PITTSFORD – Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett unleashed a good-natured chuckle over the suggestion that quarterback EJ Manuel has not yet consistently shown the kind of surgical reading of defenses that one sees from Green Bay star Aaron Rodgers.
“Aaron Rodgers has been playing for a lot of years,” Hackett laughed before Monday’s practice at St. John Fisher College.
“It’s just the process of growing,” Hackett said. “He’s 10 games old. He’s just going on his first year in the NFL versus a very good defense we’re facing in practice. I think it’s great. We can’t ask for any better competition for him. He’s just got to keep working to get better and better.”
Manuel has not looked great the first week of training camp. He has looked good at times. He has made some sharp, impressive throws. His arm strength is excellent. But there are enough times in every practice in which he doesn’t get the ball out of his hands quickly to make one pause. Should he look more sure of himself?
The jury is out, and it’s probably unreasonable to think it would be any other way early in the second training camp for the Bills’ franchise quarterback.
Is Manuel reading the defense and reacting well enough in the pocket to make the Bills’ offense go? The man in charge of the offense says yes and stresses that a quarterback’s development is a process.
“He’s gotten so much more comfortable,” Hackett said of Manuel’s ability to work through his progressions – first receiver, second receiver, third receiver – in the pocket.
“Every day he’s getting better and better,” Hackett continued. “The red zone is the hardest place to get any completion. The field gets shorter. The safeties are playing tighter. Yesterday it was fun to really see him pull the trigger. I was going crazy a couple times because there was things he was doing that he didn’t do last year. It’s the understanding of the play, the understanding of what we want him to do, and him taking it over.
“Heck, he threw a good amount of touchdowns yesterday.”
Late in Sunday night’s practice, Manuel hit Robert Woods on a laser-like slant for a 19-yard TD. He threaded a short TD to Mike Williams over the middle, then hit Williams on an out near the goal line and threw a TD over the middle to Chris Hogan.
“We had a good day yesterday in the red zone, probably the best day since I’ve been here,” Hackett said. “So that’s really exciting.”
The day before, the Bills practiced third-and-long situations, and it was ugly, with eight sacks allowed in a 17-snap stretch and Manuel looking frazzled.
“Third down is hard,” Hackett said. “You get third and 8 and you’re going against a defensive line like we get to face every day, I couldn’t ask for anything better. In my opinion if it’s not the best it’s one of the best in the league. So it’s great practice for us. … We did 20 third downs in a row. The playoff average is converting 40 percent. … So that’s not going to be a great period. No matter what, it’s not going to be pretty.”
Hackett says that when Manuel is comfortable with a play, having run it repeatedly and seen numerous defenses against it, he runs through his progressions well. Hackett said the number of plays in which that’s happening is growing.
“Definitely a lot more,” Hackett said. “It’s a lot more fun to put more things in. He looks at ‘em, understands ‘em and goes out and reacts.
“It’s not as much of the processing from the beginning. It’s more, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing, now let’s look and see where the defense is going?’ That’s what he’s doing a lot more of, and he’s doing a lot better at it.”
“I obviously know the plays, and I know what coach Hackett wants to get done,” Manuel said. “Now it’s about going out there and changing to my declaration, or sliding the line one way or another, just to protect myself so we can get the ball down field better.”
The Bills have six weeks to keep growing Manuel’s comfort zone before the start of the regular season.
“It’s practice,” Hackett said. “The more that we can practice, the more we’re going to see from EJ.”