two and a half seasons with the Bills, winning 19 games and losing 16 heading into their Week 9 game against the Jets.

His record, as balanced as a book opened to its midpoint, inspires passionate disagreement among fans, many of whom refuse to believe that Taylor actually might be the rarest of commodities: a franchise quarterback.

But the 28-year-old dual threat, known as T-Mobile, isn't just divisive in Buffalo. He's also polarizing around the NFL, where he's become a Rorschach test for how we think about quarterbacks in 2017. Some coaches and experts are quick to rattle off his deficiencies: too short at 6-foot-1, too quick to leave the pocket, too limited as a passer. Other analysts see him as an underrated star, arguing that traditional "volume" stats like yardage and touchdowns (to say nothing of wins, the data point most loathed by the numerate set) fail to account for his unique skills. If Taylor thrives, he could change perceptions of what success at his position looks like -- a heavy load for a quarterback accustomed to fighting just to be seen.

LIKE MANY FOOTBALL legends, former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly is often called upon to appraise his old team. In January, he took a shot at Taylor. "We do not have [a franchise quarterback] as of right now," he said on ESPN, adding, "He has to be more consistent on his throws." Taylor's detractors have echoed this, noting that he rarely throws for more than 250 yards a game and that when the Bills fall behind by four points or more, his record is 3-16. (Most QBs have losing records in this scenario; Aaron Rodgers is 6-13 since 2015.)

Statistics are like fragmented quotes; their meaning is pliable, depending on how they're deployed. For example, through his first six games this season, Taylor completed just 34 passes to wide receivers. Is it because of his own failings, or is it because his pass catchers are so pedestrian? Is he reliant on his übertalented running back, LeSean McCoy -- or has McCoy thrived in Buffalo because defenses have to account for a mobile quarterback? And what about Taylor's lack of passing yardage? "The NFL has gotten very pass-happy, but we're balanced in our attack ... so he's not gonna throw 300 yards a game," says Taylor's center, Eric Wood. "But he's truly efficient. Over the last two years, we've led the league in rushing, and a big part of that is Tyrod."

Consider as well the gap between Taylor's passer rating and his QBR. Last year he ranked 18th in the former stat and ninth in QBR. There are a number of variations between the two metrics -- QBR accounts for game situations and how receivers perform after the catch, among other things -- but the biggest differentiator is that it also accounts for rushing, at which Taylor excels: He's run for over 1,000 yards over the past two seasons, topping all quarterbacks. Passer rating ignores running altogether, which means it values a QB who checks down short of the sticks over one who scrambles for a first down.

Pro Football Focus, the analytics company that grades players by watching every down, ranked Taylor as the 13th-best quarterback in 2015, 12th last year and sixth through Week 8 this season. While some observers of Taylor's game might dispute that assessment, Sam Monson, one of PFF's analysts, argues that it reflects Taylor's worth. The quarterback does miss some throws, he says, but he compensates for his limited short game with a beautiful deep ball. "Almost every week, you'll pull one throw from his game tape that's obscene, that almost no quarterback can make," Monson says. The combination of those explosive plays and Taylor's low turnover rate -- since becoming a starter, he has thrown an interception on 1.4 percent of his passes, fourth best in the NFL -- is rare, he adds, which is why the lack of appreciation for Taylor in Buffalo befuddles him.

"Dumping Tyrod Taylor because you think you can do better is like hitting a 17 in blackjack," Monson says. "You can do better than your hand, but you probably won't."

FOR AS LONG as Taylor can remember, he wanted to play quarterback. His father, Rodney, put a football in his hands when he was a toddler; by the time he was 6, he could throw perfect spirals, his little fingers guiding the arc of the ball the way a musical prodigy draws melodies out of an instrument. He wasn't particularly fast -- "I ran like I had lead in my shoes," he says -- but throwing came naturally, and he gravitated toward the passing role. His idols were Steve Young and Warren Moon.

"Quarterbacks," he says.

Taylor grew up in Hampton, Virginia, the only child of Trina and Rodney. His father, who towed cars, was born with one arm shorter than the other, which made it difficult for him to grip a ball. He played running back in high school anyway, then coached peewee football, spending hours doing drills with his son in their backyard. "He was gonna make [Tyrod] a great quarterback from when he was 3," says Curt Newsome, a former assistant coach at Virginia Tech. "He's probably caught more footballs than any father in America."

Taylor was single-minded as a kid. Whenever he finished his homework, he'd go into the garage -- the dungeon, his family called it -- to study VHS tapes of old NFL games, watching the film until he fell asleep. "A lot of the kids on my street said I was too busy to come out and play," he says. He followed his father everywhere, tagging along to watch the local high school football team, hurling his body at tackling dummies that dwarfed his tiny frame. In elementary school, he scribbled his goals on a sheet of paper for a class project. The fading document, now a piece of Taylor family lore, reads: "1. Go to college and get a degree. 2. Play college football. 3. Play in the NFL."

By the time Taylor was named the starting quarterback at Hampton High, it was obvious that he was destined to join the ranks of local legends like Michael Vick and Allen Iverson. But unlike his heroes, he wasn't cocky or outspoken. Even as his star rose, he remained an introvert, the sort of kid who waited until the bell rang to ask his teacher a question because he didn't want to raise his hand in class. As an adult, he's grown more confident but is still reserved to the point that he comes across as shy. While being interviewed, he moves my tape recorder to his lap to make sure it picks up his soft voice.

"I'm still learning how to be more vocal," Taylor says. "But I've always led by example."

Unlike many Type A quarterbacks, Taylor exudes a gentle calm; in street clothes, one might mistake him for someone who works with children for a living. When asked to recall a time when he grew as a leader, he doesn't point to a game-winning drive but instead tells the story of how, when he was in high school, one of his receivers fumbled a pass near the end zone, ending the team's playoff run. At first he was frustrated, but when his older teammates lashed out at the young player, he rose to his defense. It's one of his proudest memories. "To help him in that situation -- it helped me," he explains.

BEFORE THE 2011 NFL draft, a scout told Taylor his team might take him in the second round (he fell to Baltimore in the sixth) -- but only as a wide receiver. Taylor, the winningest quarterback in Virginia Tech history, was taken aback. "All I knew since age 5 was quarterback," he says. "I never even thought about playing another position."

While nearly 70 percent of players in the NFL are black, they currently make up 25 percent of the league's 32 starting quarterbacks, a slight uptick from recent years. There are a number of reasons for this disparity, ranging from socioeconomic forces to stereotypes about who should play the role. Many gifted young black quarterbacks are encouraged to switch positions-some in high school, and others-as may be the case with Louisville's Lamar Jackson-as a prerequisite for playing in the NFL. They're also compared with one another when they have little in common (take, for example, the notion that EJ Manuel, hardly a prolific rusher, is "the same" as Taylor) and are often described as leaning on their athletic gifts or being unable to read defenses. This spring new research from the University of Colorado found that people were more likely to believe a white quarterback was smarter than a black quarterback, even when cues were offered that both were exceptionally intelligent. Taylor recently told The Buffalo News that he believes he's criticized in a different manner because of his race. "It's always going to be twice as bad just because of who I am -- an African-American quarterback."

"A lot of us aren't viewed as passers -- we're viewed as athletes," says Vick, who mentored Taylor, his fellow Virginia Tech alum. "I think it's unfair and unfortunate."

It's not the only hurdle Taylor faces. Dual-threat quarterbacks as a whole are still widely depicted as one-trick ponies, incapable of executing pro-style offenses. When it became clear this summer that the Panthers were looking to reduce Cam Newton's carries, Fox Sports 1 host Colin Cowherd compared him with Vick and Johnny Manziel and said running was "the easy, lazier way of playing QB." (Never mind the fact that Newton had led his team to the Super Bowl two seasons prior, rushing for 636 yards.) Some analysts have argued that Colin Kaepernick isn't in the NFL because teams don't want to rely on the read-option -- but the concept has worked beautifully in Kansas City and Houston, two of the more potent offenses in the league.

This summer the Bills installed a new offense, a West Coast-style scheme that asks Taylor to run less but involves bootlegs and rollouts that put him in motion before he throws. So far, the results have been mixed. The offensive line has struggled a bit, and McCoy, who thrived in 2015 and 2016, was bottled up for the first few weeks. The offense still uses a heavy dose of play-action (Taylor had a 116.6 passer rating on such plays after six games) but relies less heavily on the option. Through Week 7, the Bills had run the option just 18 times, versus 44 at the same point last year.

Some analysts have questioned whether the offense is best suited for Taylor's skills. One former personnel executive says Taylor would be explosive in a scheme like the Chiefs', which combines West Coast looks with designed runs and options. "If you allow the offense to evolve, you're better able to use this guy's strengths," he says. At times, he adds, it's been frustrating watching Taylor this year. "The problem right now is that it's almost like he's thinking too much and not playing," he says. "There's too many times where he's taken sacks and you're like, 'Get out of there!'"

Vick echoes the sentiment: "I think a lot of times quarterbacks get brainwashed into trying to be a pocket passer and distribute -- and that if you're taking off and running, you're not 'developing' as a QB. That can mess with you mentally. You get caught trying to stay in the pocket ... and you're playing in a box."

McCOY, ONE OF Taylor's closest friends on the Bills, likes to compare Taylor with Willie Beamen, the third-string quarterback in "Any Given Sunday" (played by Jamie Foxx) who comes off the bench when two veteran quarterbacks are injured. Even as Beamen flourishes, his place on the team remains precarious -- a position that Taylor has found himself in time after time.

During his freshman year at Virginia Tech, he was supposed to redshirt but was thrust into a starting role when Sean Glennon (the older brother of Bears quarterback Mike Glennon, who is currently outearning Taylor) struggled to stay upright. Glennon was named the starter the following year, but Taylor found his way back onto the field, and the two split snaps for much of the season. "It wasn't fair -- it wasn't really good for anyone," former coach Frank Beamer says.

After landing in Baltimore as Joe Flacco's backup, Taylor spent four years visualizing what he would do if given the opportunity to start. But the situation never arose. "Joe ... he didn't get injured much," he deadpans. When his rookie contract expired in 2015, Taylor declined an opportunity to back up Peyton Manning in Denver so that he could compete for a starting role in Buffalo. After outdueling Matt Cassel and Manuel in the preseason, he won the job, throwing for more than 3,000 yards, rushing for 568 and landing in the Pro Bowl as an alternate. The next summer, he signed a six-year, $92 million contract.

If Taylor's life were a movie like "Any Given Sunday," his story -- the story of a sweet, shy, undersized kid who bet on himself and won -- would've ended there. But his path has grown only rockier since. In 2016, the Bills were thrown into turmoil when coach Rex Ryan was fired before their final game of the season. Several crucial players, including Taylor's best receiver, Sammy Watkins, battled injuries. "We've never had the whole team together," McCoy says. "That's a credit to him, to put up solid numbers without your main weapons." Taylor himself played through part of the season with a sports hernia, and his statistics took a dip. Then, after he had his best outing of the year against Miami, the team benched him for the final game, ostensibly because it was worried about triggering the injury guarantee in his contract. Taylor -- who rarely complains, especially in public -- expressed dismay to the media. "It threw me. I didn't understand it at the time," he says now. "This business is weird when it comes to those types of things."

The tumult continued into the offseason, when the Bills asked him to restructure his contract (before, they could release him at little cost) and he took a $10 million pay cut. With his new deal, Taylor has a cap hit of just $9.7 million, which means the Bills are spending less on the position than all but 11 teams across the league, most of which employ quarterbacks on rookie contracts. At the time, Taylor said he trusted the organization to add talent around him. But this summer, Buffalo traded away Watkins for a cornerback, adding Jordan Matthews and Anquan Boldin (who retired two weeks later) to his lackluster receiving corps. Ryan, now an analyst with ESPN, says the quarterback has never been afforded a true complement of talent. "I'm curious to see one day what this kid can actually do if he ever really gets some top guys around him," he says. "I think he'd be outstanding. Could he lead you to the playoffs? Absolutely. Could he take you all the way? I hope we find out one day."

Every football team is its own distinct ecosystem; the game involves so many interwoven parts, it's impossible to separate players from their context. Tom Brady and Rodgers can build masterpieces regardless of the tools they're given, but the vast majority of quarterbacks cannot -- including Taylor, who, at the start of the season, found himself bereft of surrounding talent again. Clay, his most reliable weapon, tore his meniscus in early October, and Matthews broke his thumb. Zay Jones, the team's second-round draft pick this year, struggled with drops. Then, on Halloween, the Bills shocked the league by trading for Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a former first-round draft pick.

While Benjamin has battled injuries, his upside is undeniable, and the Bills' decision to bolster Taylor's arsenal suggests that the organization believes that the team is a legitimate contender this year. But does it mean they believe in their quarterback? Standing near his locker during the bye week, Taylor, as mild-mannered as ever, declines to speculate about where he'll be playing in 2018. Even with the Bills poised for a possible playoff run, he knows how hard it will be for him to succeed in the eyes of many, and what it could mean if he does. "The story of my career -- my life -- has been proving myself," he says.

It's what he's come to expect.