Should Matt Cassel Be the Buffalo Bills' Starting Quarterback?

The Bills are locked in a three-man competition for quarterback duties. Does the veteran deserve the job?

The Buffalo Bills haven't made it to the playoffs in a really long time. Like, as in prior to the turn of the century long. After reaching the Super Bowl four times in a row from 1990 through 1993, and subsequently losing all four, Bills fans have endured a football gut-punch for far too long.

But Bills fans are starting to get hopeful again. With new head coach Rex Ryan bringing his bullying defensive style to match the defensive talent already on the team, fans are becoming increasingly confident that they may finally end the drought. 

The glaring question mark? Who their quarterback will be.

The Bills have an especially tricky quarterback situation as there are currently three signal-callers vying for the top spot with only three weeks to go until the season begins. Veteran  Matt Cassel currently is the presumed starter, but that’s far from a guarantee assured, as Rex Ryan has given the keys to Tyrod Taylor to start the Bills' second preseason game.

E.J. Manuel, while technically still having a shot at winning the job, appears for now to be the odd man out.

It goes without saying that the team has every incentive to make sure they get this call right to maintain their playoff hopes.

So what do the respective career numbers of these quarterbacks suggest about who should get the job in Week 1? To determine this I've analyzed the career production of Cassel, Taylor, and Manuel using numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP quantifies the number of points contributed to a team's overall score in terms of performance above expectation by accounting for down-and-distance scenarios to give a more accurate assessment of performance than more basic statistics such as yards thrown or passing touchdowns.

So who among the Bills' three quarterbacks has the career numbers to justify getting the ball come opening day? Let's find out.  

Matt Cassel

Matt Cassel’s career will forever be remembered by his success in guiding the 2008 New England Patriots’ ship when Tom Brady went down with a season-ending ACL tear in Week 1. In that season, Cassel posted impressive NEP numbers, contributing over 80 points to his teams offensive point totals, while displaying above average efficiency to boot with a 0.14 Passing NEP per drop back.

Year Team Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Successes Passing Success Rate
2005 Patriots 25 -1.46 -0.06 11 44.00%
2006 Patriots 11 -3.26 -0.30 3 27.27%
2007 Patriots 7 -4.31 -0.62 4 57.14%
2008 Patriots 564 80.71 0.14 275 48.76%
2009 Chiefs 537 -57.06 -0.11 215 40.04%
2010 Chiefs 476 60.81 0.13 222 46.64%
2011 Chiefs 291 -17.66 -0.06 119 40.89%
2012 Chiefs 295 -26.35 -0.09 131 44.41%
2013 Vikings 270 3.33 0.01 119 44.07%
2014 Vikings 78 -7.02 -0.09 33 42.31%
Career   2554 27.73 0.01 1132 44.32%

While this was Cassel’s most impressive season on his resume, he did post similarly efficient numbers as the Chiefs' signal caller in 2010. But largely, aside from these two seasons, Cassel’s been disastrous in terms of NEP, as he negatively contributed to his team in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014, all of which were seasons in which he, at least for some time, held the starting job. 

The benefit in Cassel may be that he is more of the game manager variety of quarterback, more suited to throwing short and intermediate routes. Rex Ryan’s teams are notoriously conservative, displaying a run-first mentality that never really wavered in his five years as the Jets head coach. 

The offense figures to run through  LeSean McCoy, and deep ball action, certainly not one of Cassel’s strong suits, figures to be kept to a minimum. As such, Cassel’s veteran presence may be the best option for a team who could be on the cusp of doing big things. 

Tyrod Taylor

Evaluating the career performance of Tyrod Taylor thus far is about as easy as winning the lottery given that he’s dropped back to pass a total of 40 times over three active NFL seasons. So I’ll dive into his numbers with the caveat that Tyler’s capabilities on the big stage are still largely unknown.

Year Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Successes Passing Success Rate
2011 3 -1.68 -0.56 0 0.00%
2012 32 -8.71 -0.27 13 40.63%
2013 5 -11.15 -2.23 0 0.00%
Career 40 -21.53 -0.54 13 32.50%

If Taylor’s limited past performances are any indication, Ryan may prefer Taylor rides the pine all season. In the limited action Taylor has accrued, he’s actually been historically bad. While the sample size is extremely small, it’s worth noting that of the 1,032 career quarterback seasons since 2000 with at least five drop backs attempted, Taylor’s 2013 season ranks dead last in terms of Passing NEP per drop back at an absolutely horrendous -2.23 NEP per drop back. Again, it's only five drop backs, but they were disastrous.

And of the 844 seasons in which a quarterback has dropped back at least 30 times, Taylor’s 2012 season ranks 755th.

So, to put it lightly, Taylor’s limited track record is pretty gross.

The upside Taylor brings to the table is via the quarterback scramble. Taylor came out of college and flashed a 4.47 40-time at the 2011 combine, and he showed his wheels in the Bills’ first preseason game last week against the Panthers, accumulating 47 yards on the ground on six rushes. In 2012, Taylor racked up a respectable 0.33 Rushing NEP per rush on 14 attempts, so he may be able to keep drives extended via his wheels, much more so than the other quarterbacks on the team. 

Perhaps, given the lack of arm talent that currently exists on the team, Ryan is hoping to use Taylor’s legs to keep defenses honest. But if Taylor gets the job, based on a limited sample size, Ryan may end up hoping that Taylor doesn’t throw the ball at all.

E.J. Manuel

E.J. Manuel has had an unfortunate time as a quarterback in the NFL. Drafted by the Bills in 2013, the former first round pick has started exactly 14 games in his two NFL seasons and was replaced after only four games in his sophomore season for Kyle Orton.

With a new coaching regime in town that has no investment in him, it seems as if the Bills have already decided to move on from him. But Ryan hasn’t stated that Manuel is out of the running for the job, so we’ll take a look at his numbers to see if he’s worthy of the position over his competitors. 

Year Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Successes Passing Success Rate
2013 333 -47.84 -0.14 140 42.04%
2014 137 -0.05 0.00 58 42.34%
Career 470 -47.89 -0.10 198 42.13%

Manuel’s first season in the league was awful. His -0.14 Passing NEP per drop back ranked last among the 30 quarterbacks with at least 300 drop backs that season. But Manuel did show improvement in 2014, improving his Passing NEP to a neutral 0.00 NEP per drop back in the four games he started.

But while Manuel was exhibiting per-play improvement in 2014 in his efficiency, he wasn’t doing it on a consistent basis. His Passing Success Rate, the percentage of drop backs adding positively to his team's NEP, had barely moved from his rookie to his sophomore season, meaning he wasn't moving the chains with any more frequency than his rookie season.

Given the inconsistencies he’s exhibited in his career thus far, along with having his development stunted mid-way through his sophomore season, Manuel is not the Bills' best option at quarterback if they’re looking to win now.

The Verdict

With a top-of-the-line defense and talented skill position players, the Bills are looking to contend for the AFC East title this season. Based on the numbers, giving the keys to veteran Matt Cassel is their best bet to get there, despite being the least bad option of the three.

But I’d argue, against the current sentiment of Bills’ brass, that the second string job should go to Manuel over Taylor based on career passing efficiency, and the improvement in efficiency Manuel exhibited from year one to year two.

Taylor certainly has the ability to win the job this year, but based on the numbers, that might lead to a quarterback switch at some point in the season.