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Weighing Tyrod Taylor’s risk aversion against the pros and cons of being more aggressive

What should be the mindset of the Bills’ quarterback down the stretch?

Against the Jaguars, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor was equally as impressive in the second half as he was ineffective in the first half.

(Staffer Jeff Hunter astutely pointed this out in his awards article.)

During those first two quarters, boos rained down from every corner of New Era Field, and the general consensus was that Taylor missed open receivers, which was a main reason why Buffalo’s offense wasn’t productive whatsoever.

Here’s the thing though — the “QB missed an open receiver” analysis is significantly more subjective than it seems. Why’s that? Because the aerial view of the field when watching at the stadium or via the All-22 angle on Game Pass gives fans and media an enormous advantage over quarterbacks. And for as obvious as that sounds, it’s easy to overlook.

Even on (some) plays when a receiver “looks” open, he’s not... due to a blocked throwing lane, a lurking safety etc.

Beyond all that, it’s ridiculous to expect any quarterback to always locate the optimal target. Every quarterback — yes, even Tom Brady — technically “misses” open wideout throughout every game.

The field-reading analysis needs to be more nuanced than simply noticing — from our seats or in front of our laptops — a receiver running without a cornerback on his hip. Was the quarterback looking in that direction? Was it zone coverage? Was the quarterback under pressure when the pass-catcher appeared to be pen? Those questions have to asked, and answered, every time.

Does Taylor “miss” open receivers? Yes. Does it happen more frequently than the elite signal-callers? Probably. Is he an amazing anticipation thrower? No. Has he shown the ability to make throws before receivers get out of their break? Yep. Is anticipation throwing the be all, end all of quality quarterback play? Nope.

Taylor has been tremendous at limiting turnovers during his tenure in Buffalo. Let’s call him “risk averse.” His current interception rate is 1.4%. Different time, different era, but for reference, Jim Kelly’s INT rate in his first 25 games with the Bills was 3.1%.

And given Buffalo’s nearly 20-year QB carousel, it seems backwards to criticize a Bills quarterback for not throwing interceptions. However, with the proper context, a low turnover rate can be a problem.

I don’t know if Taylor’s low INT percentage is simply a byproduct of his quarterback DNA, or he’s specifically being told by coaches to avoid an interception at all costs.

In all likelihood, it’s a mixture of the two.

What I can write with confidence is my belief that the Bills’ coaching staff and especially Taylor need to prioritize being more aggressive when they do decide to throw.

Rex Ryan’s ground-and-pound, whatever-you-do-don’t-turn-it-over offensive formula is logical when his defense is an elite unit.

(I think Rex is haunted by Mark Sanchez and his 3.5% INT rate from 2009 to 2014.)

Buffalo’s defense has improved from a year ago, but it isn’t a suffocating, top 5 group. Therefore, the pass-game philosophy has to be tweaked to mask some defensive flaws.

The Bills need big offensive plays -- especially against the Raiders, Steelers, and Dolphins — to make a successful run to the playoffs. That means Taylor should be given the green light by coaches and must alter his mindset a bit to take a few more risks to see if his pass-catchers can make a play.

Regarding Taylor’s risk-aversion up until this point — I can’t really blame him for being typically unwilling to pull the trigger when his targets aren’t be totally wide open. The lack of size and catch radius in Buffalo’s receiving corps has been well-documented, and the wideout position has been ravaged with injuries this season.

It’s one thing for Dak Prescott to throw it up to Dez Bryant with a corner in tight coverage and a safety coming over the top. It’s another for Taylor to deliver the same throw in the same situation to Marquise Goodwin, Walt Powell, or Brandon Tate.

What’s super-intriguing to me about weighing (or debating) Taylor’s (somewhat justified) risk-aversion against the upside of being aggressive is that the two biggest pass plays in the win over the Jaguars — the perfectly lofted deep shot to Sammy Watkins and the Hunter touchdown — came on plays when Taylor threw the ball to wideouts who hadn’t created yards of separation.

In fact, by my count, seven of Taylor’s 11 touchdown passes thus far in 2016 have come when he’s actually released the ball toward a receiver who wasn’t wide open. To me, that says Taylor needs to trust himself more. Anthony Lynn needs to trust Taylor more too.

(Aside: On Monday morning, I saw tweets from a few Bills fans calling Hunter’s game-winning touchdown catch incredible. While it undoubtedly was a good grab, to call it incredible, amazing, unbelievable etc... is a stretch. Watch any other NFL game, and you’ll likely see a handful of tough, high-pointing catches in traffic on “high” or back-shoulder throws. They’ve become the norm. But I can’t blame some Bills fans for being awed when a Buffalo receiver makes one of those contested receptions... because they rarely do. The Bills have lagged behind in that — to me, vital — facet of the game for a while now.)

With Watkins back in the mix — along with the 6’4” Hunter earning more playing time — the Bills will have at least two players who can “win” when coverage is good. And remember, if Goodwin’s even, he’s leavin’. Watkins’ impact on Buffalo’s offense will be seismic and I think will directly lead to more frequent “aggressive” throws by Taylor. Heck, what Hunter showed Sunday could have a confidence-boosting affect on Taylor as well.

The Bills should still stay dedicated to the run, but a more “opened up” passing offense will take an extra defender or two out of the box and help Buffalo keep pace in the three biggest games remaining on the schedule.