Doug Marrone knows the skeptics are hammering EJ Manuel after Sunday’s debacle in Pittsburgh. So the Bills’ coach came prepared to defend his rookie quarterback on Wednesday, not with defiant speeches but with esoteric stats.
“When you look at quarterbacks with five starts,” Marrone said, “and go back to 2000 with all the young quarterbacks, he has the third-best rating out of all those quarterbacks.”
I’ll have to take his word for it. I didn’t have time to go back and research 13-plus years of rookie quarterbacks. It would probably take me a week to figure out the league’s QB rating system and break it into five-game chunks.
And you know what? People don’t care. It’s true, a lot of rookie QBs struggle. Manuel’s rating of 76.2 is better than Andrew Luck’s at the same point a year ago. It’s also better than the career QB ratings of Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler.
So QB ratings are useful, to a point. Manuel has done some nice things for a rookie. I’ve advised patience from the start. We won’t know if he’s a franchise player for another year or two. But if he wants to chase off the vultures, he needs to show progress over the final six games.
Fans don’t want to hear how Manuel’s rating stacks up against Rex Grossman’s and Mark Sanchez’s. They want to see him outplay Geno Smith in their rookie rematch Sunday at The Ralph and remind everyone why the Bills liked Manuel over Smith in the draft.
Manuel and Smith were the first two QBs selected last April – EJ with the 16th overall pick and Smith by the Jets at No. 39. A lot of people felt Manuel went too high. Many were surprised that Smith went so low. They’ll be forever measured against one another, their confrontations chronicled as if they were heavyweight boxers.
This is an ideal setting for Manuel to bounce back after his poor performance in Pittsburgh. The fact that it’s against Smith, who soundly outplayed Manuel in the Jets’ 27-20 win in September, creates a greater sense of urgency.
“Not necessarily because of Geno,” Manuel said. “I think it’s simply because it’s the Jets, a divisional game. Obviously, it’s a game we need to win to get where we want to be.
“So I think that’s the biggest urgent part about it.”
You know the comparisons are out there, Manuel was told. So is this a chance to help re-establish yourself in that conversation?
“If you think so,” Manuel said. “All right?”
Manuel is a smart guy, but he’s not expansive in interviews. He has a way of suppressing any trace of doubt or emotion in public. Still, “If you think so” might be his way of confirming the obvious. He’s a proud competitor. Of course it’ll be a big deal to beat Smith and the Jets.
“Both of those quarterbacks came in together,” Marrone said. “They’re in the same division, and,” comparisons “will be natural. A lot of times, it will be very fair, and sometimes it’s going to be based on what goes on around them that helps them win.”
Marrone makes a good point. This isn’t just about the quarterbacks. It’s about AFC East rivals who are going through a transitional period. Tom Brady isn’t going to play forever. The team that picked the better QB in last year’s draft is likely to be the heir to the divisional throne.
The Jets were widely perceived as the sad sacks of the division. Rex Ryan was seen as a dead coach walking. He never picked a starting quarterback. Smith inherited the job when Ryan played Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game and Sanchez got hurt.
But the Jets have shocked the league. They’re 5-4 and fresh off a bye after upsetting the Saints two weeks ago. They’re currently alone in the sixth and final AFC playoff spot. Ryan said the subject of playoffs never comes up within the team.
“No chance,” Ryan said. “We haven’t earned that. We’re the same team people said we were. We were picked 32nd. We’re the team people thought was an expansion team and all that. We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Ryan will be seeking his eighth win in the last nine games against the Bills. So it’s a big game for the Bills and Manuel, their anointed franchise guy. Ryan’s defense confounded him in the first meeting, which was also Manuel’s first NFL road game. Manuel was 19 of 42 that day and threw about half a dozen passes to the cheerleaders.
In seven career games against the Jets, Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 50.2 percent of his throws for an average of 174 yards a game. Ryan’s defense has owned the Bills, and this year’s Jet D has been surprisingly good. They lead the NFL in rushing defense. They’re allowing just 3.1 yards a carry, bad news for the Bills’ run-oriented attack.
As Marrone said, it’s about more than the quarterback. The Bills gave up 513 yards to an average Jets offense in September. They allowed Smith to complete two long touchdown passes – still the only two 50-plus yard TD throws of his young career.
The Bills’ defense needs to unsettle Smith and be the best unit on the field.
Manuel shouldn’t have to carry the day against Ryan’s D, so soon after coming back from a knee injury. But you can’t blame Bills fans for being impatient, for wanting to see some evidence that Manuel really is a franchise guy.
Really, is splitting with Geno Smith so much to ask?