EJ Manuel’s most recent knee injury is cause for concern, but not a reason to give up on him.
At least that’s the opinion of Stephania Bell, a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist who serves as ESPN’s injury expert.
Manuel, the Buffalo Bills’ rookie franchise quarterback, will miss Sunday’s home finale against the Miami Dolphins because of a knee injury – the third one he’s suffered this year.
“It’s not ideal to see a guy have these three things in a year, but I’m not ready to say he’s never going to make it in the league as a franchise quarterback, or he’s doomed,” Bell said in a phone interview with The Buffalo News this week. “He could have a blip in a 10-year career, and this could be the blip. It’s kind of too early to make that claim.
“I’m reluctant to make anything of it, other than it’s some bad luck for him. I think it’s too early to tag him ‘injury prone.’ I’m sure that it’s understandably going to be a question when you have that many injuries this close together, but it may just be that that’s this year and he does fine going forward.”
Coach Doug Marrone said Manuel suffered a sprained left knee when he was hit on the third-to-last play of the first half of Sunday’s 27-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He injured the same knee in the preseason and missed the final two exhibition games, but returned in time for the season opener.
Manuel also suffered a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee during a Week Five loss at Cleveland, forcing him to miss four games. In each of the previous cases, he’s returned to the lineup on the shorter side of the initial time frame given.
“He benefits from being young,” Bell said. “When you’re younger you tend to recover a little more quickly. He hasn’t had any major blowout injuries, but it’s certainly something that you look at and you go ‘hmmm.’ This is twice now on this one knee that he’s had an issue. The other knee, he sprained his lateral collateral, which isn’t insignificant.”
Manuel’s latest injury – coupled with his inconsistency when healthy – has led for some fans to call for his replacement. But even one of Manuel’s harshest critics coming into the season thinks that would be rash.
“I think it’s tough to evaluate Manuel based off what happened this year. He hasn’t been on the field a ton, and when he has, he’s still kind of getting back in rhythm,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I think he’s shown flashes. I’ll be honest, he’s played better at times than I expected him to play. ... I would be surprised, I guess, if the Bills drafted a quarterback in the first round.”
McShay last year ranked Manuel as the sixth-best quarterback prospect in the 2013 draft. He ended up being the first one taken, 16th overall. McShay ripped the pick at the time, saying Manuel’s accuracy and anticipation skills were inadequate.
The Bills’ coaching staff, however, has done a good job with Manuel’s development, in McShay’s eyes.
“They’ve had a plan for him since day one, and it’s one thing to have the plan, but it’s another to be able to execute it with good coaching, and I think that’s what you see,” he said. “It’s a really good situation for EJ Manuel and I think he has the chance to succeed with that coaching staff and with that plan. But the durability is a concern, there’s no question about it.”
To that end, McShay gave the Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Taylor Lewan from Michigan in his first crack at a 2014 mock draft.
“I think there are enough other needs for Buffalo that you want to try to build around Manuel, especially early in the draft,” he said.
Mobility is a key component of Manuel’s game, and one of the reasons the Bills decided early in the practice week to rule him out. Marrone said swelling in Manuel’s knee did not respond to treatments the way the team had hoped, and that his “escapability” was not at the level it would need to be to play.
“There’s not a lot of room for swelling in the knee, so when you start getting swelling, you’re blocking range of motion. And when you’re blocking range of motion, then a player can’t be safe, because they can’t function normally,” Bell said. “That’s what they mean when they say you can’t protect yourself, because you can’t run effectively, you can’t get out of the way.”
Bell agreed with the Bills’ decision to shut Manuel down for the week.
“They’re not being overly conservative, they’re being smart,” she said. “Part of what he needs to be able to do is escape a pass rush and get out of the way. The last thing you want to see is him gimping around there and something happens and there’s a much bigger problem. It’s hard to argue with the way they’re managing him. Obviously with it being his knee, you worry about the long-term health of any football player’s knees, and he is a mobile quarterback.”
Manuel said he has no worries about being able to make plays with his legs when he returns to the lineup.
“I’ve still had my mobility and been able to move around,” he said of returning to the lineup the first two times this year. “I know it’ll heal up. It’s not something I really want to deal with right now, but I have to.”
Marrone said Manuel has learned from the injuries this season – particularly the one suffered against Cleveland – about what type of hits he can subject himself to, and that the team does not feel it needs to alter its offensive approach with regards to Manuel running.
“I don’t think it’s going to hinder us to be able to do the things we need to do for us to win,” the coach said.
Marrone expressed confidence that Manuel’s knee is structurally sound. That’s a big reason why Bell isn’t overly concerned with the latest diagnosis.
“There are times when I do think something is bad. There are certain types of injuries, that, if I see a couple of them, I’m worried about the health of a player going forward,” she said. “He’s a big target, he just has to be mindful of that. If he rehabs well, there’s not necessarily any reason as of right now to think that he’s in dire straits because of what’s happened.”