ADVERTISEMENT

Doug Marrone said it three times, in case anyone had any doubts. He pulled out the old sporting cliche and said he was “110 percent confident” that EJ Manuel would be ready to play in the season finale 10 days from now in New England.

Of course, this was right after the Bills’ coach dropped the bombshell that Manuel would miss Sunday’s game against Miami. Evidently, Manuel reinjured his left knee – the one that caused him to miss a month of the season – when he was hit after throwing a pass late in the first half at Jacksonville.

Marrone’s insistence that Manuel would be ready for the Pats seemed a bit odd. On Monday, he said his rookie quarterback was OK after tweaking the knee. I’m no doctor, but it’s not every day you hear an NFL coach declare a player unfit to play a game and 110 percent for the following week in his next breath.

But this is a delicate situation. This makes three knee injuries for Manuel in four months. Marrone wanted to reassure Bills fans who are freaking out about Manuel and wondering if the franchise quarterback, the hope of the future, might be injury-prone after all.

Marrone is astute about PR. He’s well aware that Manuel’s injuries are a topic of concern among the fans. He knows people will be quick to label Manuel as injury-prone. He told his young QB to expect the questions, too.

“Obviously, people are going to think that and write that,” Marrone said. “I totally understand that. But my personal opinion is this: He’s not injury-prone. His history has shown he’s never been hurt.”

What he meant was, EJ didn’t get hurt in college. This isn’t college, as Manuel has discovered. The NFL game is a different animal, faster and more violent than you can imagine. There are some 250 players on injured reserve right now.

A big part of being a success is being durable, especially for quarterbacks.

Once Trent Edwards suffered a concussion, he was never the same player. I’m not saying Edwards would have become Joe Montana, but injuries quickly took a toll and made a less bold and confident player. The Bills were soon looking for a new answer at QB.

“In this league, what is difficult for any player is being able to keep coming back, keep coming back, keep coming back, and never really fully recovering,” Marrone said, “especially the younger you are.”

Marrone said it’s harder for rookies, who endure the whirlwind of college, the scouting combine, the draft and training camp before the regular season. He said it takes a toll on their bodies. Given a full offseason, he expects Manuel to come back a lot stronger.

That makes sense. It also sounds like he’s rationalizing Manuel’s injury history as a rookie. He called the latest injury a “fluke.” There’s always some luck involved when players get hurt. But look around the league. A great number of the top quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger) have played every meaningful snap this year.

As I’ve said before, it’s all about the quarterback in the NFL. Everything they do gets magnified in importance. When a rookie gets hurt three times, the concern will increase exponentially, no matter how apparently fluky his latest injury.

Fans have every right to be concerned. Many were dubious about Manuel to begin with. They’re looking for reasons to believe in the guy. The win in Jacksonville was a good sign, but people wanted to see him lead the Bills to their first back-to-back wins of a disappointing season.

The final four games had more meaning than in other years, because it was a chance to evaluate Manuel heading into the offseason. This is the last thing the Bills needed. The only way it could have been worse was if he had gone 8 for 31 with six interceptions against the Dolphins on Sunday.

There are questions about Manuel’s accuracy, and about his decision-making in the pocket. Those issues can be addressed with time and repetition. But how do you assuage mounting fears that a young quarterback might be fragile?

“I mean, I’ve been playing this game 20-however many years,” Manuel said, “and never really had recurring injuries, especially with my knees and things like that. So you obviously don’t want to get the tag of being injury-prone, or the worst word, ‘soft.’

“I know I’m not that, but you still have to be smart with your body if you want to have a nice, long career.”

Manuel found out the hard way in Cleveland, when he hurt the left knee while trying to squeeze a few extra yards out of a scramble. He learned that part of being a responsible NFL quarterback was knowing how to protect your body.

Still, mobility is one of Manuel’s assets. He needs to take off when the opportunity is there. Before the Jags game, he said he needed to be more aggressive, to make plays with his legs. He didn’t get hurt while running, but this injury revives questions about the wisdom of exposing him to big hits.

“We’ve got to keep working to make sure he’s making the right decisions,” Marrone said, “but I don’t think it’s going to hinder us to be able to do the things that we need to do for us to win.”

There was rising speculation about drafting another quarterback even before the injury. It will intensify now. You can’t blame fans for wanting the Bills to explore a better option, to double their chances of finding the right guy.

This heightens the skepticism and dread about Manuel’s long-term prospects. Certainly, the Bills need to think about bringing in an experienced and durable veteran backup QB, if they intend to make a serious run at the playoffs next season.

It would be a discouraging end to the season if Manuel had to sit out the last two games of his rookie year. Listening to Marrone, you could sense the dread of an entire organization, unwilling to even contemplate the possibility.

After all the ups and downs, the great hope was that Manuel would finish his rookie season on a high note. Now it’s simply about him finishing it on his feet.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com