One of Doug Marrone’s most vital tasks when he became the Bills’ head coach was helping in the search for a franchise quarterback. Everyone knew they needed a guy with a big arm.
But Marrone wanted something — big hands.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Marrone said, “but having been with teams in these kind of elements, one of the things we were looking at was the hand size.”
Marrone said history showed that quarterbacks who succeeded in the Northeast usually had strong arms and big mitts. Among the many qualities that EJ Manuel had in his favor was big hands. Among the draft-eligible quarterbacks, Marrone said Manuel had the first- or second-largest hands of the bunch.
On Sunday, the Bills were in good hands, not to mention very large ones. Manuel played his first game in the swirling winds of Ralph Wilson Stadium and was sensational. On a challenging day for the passing game, Manuel completed 20-of-28 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-14 victory over the Jets.
Manuel’s performance would have been exceptional in the mildest conditions. Rex Ryan’s defense had owned the Bills over the years, stifling their passing attack. I figured the Bills could win by controlling the ball on the ground and limiting the number of times Manuel put the ball up against Ryan’s D in the wind.
Instead, on a day when his running game was stagnant and his top wide receivers (Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods) were out with injuries, Manuel played his finest game as a Bill, soundly outplaying his rookie counterpart, Geno Smith.
There was a feeling that Manuel had arrived when he drove the Bills down the field in the final 90 seconds against Carolina in Week Two. But on Sunday, one week after returning to the lineup with a dreadful performance in Pittsburgh, Manuel bounced back with the most complete game of his rookie season.
A franchise quarterback has to make big passing plays when the running game is sputtering. He needs to lift his team when its spirits are down, as the Bills’ were after the blowout loss to the Steelers. And in Buffalo, you must do it in the elements, in rain, snow and dastardly winds.
For Manuel on Sunday, you can check the box on all three. He wouldn’t use inactivity, or the winds, as an excuse in Pittsburgh. And he said he wouldn’t allow a bad performance to shake his confidence. But whether it was the coaching or his own reluctance, he seemed unwilling to make throws down the field in Pittsburgh.
During the week, the coaches told Manuel it was time to cut loose, to show confidence in that big arm of his, regardless of the weather. Marrone had them practice outdoors on Wednesday and Thursday, looking to build confidence in his QB and his team.
“I don’t know what’s been done before,” Marrone said, “but we went out this week and we threw in weather like this. That’s going to help us down the road when we’re pushing for the playoffs and when we’re playing home playoff games.”
Note that he said ‘when’, not if. Marrone was concerned about his team’s intensity in Pittsburgh. He saw creeping signs of discouragement. He wanted to refocus his team, and restore a sense of belief. His veteran leaders, notably Kyle Williams and Fred Jackson, helped set the tone.
Granted, the defense did its part by harassing Smith into three interceptions and countless bad throws. Jairus Byrd had the best game of a troubled season, making the sort of plays that put him in the Pro Bowl and spurred him to hold out for elite safety money.
Williams, close to his peak form of three years ago, was a dominant force at defensive tackle.
But nothing lifts a team like an assured performance from its quarterback. Manuel’s play seemed to drag the Bills down in Pittsburgh, and he inspired them against the Jets.
Late in the first half, Manuel stood in against a blitz and unleashed a deep throw toward the end zone. It wasn’t a great throw, but he got it out and allowed T.J. Graham to come back and make a play for a 34-yard touchdown that made it 10-0.
“He really made some good throws, some outstanding throws,” Marrone said. “He handled things well, wasn’t rattled at all during the game. He had a good demeanor. He was going back and throwing it. That was one of the things we talked to him about during the week.”
The defense seemed to feed off the big pass play. Two plays after the TD, Williams sacked Smith and forced a fumble that was recovered by Manny Lawson at the Jets’ 4. Frank Summers scored his first NFL touchdown two plays later. At the half, it was 20-0.
Midway through the third quarter, the Jets scored to cut the Bills’ lead to 20-7. I could hear the collected groans throughout Bills Nation, envisioning another collapse.
No problem. Later in the quarter, Manuel threw a perfect strike to Graham down the left sideline — a catch that was confirmed by replay. On the very next play, Manuel unleashed another gorgeous throw, this one a 43-yard bomb that rookie Marquise Goodwin grabbed in stride and took to the house for a TD.
Two plays, two deep throws down the field for 83 yards — into the wind. I’m guessing the calls for the Bills to draft another QB high were subsiding at that point.
“We practiced in it Wednesday and Thursday,” Manuel said, “so it wasn’t a problem. When you’re playing football, you really don’t think about the wind or the cold or anything. You make plays.”
Manuel made the long plays, and the short ones, too. On the drive that led to the Graham TD in the second quarter, he twice ran sneaks for first downs. Failing to convert on short yardage has hurt the Bills this season. Marrone felt it was the main source of discouragement in Pittsburgh.
Seeing their rookie QB sneak for crucial first downs had to lift the Bills. It let them know they could stand up against a physical Jets defensive front. The sneaks set the stage for the crowning blows later — Manuel’s deep throws to his undersized wideouts.
“Buffalo’s not an easy place to play quarterback,” said center Eric Wood, “which is partially why we haven’t had a ton of great ones. EJ did an awesome job today. When you play in the wind and drizzle and you hit a few deep balls, it proves you belong here, because that’s not easy for a quarterback to do.
“It takes a big, strong-armed, big-hands guy, and I think that’s what we’ve got.”