Looking at Tyrod Taylor, Rex Ryan, and the Buffalo Bills

It was another busy day in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills firing head coach Rex Ryan and subsequently benching quarterback Tyrod Taylor in large part because of his contract. Taylor, a favorite of Ryan’s, had been rumored for some time to have fallen out of favor with the organization, who would have preferred to evaluate other players. Taylor had been on my list of likely quarterback cuts and may have been the most controversial selection on there since many in Buffalo believe he is the team’s best player. So let’s look a little closer at the Bills and Taylor’s situation.

The Bills signed Taylor to a surprising extension this summer that was worth up to $90 million over the next 5 seasons. It was an odd decision because Taylor was still under contract to the Bills for 2016 and had only started in 14 games, all in 2015, in his five year career. It was not like Taylor lit the NFL on fire in 2016. He posted a 7-6 record and threw for slightly over 3,000 yards while posting a very good 20:6 TD to interception ratio. He also ran for nearly 600 yards.

Those are perfectly fine numbers for a prospect but usually not the kind of numbers that sees a team with leverage tear up a contract and commit to a player. After all haven’t we seen seasons like that from Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and countless others only to seem them just as quickly flame out?

Taylor was not exactly an in-demand free agent in 2015. When he signed with the Bills it was a contract worth just under $1.5 million in base value per year and the ability to escalate the contract to about $3.5 million a year if he hit certain incentives. Those base values are the numbers thrown around for a third string quarterback and the escalated value would probably put him somewhere in the middle of the pack for a backup.

Realistically these are the kind of players that the franchise tag is made for in the event that all the leverage that the team has still does not force the player to take a team friendly contract.  Look at the situation with Kirk Cousins in Washington and compare it to this one. The Bills assumed a majority of the risk because Taylor expressed that he was unhappy with his contract.

While Taylor’s contract offered the Bills some protection by only having $9.5 million fully guaranteed at signing, the Bills also included large injury guarantees that totaled $27.5 million upon signing. In addition if the Bills were to exercise an option on Taylor in early March another $13 million in future injury guarantees would be earned on top of the $27.5 million in 2017 guarantees. $3 million of that would be fully guaranteed when the option was exercised.

Once the option is exercised the $27.5 million in 2017 payments is fully guaranteed protecting Taylor’s salary from any type of release from the team and not giving the team any leverage to negotiate a lower salary. The only way to avoid this from kicking in is to be able to release Taylor prior to the option exercise date which is the 3rd day of free agency. An injury suffered this late in the year would almost assuredly kick in the injury guarantee for the $27.5 million and thus force the Bills to pick up the option. If the Bills released Taylor due to injury $27.5 million would hit the cap due to the guarantee which would not be feasible. Even if the Bills have insurance on Taylor, which is likely, those funds are usually not credited onto the cap until the following season which means the Bills would be scrambling for cap room if they wanted to release Taylor while he was injured.

Beyond the injury guarantees there are likely other issues with the Taylor contract. While the $18 million APY was considered somewhat reasonable, the contract itself was frontloaded. His $48 million two year and $61 million three year payout were much closer to that of the $20M+ club of more proven players than the question mark talent contract payouts given to players like Kaepernick, Ryan Tannehill, and Andy Dalton.  The $18 million number as a benefit is really only reflected if he gets to the fourth and fifth years of the contract at a high level and is willing to play the contract out. Considering the Bills gave in on this extension when he had no leverage it is doubtful they would have been able to make him honor the backend years of the contract if he did become a top player.

By benching Taylor the Bills have now shifted some leverage back to them. Obviously his injury guarantee will not kick in at this point unless he is injured in practice. Benching him also sends the signal that if he wants to remain in Buffalo he will need to renegotiate his contract to reflect a more realistic valuation.

What would that valuation be?  I think it’s a matter of debate and will depend on how many teams are interested. I am always of the mindset that things that go bad in a prior year impact future decisions around the NFL and this year a lot of things went bad for quarterbacks. Brock Osweiler and his $37 million guarantee hit the bench for a $600,000 a year player. Sam Bradford may be headed to a losing season in Minnesota. Ryan Fitzpatrick was benched for Geno Smith and then Bryce Petty.  Griffin never got off the ground with the Browns before landing on IR. You also have the recent flops of Kaepernick and Foles still on the mind. I could see the question mark quarterback get dinged in 2017 because teams won’t be so risky with their approach.

While Taylor has shown that he has more potential than people thought the fact is he is still a pretty raw talent. I look at what the Browns did with Griffin, what Denver wanted to pay Kaepernick, and what the Jets wanted to pay Fitzpatrick and think that the majority of interested teams would peg him between $7 and $9 million per year with the ability to double or earn 2.5X that based on incentives being reached across a two year contract. But if a team has fallen in love with him I could see close to $15 million a year but with a structure that looks more Dalton than Newton. Either way the Bills should be able to get him on a better structured contract if they want to retain him and he wants to return.

I would not be surprised if when the story is fully written on Ryan’s time in Buffalo that a big part of his downfall was his infatuation with Taylor even when his bosses, perhaps looking at the bigger picture, wanted to move on. Anyone familiar with Rex’s tenure in New York will remember how often he talked of wanting a quarterback of Taylor’s skillset. He was part of the group that in brought in Tim Tebow, was happy to sign Mike Vick, openly said how he wanted Kaepernick, and even attempted to use Geno Smith in a role that really wasn’t suited for Smith.

I’d think for Rex and his philosophy on offense Taylor was the ultimate weapon. He would mesh well in their run game and tuck and run if the first option wasn’t there in the passing game, thus avoiding the turnovers that doomed him with players like Mark Sanchez in New York. He could also extend plays in the backfield and make some great sandlot plays here and there. Rex generally seems like he looks beyond things like creating sacks or leaving yards on the field if things are fitting his system.

Ryan can be very persuasive with ownership, general managers, media, and fans and I have a feeling that he stuck his neck out for Taylor and may have been instrumental with the team giving him the contract they gave him. Rex was not shy about sharing player opinions in NY and driving the prices up for his own players when he made it clear how important they were. Rex is an old school coach and many of those coaches who often took on the GM roles back in the day, paid little attention to anything outside of the impact on this season. If you are going to help Rex in 2016 and that player is unhappy Rex will make sure the contract guys know how important things are to get this guy signed. I could definitely see a scenario where Ryan painted a picture that they only missed the playoffs because Taylor missed two games.

If anything like that happened in Buffalo it’s likely that Rex will take on some of the blame for the contracts that were signed off on by the GM. Rex seemed intent to start Taylor even when rumors were circulating a few weeks back that the staff wanted a different player in there and I could see how this week was the last straw. The team put their faith in Rex when they made this decision to start Taylor in 2015 when the brass likely wanted to go to EJ Manuel to start the year since he was their first round pick. He probably was expected to return the favor this week now that they were eliminated by benching Taylor rather than risking the future to win a game that was probably meaningless to everyone involved other than Ryan, who would have liked to have gone out on a high note beating up his old team.

Rex will have a number of questions he will need to answer. In my opinion coaches who struggle in their first job are always best advised to take some time off to regroup, work as an assistant, and then jump back into the head coaching search a few years later.  Not surprisingly many of the same mistakes Rex had with the Jets were still there with the Bills. Whether it was too many men on the field, too few men on the field, too many bad penalties, wasting time outs, or a lack of offensive focus the story of Rex in Buffalo was no different than with the Jets except he never had the talent in Buffalo that he had in New York in 2009 and 2010, which were the two seasons in which he made his name as a coach.

After failing in Buffalo I’m not sure teams will give him another shot right away. He will have plenty of TV offers and may do well in that role, but I would think to get another shot at a coaching job he needs to go back and be a defensive coordinator. Though the players in Buffalo never seemed to fully buy in on Rex’s defenses his track record on that side of the field has been pretty good. If he picks the right group and lands with a team that gets hot he’ll get his chance one more time as a head coach. That may require some pride swallowing on his part to go back and work for another coach for a few seasons, but maybe that’s what he needs to do to improve as a coach.

As for the Bills and where they go next it would not surprise me if they promoted from within long term. I am not sure how desirable of a job this is right now. They have doled out a few very player friendly contracts in recent years and, while they are not in cap trouble are not in a position to use free agency the way some other teams might. The drafting has been poor with the Bills having a league low amount of “full time” contributors who have actually started their careers with the Bills. It’s possible they will be looking for a plug in starter ala Foles, Kaepernick, etc… if Taylor is not retained. Their best player, LeSean McCoy, will be 29 next season and may not be a big contributor when a turnaround is ready to happen. It’s also a question as to if there are any Rex loyalists (Richie Incognito for example would seem to be one) that could be a problem. If the front office survives this season their track record would certainly not inspire confidence right now.

The pros of the job are that they do have some talented players on the team and if McCoy stays healthy he is as dangerous a player as there is. They also do have an ownership group that will spend and do whatever it takes to win. This is also a fanbase that really wants to see a winner and any trip to the playoffs may give a coach tremendous job security. Rex would have been a hero if the results matched the bluster, but it didn’t. Maybe it will for the next man up.