It began as the sort of play the Buffalo Bills and their fans crave from EJ Manuel.
The score was tied in the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago. Buffalo was in a third-and-8 situation.
Manuel, big and athletic, spun out of a collapsed pocket and rolled to his left. He was smoothly on the move, a threat to pass or run for a moment. He pointed at Fred Jackson to throw a block and tucked the ball into the crook of his right arm.
Manuel made it to the sideline and easily gained the 8 yards.
But he didn’t stop there. Even though he neglected to switch the ball to his outside arm, he leaned forward for some reason. Was he trying to jump over Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson? Lower his shoulder pads? Curl into a ball?
We don’t know what move Manuel wanted to make because it never happened. He miscalculated how fast Gipson was homing in. Gipson struck Manuel on the right knee.
Manuel hasn’t played since that Oct. 3 collision sprained his lateral collateral ligament. His absence helped the Browns win that night. He then missed last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bills coach Doug Marrone announced Wednesday the rookie quarterback will be out another four to six weeks.
The Bills and their frustrated fans hope Manuel can be their franchise quarterback, yet in the span of nine exhibition and regular-season games, he already has suffered an injury to each knee.
With all that, two dilemmas are emerging.
Manuel must learn how to protect his body if he wants to preserve himself as a dual-threat quarterback. And because of Manuel’s inability to stay on the field, the Bills may have too little to evaluate before properly determining whether they should use another high draft choice on a quarterback in six months.
But risking big money and prime draft choices on mobile quarterbacks aren’t issues for only Buffalo.
As mobile quarterbacks gain popularity, front offices around the NFL must rationalize the idea of willfully exposing their most important player to extra contact as part of an organizational game plan.
“It’s a concern,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “He’s the general. You don’t want your general to go down. Your troops get confused when the general’s not around.”
Arizona Cardinals coach and respected offensive schemer Bruce Arians was asked at the NFL Scouting Combine his thoughts on quarterbacks who run.
“I’m not a believer in putting my quarterback in harm’s way” because, Arians said, “I believe a lot of harm will come to him.”
Today’s quarterback has been tutored on passing footwork and mechanics since he was in junior high.
Running the ball largely has been left to a quarterback’s instincts. The average fan probably would be surprised at how little coaching a quarterback receives when it comes to scrambling.
Much of what quarterbacks are told would qualify as advice more than training.
“What we tell them is you have to be smart,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said.
“You have to be able to protect yourself, meaning that if it’s third down, the goal is obviously to get the first down. That’s what you have to do.
“But then there’s a point where we’ve gotten enough, and you need to slide or go out of bounds. It’s the same situation with every quarterback. It’s what we stress.”
Marrone underscores that message with all of his ball handlers.
“We also tell it to receivers and backs,” Marrone said. “There’s a certain point where what you’re going to get and gain is not worth the risk of fumbling. Fumbling is really what we talk about for those players.
“But for the quarterback, we stress the hits, not taking the hits.”
Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was dynamite as a rookie last year, but he got bludgeoned as a runner. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick’s body has taken a pounding over the years. President Obama last year asked Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to tell Vick to slide.
Of course, classic pocket passers get hurt, too. The generation’s best, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, have missed full seasons with serious injuries.
Oxford University and Princeton University Ph.D. scholars presented analysis for a Slate article suggesting no discernible difference in the frequency or severity of injuries between classic pocket passers and running quarterbacks.
Common sense, however, dictates running quarterbacks will survive longer if they learn how to protect themselves as runners.
As admirable as Manuel’s competitiveness was on his unfortunate Cleveland scramble, many of his teammates, including captains Eric Wood and Jackson, conceded Manuel made a mistake not to step out of bounds after gaining the first down.
“You want them to be competitive, and you want them to go full-speed, and you want them to be tough and physical,” said Mazzone, who coached San Diego Chargers star Philip Rivers at North Carolina State, was among Tim Tebow’s private instructors before the 2010 draft and has worked with Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder.
“But he’s not a running back. A running back makes his living getting hit. That’s in his job description. That’s not in most quarterbacks’ job descriptions.”
Quarterbacks are wards of the game with all the rules designed to safeguard them. They often are considered defenseless players.
Once they leave the pocket, though, quarterbacks lose protections such as the one-step-contact rule and the strike-zone rule instituted after Brady’s season-erasing knee injury in 2008.
On the eve of this season, although rules about scrambling quarterbacks haven’t changed, the popularity of read-option offenses spurred the NFL to remind its clubs that quarterbacks have no extra protections when they run an option or pretend to still have the ball after handing off.
Mobile quarterbacks can be targets, as many defenders are realizing.
“You do have to take your shots on the quarterback,” Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said before playing San Francisco 49ers strider Colin Kaepernick in the season opener, “and obviously they’re too important to their offense.
“If that means pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that’s exactly what we’re going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable.”
Mazzone laughed when asked his reaction the moment a quarterback tucks the ball to run.
“I’m excitedly holding my breath,” Mazzone said.
Mazzone’s offense is averaging 45.8 points a game for ninth-ranked UCLA. Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley is averaging 294 passing yards and 52 rushing yards a game.
“A good quarterback, when things break down in a play, will create first downs for you with his legs,” Mazzone said. “That’s the bonus. When a route breaks down or something happens that’s not right — and a great example is Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M — a good quarterback will keep plays alive and keep you on the field and lets you call more plays.
“So you get excited. ‘OK, go create something with your feet.’ But the flip side is, ‘Be smart about it, though.’ That’s the fine line we all walk.”
On UCLA’s first day of camp, quarterbacks are given specific instructions on running protocol.
“They’re all competitive,” Mazzone said. “They all want to make first downs and score touchdowns. You want them to have a feel for finding as much grass as you can find, but when there comes a time that there’s no more grass left, we teach our kids how to slide.”
Not all coaches have success inducing quarterbacks to slide. Ryan Fitzpatrick refused to slide for the Bills despite his coaches’ and teammates’ pleadings.
Exasperated over Mark Sanchez’s propensity to dive headlong for first downs despite orders to slide, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan arranged for New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi to teach Sanchez how in 2009. The lessons didn’t really take.
An effective slide isn’t as easy as it sounds. Hundley badly rolled his ankle last year while sliding awkwardly at the end of a run against Nebraska.
Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered a season-ending injury while sliding in the same game Manuel was injured. Just as Hoyer began his slide, Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso plopped on him.
“That’s when it hits you,” said Mazzone, formerly offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Auburn and Arizona State and the New York Jets’ receivers coach from 2006 through 2008. “You just can’t tell a kid to slide and assume he knows how to do it. You’ve got to coach him on the proper way to slide as a quarterback.
“That’s something they actually practice, getting on the ground, protecting the ball and protecting yourself. We’d rather our guy practice it and work on that skill of sliding.”
Blue-chip recruits and combine prospects can better get away with trampling a defensive back on Friday nights or juking a mid-major linebacker on Saturday afternoons.
With a franchise’s future and millions of dollars at stake in the pros, competitiveness sometimes must step aside for prudence.
“It’s learning experience for him,” Jackson said the day after Manuel’s latest knee injury. “He’ll be better. It’s something he’ll learn from.
“He’s got to take care of his body.”