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Tyrod Taylor eager to prove he’s more than a bridge quarterback for Chargers

Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor throws a pass.
Tyrod Taylor will have a chance to prove he’s worthy of being an NFL starting quarterback — a goal he’s been chasing since a disastrous performance in Cleveland nearly two years ago.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

He completed only four of 14 passes, was sacked three times and — on the play before being knocked out of the game because of a concussion — drew a penalty for intentional grounding.

The performance was so epically awful that, nearly two years later, Tyrod Taylor is still trying to bounce back, this career-long underdog again driven to prove he really can be a dawg.

“It was just such an abysmal performance that I think people have him figured all wrong now,” ESPN analyst Rex Ryan said. “Everybody has bad games. It’s just that nobody forgives Tyrod for that game.”

This is the Chargers’ new projected starting quarterback and that was his most recent start. On Sept. 20, 2018, on a Thursday night against the New York Jets, Taylor helped sink the Cleveland Browns into a 14-0 hole just before halftime.

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The franchise hadn’t won in 19 games and 635 days, and five months earlier had invested the No. 1 overall pick in Baker Mayfield.

The revamped Chargers appear to have defensive secondary that is stacked, and that could help considering disastrous 5-11 season in 2019.

Just a couple hours later, Mayfield had lifted Cleveland — and the success-starved Browns masses — to a stirring 21-17 victory sealed in the final two minutes. That buried Taylor in Baker-mania, a fate from which he finally is poised to emerge.

But it took changing teams in free agency in 2019 and the shockingly sudden breaking of the once-forever bond between the Chargers and icon Philip Rivers to make it possible.

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With the team set for training camp practice this week, Taylor is back as a starter ... and the man who gave him his first NFL start is convinced everything will work out this time.

“People are going to be stunned at how well Tyrod plays,” said Ryan, who coached Taylor for two seasons in Buffalo. “I think he’s a starting NFL quarterback, period. And they’re going to win. They’re just going to do it differently than Chargers fans are used to.”

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Tyrod Taylor stands under center during a 2014 preseason game between the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
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Before looking at where Taylor and the Chargers might be heading, let’s examine how the 31-year-old quarterback arrived here.

Taylor has started 46 games in a career that began with him sitting on the bench behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore for four seasons. As a rookie, he threw as many passes (one) for the Ravens as Ray Rice did. Rice played running back.

Cam Newton was the first quarterback drafted in 2011; Taylor was the next to last, going to Baltimore in the sixth round with the 180th overall pick.

The quarterbacks selected before him included Ryan Mallett, Ricky Stanzi and Nathan Enderle.

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“I’ve felt that I’ve been underappreciated in the past,” Taylor acknowledged. “But that has never moved my focus from going out and leading each and every week. … Yes, playing with something to prove definitely motivates me, but it’s not the only thing. I enjoy going out and leading the guys and doing whatever it takes to help the team.”

Ryan said he first tried to acquire Taylor in a trade when he was coaching the Jets but was overruled by management. So it wasn’t until March 2015 that the two teamed up, Taylor signing with the Bills as a free agent.

He would go 23-20 in his three years as their starter, helping the franchise end a 17-year playoff drought in 2017, the season after Ryan had been fired in favor of Sean McDermott.

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Taylor proved himself to be an efficient passer and effective runner, something that will be a marked departure in 2020 for the Chargers, who, for nearly a decade and a half, knew Rivers wasn’t running anywhere.

Taylor did all that, and did even more.

“I knew his skills, but what I didn’t know about him is the kind of character he has,” Ryan said. “This is a phenomenal person, a phenomenal teammate. He’s willing to do whatever it takes for the team.

“I think he’s so nice and such a good team guy that it hurts him a little bit. A lot of quarterbacks have that mentality like they’re going into an old-fashioned western gun fight. Tyrod’s got that inside, but he doesn’t have it outside.”

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Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, right, and Baker Mayfield stand on the field.
Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, right, and Baker Mayfield stand on the field before a game against the New Orleans Saints in September 2018.
(Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Taylor didn’t allow himself to become a distraction after losing the starting job to Mayfield in Cleveland. When McDermott benched the Bill for a start in 2017, he said nothing that made screaming headlines.

But to understand how much the latter move stung — the Bills started Nathan Peterman instead, leading to his historically miserable five-interception game against the Chargers — Taylor still prefers not to discuss the episode.

His team-first attitude is as ingrained as his work ethic, and this is an athlete who, among other things, rises before the sun to work out, follows a demanding diet and watches video by the hour — all year long.

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“It’s refreshing to see someone so committed, who takes so much pride in not letting his teammates down,” said Jeff Christensen, a quarterback coach who works with Taylor in the offseason. “It leaves you almost speechless. And all of it with Tyrod is genuine.”

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Rivers, who started every game for this franchise over the last 14 seasons, won 123 of those 224 consecutive starts. He also led the Chargers to five postseason victories, but only one since 2013.

He is a classic drop-back quarterback, known for daring to sling passes into narrowing windows that can offer big payoffs and massive pitfalls. Behind an injured and often-struggling offensive line last season, Rivers threw 20 interceptions.

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In his three seasons as a starter with the Bills, Taylor never threw more than six. During 2019, Rivers threw six in December. This was after he threw seven over back-to-back games in November.

“He takes care of the football,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said of Taylor. “That’s the thing I like about him the most. … I really believe you lose more games than you win. If you take care of the football, your chances are a lot better. At least that’s what the analytics say.”

Taylor‘s career interception percentage is 1.5. The list of other active quarterbacks with percentages below 2.0 includes Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor, left, breaks away from Seattle Seahawks linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor, left, breaks away from Seattle Seahawks linebacker Mychal Kendricks during a preseason game in August 2019.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)
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Right tackle Bryan Bulaga spent nine seasons with Green Bay before signing with the Chargers in March. He said it was so rare for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to turn the ball over that, when it did happen, the sight was jarring.

Rodgers, in 6,061 pass attempts, has a career interception percentage of 1.4.

“He knows what to do with the football,” Bulaga said, speaking of Taylor. “That’s a positive thing. To be quite frank, the biggest thing that kills teams in this league is turnovers. You turn over the football, bad things are going to happen.”

While Rivers is more apt to make mistakes, he’s also more likely to produce results. Taylor never has thrown for more than 20 touchdowns in a single season; Rivers, as a starter, never has thrown for fewer than 21.

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Rivers also has 70 career games with at least 300 yards passing. Taylor has one.

But with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, tight end Hunter Henry and running back Austin Ekeler, Taylor said this Chargers offense is more talented and experienced than any he had in Buffalo.

Tyrod Taylor says he knew the Chargers would draft a quarterback, and he isn’t worrying about losing his starting job to rookie Justin Herbert.

“There’s going to be games and there’s going to be situations where you have to take those risks and you push the ball down the field,” Taylor said. “But there’s also going to be times when you have to manage the game and understand you have a defense that’s going to get you the ball back.”

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Among the talents Taylor does possess is an ability to throw the ball deep with precision. Lynn said he first noticed the skill when he was the running backs coach in Buffalo with Taylor under center.

Lynn explained that Taylor’s touch on long passes is simply better than most quarterbacks. Particularly with Williams, the threat of firing deep at any moment should be very real for the 2020 Chargers.

Last season, Rivers frequently lofted high-arching hopes in the direction of the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Williams. The frequency with which those hopes connected was reflected in Williams’ 20.4-yard-per-catch average, tops in the NFL.

Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor speaks with a teammate on the sideline.
Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be expected to get the most out of wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
(Ralph Freso / Getty Images)
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“With the receivers that we have, 50/50 balls … it’s not on the 50/50 side if you’re throwing it to Mike,” Taylor said. “It’s more on the 70/30 side or 80/20. And even with Keenan. Most of the time, he’s going to win his match-ups.”

That long-ball option plus protecting the football plus the ability to take off and run complete the snapshot of Taylor’s game.

As for greater detail on that last quality, Taylor has rushed for 107 first downs in his career. Rivers has rushed for 74.

“Just hold the defense accountable for all 11 guys on the field,” Taylor explained. “I think we have enough weapons on the offensive side of the ball for sure to be able to have a bunch of explosive plays.”

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So now it begins anew for a veteran quarterback again starting in front of a prospect in whom the team has invested a first-round pick.

As with Mayfield in Cleveland, Justin Herbert is expected to eventually take over the starting job.

Until then — and who knows when then might be ... a month from now, a year, somewhere in between — Taylor will be out to prove there’s a dawg inside him and that dawg still has its teeth.

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“I can’t say I’ve been through it all on this journey of mine, but I think I’ve been through a lot,” he said. “And I think those moments have definitely prepared me for the opportunity that I have now.”


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