JACKSONVILLE — Bills at Jags. I’ve struggled for days to put a fresh spin on this epic collision of 4-9 teams in my least-favorite NFL city.
How about “Return to Poz?” Or perhaps I could dust off that old holiday standard, “Another Heroic Run to 7-9?”
Maybe I could point out the many reasons to get fired up for the three-game stretch run. Hey, if they run the table, they finish .500 in AFC games for the first time since 2007. Not only that, it would give them a winning record in the division for the first time since’07!
It quickly occurred to me that long-suffering Bills fans might not see 2007 – the year J.P. Losman lost his job to Trent Edwards – as some kind of standard for football achievement.
That’s when James Carville popped into my head. He’s the southern political genius who ran Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, or around the time the Bills won their last meaningful road game.
Carville had a sign in campaign headquarters that read, “It’s the economy, stupid!” In other words, forget the minor details. If you want to win, keep your focus trained on that single, dominant and overriding issue.
So, if you’re still awake out there ...
“It’s the quarterback, stupid!”
It’s all about EJ Manuel over these last three weeks. Doug Marrone can talk about laying the foundation and finishing strong, about the players not feeling sorry for themselves. Fans can ponder the virtues of losing out and getting a higher draft pick.
But it’s the play of the rookie QB that truly matters now. It’s always about the quarterback. As the NFL becomes increasingly a passing league, as the percentage of league yardage creeps up to 70 percent, it becomes even more so. Get a good one, or get used to a decade of irrelevance.
Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But that was in the caveman era, when they ran the ball all the time. If he were alive today, Lombardi would say, “Quarterbacking isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Look around the league. You can start with Lombardi’s old team, the Packers. They’re a Super Bowl contender with Aaron Rodgers, a bad team without him. Peyton Manning goes to Denver and they’re the team to beat. Tom Brady keeps the Patriots at the top despite a shoddy receiving corps.
As long as Drew Brees is throwing the ball, the Saints are a threat to win it all. Cam Newton matures and Carolina turns the corner. Matt Stafford emerges and the Lions go from a joke to a contender.
Now look at the teams that can’t get it right: Rex Ryan’s problems with the QB might cost him his job. Mike Shanahan is on his way out of Washington because he mishandled Robert Griffin III. This sorry Jacksonville team is still trying to recover from drafting Blaine Gabbert.
The Bills have been chasing the QB since I took over this job in 2001. A lot of coaches have been tossed into the fire along the way. Wade Phillips went from Doug Flutie to Rob Johnson. Gregg Williams went from Johnson to Drew Bledsoe; Mike Mularkey from Bledsoe to J.P. Losman; Dick Jauron from Losman to Trent Edwards; Chan Gailey from Edwards to Ryan Fitzpatrick.
I’ve done more than 100 stories about quarterbacks during that time. I’ve learned that when you think you’ve paid too much attention to the QB issue, you step back, re-evaluate … and write about them some more.
When you don’t have the right guy, the story never gets old. That was the theme of this season, right? Manuel’s progress as a rookie was the one thing that truly mattered. They could win six games and it would be a success if EJ was on an upward learning curve at the end of the season.
So there’s still a lot to play for in the last three games. These games are vitally important for Manuel and the future of the franchise.
Manuel is a rookie. He has played only nine games. It’s too early to make definitive judgments on the kid. You need to be patient. On the other hand, if he plays poorly over these final three games, if he’s skittish in the pocket and inaccurate with his throws, the doubts will intensify.
You can only be so patient with quarterbacks nowadays. The clock ticks ever faster in the modern NFL. Looking back, I was probably too soft on Losman, Edwards and Fitzpatrick. None of them evolved beyond the critics’ early negative impressions to any significant extent.
With every Bills quarterback since Jim Kelly, the hope has far exceeded the reality. Basing the opinion on hope, rather than the evident limitations of a presumed franchise quarterback, cost the franchise precious time.
I’m not saying Manuel won’t succeed in the NFL. But he needs to show real progress over the next three weeks. He still hasn’t won a road game. His three worst games have all been away from Ralph Wilson Stadium. He has been slow in his progressions and wayward with his throws, even the easy ones.
Manuel admitted that he has gotten “flustered” on the road at times. That’s a troubling admission. Before his first NFL road game at the Jets, he talked about how much experience he’d gained playing big college games. He said it wouldn’t be much different. There’s been a world of difference.
He should have a big game against the Jaguars today. The crowd won’t be much of a factor — same as in Tampa. The Jags are last in the NFL in sacks and 26th against the pass. If Manuel can’t play with poise and assurance in the pocket against this team, it’ll be a very bad sign.
If Manuel stumbles today, and in the final two weeks against the Dolphins and Patriots, the Bills will be no more certain about the position than they were a year ago. If it goes badly, fans will have every justification to wonder if Manuel will make it in the NFL.
People are already speculating about the possibility of drafting another quarterback high in the next draft. It’s a radical idea, but as I said, things move very quickly in the league these days. Three weeks from now, I might be losing patience myself.