One week was all it took for Todd Downing to know that he wanted to work with EJ Manuel again.
He just had no idea that it would come a calendar year later.
Downing – at the time the quarterbacks coach for the Detroit Lions – tutored Manuel during the 2013 Senior Bowl. He came away impressed with the quarterback who would be drafted in the first round three months later by the Buffalo Bills.
“My time with EJ at the Senior Bowl made me want to work with him again at some point in my career, regardless of where it was,” Downing said.
As it turns out, it will be here in Buffalo. Downing joined the Bills last month as the team’s quarterbacks coach.
“I’m excited about it, because he’s so hungry to be great,” Downing said this week of Manuel, in his introduction to the Western New York media. “He wants to do the little things well. He wants to prepare better than any quarterback in the league. He really has that drive and that motivation to be great.”
Downing has spent his first couple weeks on the job reviewing Manuel’s up-and-down rookie season with the Bills. He started just 10 games because of knee injuries, completing 58.8 percent of his passes (180 of 306) for 1,972 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“Watching the Bills’ cut-ups from last year, that just reinforces to me that he wants to be great,” Downing said. “You can see him frustrated with himself if he makes a mistake. You can see him make a mistake and then come back and not repeat it. … Those things all tell me that EJ is on the path he needs to be on. We’re just going to accentuate all the good things.”
Downing spent the past three seasons as the Lions’ quarterback coach. During that time, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has turned into one of the league’s best at the position.
Stafford became the Lions’ franchise leader in career passing yards in 2013, with 17,457, and has also set franchise single-season records for passing yards (5,038, 2011), touchdowns (41, 2011), completions (435, 2012) and attempts (727, 2012).
Bills coach Doug Marrone reached out to Stafford prior to adding Downing to his staff.
“He had great things to say,” Marrone said. “We’re really looking forward to him coming in and mentoring all of our quarterbacks, especially since most of them are so young.”
Although he’s only 33, Downing is going into his 12th year on an NFL coaching staff. The native of Eden Prairie, Minn., played high school football for Mike Grant, the son of Bud Grant, the Hall of Fame former coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Downing originally wanted to walk on at the University of Minnesota to play quarterback, but a talk with Mike Grant set him on a different path.
“He knew that my physical gifts would be a bit limiting as to how far I could go playing, but he knew that I had a love for the game and a sense of what I was doing mentally in the game, and so he asked me if I’d be interested in coaching,” Downing said. “Through that process and through Bud Grant, I met some people that were willing to give me an opportunity as an intern with the Vikings.”
Downing interned with the Vikings during Dennis Green’s final season with the team in 2001, then got his first true break when Mike Tice took over as coach the following season. Downing eventually joined the Vikings’ staff as a football systems analyst, a job he held for two seasons (2003-04) before working as an offensive quality control coach in 2005.
While with his hometown team, Downing met the biggest influence in his coaching career in former Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
When Linehan took the head-coaching job with the St. Louis Rams in 2006, he called Downing with a job opportunity.
“I was so excited to be reunited with him and move onto something new – things had gotten a little bit stagnant at Minnesota – so I jumped at the opportunity,” Downing said. “I literally drove down 35 and got to St. Louis with no idea what I was going to coach.”
The Rams’ ownership had asked Linehan to keep some of the offensive coaches on staff, so the coach asked Downing how he felt about coaching on the defensive side of the ball.
He spent the 2006-07 seasons as an assistant for both defense and special teams, then became an assistant secondary coach and defensive quality control coach in 2008.
“My three years on defense in St. Louis is exponentially valuable to me in terms of knowing what coverages look like,” Downing said. “Working with Jim Haslett down there really enabled me to see the ball from the other side, to know what they’re teaching and expecting of their guys.
“When you’re trying to explain to a quarterback what Cover 2 looks like, here’s what the indicators are pre-snap, or here’s how you know you’re getting fire-zone pressure from this side, if you’ve been in the room where they’re teaching fire-zone pressure and they’re teaching Cover 2, you know what the indicators are.”
After Linehan was let go in St. Louis, he joined the Lions as offensive coordinator under Jim Schwartz – currently the Bills’ defensive coordinator. Downing followed, and started working as a quarterbacks coach.
“Scott’s the one who taught me a lot about quarterback play, taught me how to coach quarterbacks,” Downing said. “Really, he’s my biggest influence as an overall offensive mind.”
Downing’s presence with the Bills should lessen the burden on offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who doubled as the team’s quarterbacks coach last season.
“One of my jobs is going to be to be a mentor to these young quarterbacks. Now, what that entails to me is teaching them how to prepare, teaching them what it’s like to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘I,’ ” Downing said. “How it all shakes out week to week … we’ll see how that goes. There’s not a job description that they hand you when you walk in the door.”
Manuel isn’t the only quarterback on the Bills’ roster Downing has experience working with. Backup quarterback Thad Lewis was with the Lions last summer before coming to the Bills in a trade prior to the start of the regular season.
“We were pretty well established with our one, two and three quarterbacks in Detroit. ... I remember sitting with Thad and I asked him one day, ‘Why are you in here watching extra film, why are you staying out late on the practice field and throwing with the running backs, you know, if you feel like you’re stuck at the No. 4 spot?’ And he said, ‘because I want to be an NFL quarterback,’ ” Downing said. “And that impressed me.”
Ultimately, though, Downing’s time in Buffalo will be judged on what he does with Manuel. He hopes that week at the Senior Bowl is a harbinger of things to come.
“The first thing that jumped out to me about EJ was that he was the guy that would be there early, as I’m walking down to morning meetings, he’s already in there watching film. He’s staying late watching film. He’s kind of a film junkie,” Downing said. “I think that’s what’s going to be what propels EJ to the next level. ... EJ’s got that in him to want to be great.”