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Tyrod Taylor on first, second down vs. Tyrod Taylor on third down

Every quarterback plays worse on third downs; how does Tyrod Taylor stack up against the field?

The Buffalo Bills have a very important decision to make regarding quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

We already knew this, of course. We also already know the primary reasons for optimism (relatively strong season, mobility, ability to operate in a run-first offense, etc.) and pessimism (inconsistency, failure in late-game comeback situations, injuries, etc.) when it comes to his future with the team. Indeed, there is plenty of room for Taylor to improve this coming season.

While we know of his struggles later in games, though, what about his struggles later in drives? How does Taylor's performance on first and second down compare to his operation on third and (when necessary) fourth down?

For starters, here's a look at how Taylor performs on the first two downs, as compared to the top 30 quarterbacks in the league in attempts (Taylor himself ranks 26th in that regard).

Cmp/Att (Pct) Yds (Y/A) TD/INT Sacks (Yds Lost)
NFL average (top 30 QBs) 230/354 (65.1) 2,631 (7.4) 16/7 18 (111)
Tyrod Taylor 167/251 (66.5) 2,129 (8.5) 13/2 18 (108)

A few observations on these numbers:

  • The Bills, as a team, averaged 10.22 yards to go on first and second downs last season. The league average was 9.54, and the 31st-ranked Rams averaged 9.91 yards to go. This is a major area that needs improvement for the entire offense, and it clearly did Taylor no favors.
    Update: This only included passing plays. Among all plays, the Bills averaged 8.06 yards to go, tied for sixth in the league. That's not as bad, but it does mean that Greg Roman is leaving Taylor with a lot of ground to make up through the air.
  • That said, his numbers early in drives aren't awful. His completion percentage is right around the league average, and his 8.5 yards per attempt was second among the top 30 to only Carson Palmer, who led his team to the NFC championship game.
  • While his differential ratio was average, none of the top 30 matched Taylor's two interceptions. The lack of turnovers was a very positive theme from last season that he can hopefully build on this season.
  • Taylor had issues holding on to the ball too long (that we'll explore in a moment), but for the first two downs he was only sacked an average amount of times, which is excellent given his propensity for running. The top two quarterbacks for sacks were also mobile passers: Russell Wilson (30) and Alex Smith (29).
  • Taylor's passer rating of 106.8 ranks fourth among the top 30, trailing Wilson (107.3), Matt Stafford (108.7), and Andy Dalton (109.8). That's pretty good company, even with Detroit's shortcomings last season.
  • As an aside, the highest-rated passer on first and second down who threw between 20 and 250 passes? You guessed it, with a 102.1 rating, the hard-count master himself, EJ Manuel.

The numbers on first and second down paint the picture of a competent quarterback who is more than capable of putting his team in a position to score while avoiding the costly mistakes that doom teams to 8-8 records. So what happened?

To find out, let's take a look at what happened on third and fourth downs:

Cmp/Att (Pct) Yds (Y/A) TD/INT Sacks (Yds Lost)
NFL average (top 30 QBs) 83/140 (59.3) 1,014 (7.2) 8/4 13 (93)
Tyrod Taylor 75/129 (58.1) 906 (7.0) 7/4 17 (117)

A few observations on these less-than-stellar numbers:

  • Generally speaking, Taylor goes from being an above-average quarterback on the first two downs to a below-average passer on the next two. While he has some company among good quarterbacks (Cam Newton, for instance, has a 50 percent completion rate), he's not far enough ahead on the first two downs to make up for it.
  • The problem Taylor had holding on to the ball too long rears its ugly head here. Taylor was sacked once for every 7.6 attempts, a rate that tied for third-worst among the top 30 quarterbacks. Only five of the quarterbacks lost more than Taylor's 117 yards on the sacks they took, and only Rodgers didn't make up the difference in extra passing yardage.
  • The most important thing to do on third or fourth down is converting the play into a first down. Taylor was fairly average when it came to that, gaining 50 first downs through the air last season for a 38.8 percent conversion rate. That put him in the middle third among the top 30 but below the average of 40.5 percent. That's not a deal-breaker, but it certainly needs to improve next season.
  • Probably the most damning statistic is the touchdown-to-interception ratio. The 13-to-2 mark that put him in great company on the first two downs gives way to a 7-to-4 mark that leaves him with a pedestrian 85.0 rating on the last two. Nobody threw fewer interceptions on the first two downs, but 12 quarterbacks did on the last two.

Honestly, there's not a drastic difference between Taylor's performance on the first two downs and the last two downs. Most of the quarterbacks in the NFL have a drop-off when they're playing against defenses who are ready for them to put the ball in the air, and they have fewer opportunities to perform if the offense does their job right early in drives.

That said, the fact that Taylor goes from an above-average quarterback to a below-average quarterback is concerning. Notably, his propensity to hold on to the ball too long while looking for the play to develop has led to him taking too many third-down sacks. His legs are a game-changing asset, but if the play just isn't there he needs to either dump the ball off or throw it away to avoid putting the defense in a bigger hole.

Are the Bills a playoff team if he can do that? Not necessarily, but it's as good of an area as any to work on improving.