Former Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix had a man-crush on Cam Newton the entire fall of 2010. In Newton, Nix saw the embodiment of a quarterback with the overwhelming physical gifts to lift a team on his shoulders at key moments.
The Bills didn’t stink bad enough to get Newton. But maybe Nix’s dreams of 2010 have a chance to come true a couple of years late.
EJ Manuel made a couple of elite, escape-the-rush scrambles on the final desperation drive of the game to lead the Bills to a 24-23 victory Sunday over Newton’s Carolina Panthers.
How many steal-defeat-from-the-jaws of victory setbacks have the Bills suffered in recent years? A crowd of 67,819 at Ralph Wilson Stadium finally was treated to the opposite, as the Bills marched 80 yards in the final 1:38 – with no timeouts – to win.
Manuel capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Stevie Johnson with 2 seconds left.
The final march was mostly a combination of check-down passes and ball-carriers doing a good job of getting out of bounds to stop the clock.
But Manuel came up especially big twice. The play before the TD, he eluded the pass rush and scrambled around right end for 9 yards to the Carolina 2. Two plays before that, the Panthers had him dead in the pocket – and a sack would have virtually ended the game. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound Manuel slipped away, spun out of their grasp and dumped the ball off to C.J. Spiller for a 4-yard gain with 21 seconds left.
“He made the plays to keep the chains moving, keep the team moving, keep us alive,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “That’s what he brings. He can do both things, and it’s tough to defend.”
“We got a lot of pressure,” said Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy. “We couldn’t get to him.”
The two scrambles were the kind of plays that Bills quarterbacks of recent vintage – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman, Drew Bledsoe – do not make.
Was it a watershed win for the Bills’ franchise? Only time will tell. But Bills players were almost giddy about the way the rookie first-round draft pick handled the final march.
“There was one point on that drive where somebody said something from the sideline and he waved them off – ‘I got it, I got it,’ ” said receiver Robert Woods. “It was straight under control from him.”
“He stood in there, he did all of his reads right,” said guard Kraig Urbik. “He didn’t panic. Even when he had a little bit of pressure, he took a hit or he ran with it. It was just his poise.”
Manuel finished 27 of 39 for 296 yards. He became the first NFL QB since 1960 to post a passer rating of 89 or better in each of the first two games of his rookie season. His longest pass play was a 45-yard catch-and-run to Johnson that set up a third-quarter touchdown. Manuel read a mismatch. The Panthers were in regular defense against three wideouts. Johnson, guarded by linebacker Jon Beason, left the coverage in the dust.
Manuel was far from perfect. He lost a fumble on a sack deep in Buffalo territory late in the third quarter. Then early in the fourth, he stared down receiver T.J. Graham on a short hitch route to the right, allowing Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly to step in front for an interception. Thanks to good Bills defense, the Panthers had to settle for field goals on both drives.
Manuel’s unflappability even got coach Doug Marrone a little irked after the Kuechly interception.
“He keeps telling me, and it gets me upset, he keeps telling me ‘I’m all right,’ ” Marrone said. “If he’s all right, then why is he making these decisions? But that’s the type of kid he is. He’s very relaxed, so I’m like, ‘What did you see? Why’d you do that? That’s not the read.’ ”
There was no room for errors on the final drive, and Manuel didn’t make any.
On first down from the Bills’ 20, he hit Johnson in the left flat for 12 yards. Johnson got out of bounds. Then came a dump-off over the middle to Spiller for 12 yards and a dump to Fred Jackson for 14.
“In a two-minute drill, the running backs are big,” Jackson said. “They’re doing so much dropping back trying to cover everything deep, we can catch the ball and get north. We can get some good yardage that way.”
After an incompletion, Manuel dumped off to the right for Johnson, who got out of bounds after 11 yards to the Carolina 35.
The great escape of the rush and dump to Spiller brought the ball to the 31 with 21 seconds left. Manuel went deep over the middle to Johnson, who was grabbed by Kuechly just as the ball was arriving. It was a 20-yard pass interference penalty.
Then came the scramble to the 2. “I was thinking touchdown in my mind,” Manuel said. “But I knew be smart, get out of bounds.”
With six seconds left, Johnson lined up in the left slot and Chris Hogan was to his outside. Carolina blitzed six men, but both slot cornerback D.J. Moore and Hogan’s man, Josh Norman, went with Hogan. Johnson was wide open, and Manuel lofted the pass to the corner of the end zone for the TD.
“It was a play we ran earlier and we missed on it,” Johnson said. “I pretty much got a corner route on that play. The defender was yelling, ‘Check, the corner, check the corner’ to the outside guy. … They just left me wide open. We took advantage of their miscommunication.”
“They ran the play earlier in two-minute, and we’re supposed to switch it off,” Moore said. “It was virtually the same thing. It was probably on me. I have to make sure the corner gets it.”
The Bills are 1-1. The Manuel era is off to a fine start.
“To see a young kid take the field like that – fourth quarter with 1:30 left on the clock – and to conduct the offense the way he did shows the maturity he has,” Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes said. “As a defensive player, we love that our offense can go the length of the field with no timeouts and score.”