JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Earlier in the week, during a production meeting with the TV broadcast team, Doug Marrone had been asked what it would take for him to pull his rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, out of a game.
Marrone told them it would never happen, because it’s a learning process and, as a head coach, he’s a firm believer in letting a young player learn from one moment to the next, no matter how painful the circumstance.
So early in Sunday’s game, after Manuel missed on his first four passes, including a short, ghastly throw directly to a Jags linebacker, Marrone could hear all the voices out there, asking if he might have to yank the kid before things got too far out of hand.
“That jumped into my mind,” Marrone said. “Oh, here they go, they’re probably saying, ‘What’s he thinking?’ ”
He was thinking that Manuel would have to play his way out of it. If he’s ever going to be the franchise quarterback that Bills fans have long awaited, he’ll have to find a way to bounce back from rough starts – and to lead his team from behind on the road.
And that’s what happened at EverBank Field. Manuel, who was frightfully bad for a quarter, turned coolly efficient thereafter, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another as the Bills beat the Jaguars, 27-20, giving Manuel the first road victory of his brief NFL career.
Manuel was 2 for 7 passing in the first quarter and 15 for 17 over the final three periods. He ended the first quarter with a 6.0 rating and finished the day with a rating of 105.0. He threw for a modest 193 yards and ran for another 37, including an 8-yard TD dash.
He wasn’t spectacular. This was not the 1972 Dolphins on the other sideline. But he kept his head and led his team. Three times this season, Manuel’s sorry play on the road had dragged the Bills down. This time, he lifted himself up after a brutal start and lifted his team in the process.
Manuel got plenty of help from his running game, with Fred Jackson pounding between the tackles and C.J. Spiller darting outside, the Bills rushed for 198 yards against a Jags team that had not given up 100 yards to any opponent while winning four of its previous five games.
That was one of the themes heading into the season, remember? The Bills’ best position was running back. Jackson and Spiller were eager to take on a heavy workload, knowing that a strong running attack would make the transition easier for a rookie quarterback.
“When we’re running the ball well, it allows our play-action game to open up,” said Jackson, who had 80 yards on 17 carries. “If we give him the opportunity to make some throws and we protect him, he’s going to make them for us. We wanted to let him have that bounce-back game and show the world that he’s a good quarterback.”
Manuel bounced back nicely after a horrid beginning. He took a sack on third down to start the second quarter. The Bills seemed to be going nowhere when they took over on their own 6-yard line two minutes later after a Jacksonville punt.
“Our mind-set was ‘Let’s get 94 yards right now and we’ll start feeling a lot better about ourselves,’ ” center Eric Wood said. “We were pretty amped up. With this offense, it’s all about getting that first first down.”
They got one on second and 9, when Manuel feathered a 20-yard pass to fellow rookie Robert Woods along the left sideline. He zipped a 28-yarder to Chris Gragg. He hit Woods again for a 7-yard TD to finish it off.
As Wood predicted, they drove 94 yards, and things were looking a lot more promising. On their very next possession, they went 72 yards on eight plays, most of it on the ground. Manuel dashed 8 yards up the middle for a TD to cap that impressive drive.
“I think that’s a part of our maturation as an offense,” Manuel said, “especially as young guys in the skill positions – understanding the situations. Definitely on third downs. I think we converted a lot better on third down than we did last week.”
A week earlier, the Bills had been 1-for-11 against the Bucs. They were 5-for-13 against the Jags. They also got a 31-yard pass interference call when Manuel threw long for Marquise Goodwin late in the first half. See, throw the ball down the field and good things can happen!
The interference penalty led to a 40-yard Dan Carpenter field goal that made it 20-10. So after going five quarters without a touchdown, dating back to the start of the Tampa loss, the Bills scored 17 points in eight minutes.
The Bills had one more long drive in them. The defense, which had another unremarkble performance outside The Ralph, allowed a bunch of Jaguars backups to rally from behind to tie the game at 20 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Bills seemed to be reeling at that point.
Marrone has been talking a lot lately about learning to win, about not feeling sorry for yourself and seizing the moment. He kept reminding his players on the sideline Sunday.
When the Jags tied it, Marrone yelled to his team, “Let’s go. Let’s get it back. Hey, the offense has to answer.”
They answered. On the next possession, Manuel drove them 80 yards on nine plays. They never even got to a third down. He hit Woods for 20 yards on second and 10, then Woods again for 18 on second and 12. Manuel finished it off with a 1-yard TD throw to a wide-open Frank Summers.
Things got a little hairy from there. The Bills’ defense, which was atrocious again on third and long, let the Jags drive all the way to the 1-yard line before Chad Henne settled into full journeyman mode.
OK, so Manuel didn’t outplay Tom Brady or Drew Brees. But for once, he was the better quarterback in a road game. I don’t want to get carried away.
It’s a low bar, but after the losses at the Jets, Steelers and Bucs, it’s an encouraging sign, a desperately needed step forward.
I’m sure fans look forward to a day when Manuel really lights it up, when he has some of those 300-yard passing days like the elite QBs. Celebrating a 193-yard performance feels suspiciously the way it did when we were searching for signs that Trent Edwards was the real thing.
I’ll admit, about 10 minutes into Sunday’s game, I was wondering if Manuel was going to pieces in front of our eyes.
People were dismissing him as a bust, insisting that Thad Lewis was better. But he bounced back. Let’s not forget, he came back strong after his other bad road games, too.
As Marrone said, it’s a process. It’s only natural to be impatient, to want a first-round draft pick to proceed as quickly as possible. Manuel needed a game like this, a solid road win, to get himself back on track.
The standard will get a lot higher. Fans can only hope for a time when Marrone leaves Manuel in the game not because he’s finding his way, but because he’s already arrived.