EJ Manuel gets what’s at stake here.
After 14 straight years without a playoff berth, he knows patience is not something Buffalo Bills fans have left to give.
Skepticism flows through the fan base. Eight straight losing seasons will do that to even the most wagon-circling members of Bills Nation.
There is a pressure to win that looms over the organization.
“I felt it as soon as I got here – the want and the hunger to win,” said Manuel, the second-year quarterback who will play the biggest part in potentially, finally, altering the course of a once-proud franchise. “I’m used to winning. Even though we went 6-10 last year, coming from the program I played for in college, I still have a winning mindset. That’s something that’s never going to change about me.”
The weight of expectation is Manuel’s to carry. It’s a good thing, then, that he has broad shoulders.
“The great thing about it is the opportunity to really help turn this whole city around,” he said. “It’s not even just about football. I feel like it will lift up all of Western New York.”
Manuel was less than a year old when the Bills went to their first of four straight Super Bowls. But, as the godson of Bruce Smith, he has unique insight into what those days were like.
“As a kid, obviously I didn’t know what team I would be playing for – I just wanted to play in the NFL. But that’s why I say I don’t think I’m here by mistake,” Manuel said. “I’m a firm believer in that. I know some people make it seem like it’s a cliché, but I really feel like I’m here for a reason – to help turn this franchise around.”
It’s been almost two decades since Jim Kelly retired, and since then 13 quarterbacks have started a game in a Bills uniform. Up to this point, none have proven worthy successors.
“You see the type of effect Jim Kelly has on this whole area, just the support that he gets. I think when he first got here, the Bills weren’t very good, either,” Manuel said. “Once he got that thing turned around with a bunch of other great Hall of Famers, it’s a beautiful thing. When you win here in Buffalo, just like when you win at Florida State, it’s the best city on earth. Tallahassee was awesome during college, and I can see Buffalo will be the exact same way.”
It may be unrealistic to expect Manuel to emulate Kelly – a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame – right away. The second year for the projected 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL features wild variations in statistical performances.
Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, for example, started 16 games, throwing for 4,135 yards, 26 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile – who’s also likely Canton-bound – played in only two games as a backup for Brett Favre.
The Bills, though, need Manuel to climb up at least a couple tiers in the quarterback rankings. A season like Miami’s Ryan Tannehill had in his second year would be a good place to start: 3,913 yards, 60 percent completions, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions with a passer rating above 80.
Can Manuel get there? He believes so, based on his offseason work.
Others are in “show me” mode.
Lackawanna’s Ron Jaworski, for example, ranked Manuel No. 28 among starting quarterbacks in preseason power rankings for ESPN.
Confidence is not an issue.
“I believe in myself. I know my coaches and my teammates, they believe in me as well,” he said. “It’s Year Two. Obviously I’m still very young, but I don’t think that’s an excuse. I think this is our year and a great opportunity for us to go ahead and turn things around.”
Getting to work
Of course, for that to be true, Manuel had to put in the work. The Bills have no worries in that regard. Teammates and coaches have lauded the quarterback’s dedication.
“That’s from my parents,” Manuel said. “My dad, to the smallest point of, ‘Hey get up and take the trash out,’ he didn’t have to ask me twice. And if he did, he kicked me in my butt and I made sure I did it. I owe a lot of my personality, my character, to my family. I’m a firm believer in doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Step No. 1 for Manuel in the offseason was to get right physically. He tore the meniscus in his left knee twice as a rookie – once in the preseason and once in Week 15 – ultimately missing the last two games of the year. He also suffered a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in October against Cleveland, an injury that kept him out of four games.
“The only one I felt like I really could have controlled was just getting out of bounds,” Manuel said, referring to the game against the Browns. “I don’t necessarily believe black cats bring bad luck and all that kind of stuff, but it definitely seemed that way. I never had any serious injuries that would put me out for more than a game or a half or whatever, but thank God I’m fully healthy now.”
Once he was back to 100 percent, Manuel twice organized informal workouts with his receivers – once in Miami and once in California. He also worked with a personal coach, Steve Calhoun, who runs the Armed & Dangerous Football Camp in California.
“A big thing once I got my health back was working on my throwing motion,” Manuel said. “Generating more power with the ball, and being consistent with that was one of my goals.”
To do so, he worked extensively on his core strength.
“You want to throw in a phone booth, instead of throwing out wide,” Manuel said. “Be compact and drive it to your target. Even on film from last year to this year, I can see the ball coming out a lot better. The deep comebacks – I hit one of them versus Pittsburgh – those are the small things I look at like, ‘Hey, that’s progress, that’s good.’ I’m trying to continue to build on that.”
Quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and Manuel focused on the quarterback’s footwork during the preseason.
“EJ’s a very athletic and very strong-armed kid, so as long as his feet are right, it’ll lead to consistency with his accuracy,” Downing said. “We’ve really harped on that. We don’t take anything for granted or get bored with success. Even the simplest thing like a three-step drop needs to be drilled over and over and over again so that it’s muscle memory. … There’s a wide variety of different launching points that we need him to be comfortable in, and you get it by repetition.”
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system is predicated on everything being choreographed. The depth of the routes of the receivers has to match the depth of Manuel’s drop.
“There are specific plays or schemes where we want him in a certain spot,” Downing said. “As we build all those pieces together, it builds his confidence.”
Manuel said his overall command of the offense has greatly improved.
“A lot of the work that I’ve put in during the offseason, I can tell it’s paid off,” he said. “I can see the growth. That’s been very exciting for me.”
Another focus for Manuel was getting a better understanding of the offensive line’s protection assignments. He wanted to know what center Eric Wood was seeing, and share what he viewed.
Wood said Manuel is “light years” from where he was as a rookie.
“Mentally, he’s doing a great job,” he said. “He really put in time this offseason, understanding protections, understanding the run game to where he knows every offensive lineman’s job on every single play, and that’s valuable for a quarterback.
“It’s important for the center and the quarterback to be on the same page, and we definitely are. I credit EJ for a lot of that – he put in a ton of work.”
Downing said Manuel is running the line of scrimmage.
“He’s taking ownership of things,” he said. “The communication between he and the offensive line is so much better than it was, and a lot of that is just growth from Year One to Year Two.”
Giving him the tools
Of course, Manuel isn’t going it alone in an effort to improve. The Bills set out on a course this offseason to give him all the help they could.
That started in January with the hiring of Downing as quarterbacks coach. He and Manuel had a previous working relationship during the 2013 Senior Bowl.
It continued in April, when the Bills traded for Buffalo native Mike Williams, a fifth-year wide receiver whose career had been sidetracked by off-the-field issues in Tampa Bay.
The biggest move, though, came in early May during the first round of the NFL Draft. The Bills pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Browns to select Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick.
“We want to surround EJ Manuel with every possible weapon we can to help us get to where we need to go,” General Manager Doug Whaley said that night.
In lesser ways, the team also showed its commitment to Manuel. The day after the 2013 season ended, coach Doug Marrone proclaimed Manuel would be his starter this year.
“We feel very comfortable with the future with EJ,” he said.
Whaley and Marrone spoke at the end of 2013 about how they both felt an entire offseason would greatly benefit Manuel.
“Does he want to get better? Yes,” Whaley said. “We think he will get better. We know he will get better. It’s just going to take some time, a full year of offseason, of not preparing for the draft process, not having the mental stress of where he’s going to be drafted. He will be settled in and become a better pro this offseason. The step between Year One and Year Two is usually dramatic for most players.”
Working through struggles
That’s not to say it’s happening overnight. Not every practice at St. John Fisher College during training camp was flawless. Far from it, on some days.
The starting offense failed to reach the end zone on its first 18 possessions of the preseason before Manuel led two touchdown drives against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ reserves in Buffalo’s fourth game. But don’t expect to see the quarterback step up to the podium and air his frustrations publicly.
“You have to be a very optimistic person in this business, because it’s not easy,” Manuel said. “Each and every day it’s a new challenge, and you’re playing against the best of the best, whether it’s in a game or in practice. It’s not always going to go how you want it to go sometime.
“I’m not going to look at it as, ‘Oh man, we’re not going to do well.’ The way I would look at it is, ‘Hey, this is what we need to work on.’ If it’s not perfect right now, these are the things that we need to do to get it perfect.”
Manuel’s life experiences have also shaped his positive attitude. His mother, Jackie, is a breast cancer survivor.
“That’s why I’m so optimistic,” he said. “Why would I sit here and be frustrated about a bad practice when I know I have another chance to come out to practice tomorrow? Or a not-so-great game, why would I sit and dwell on that when people are really struggling with life-threatening diseases or illnesses or situations?
“Don’t get me wrong – football is everything right now. This is my job, this is my occupation and I love it. But at the same time, seeing my mom go through something like that, you know, definitely put life in perspective.”
Manuel’s interviews display maturity not always present among 24-year-olds. Some might call it “polished.” That doesn’t mean there haven’t been moments when he felt like airing his grievances.
“You have to understand the responsibility of being a quarterback,” he said. “I like to think of it as the CEO of this whole thing. You can’t be out here with a negative attitude.
“Just the other day, my man did some crazy stuff on TV,” Manuel said, referring to Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel making an obscene gesture during a nationally televised game. “You can’t do that as a quarterback. You have to be respectful of others, because that’s what I want done back to me. Obviously I have to earn that in my play, but I’m going to always give it out to people.”
At the same time, Manuel has worked on becoming a more assertive leader in the offseason.
“I think that’s another area I’ve grown,” he said. “Just because you’re a second-year guy, don’t feel like you can’t speak up, because that’s what your teammates want from you. … They’re going to understand, ‘Hey, this is the quarterback, this is what I need to be doing in order for us to have an effective offense.’ ”
A lot left to prove
The offense’s struggles during the preseason, however, have fans worried whether Manuel is the right quarterback to get the Bills back to the postseason. Even Kelly himself, during an interview with SiriusXM Radio on Monday, said he’s “not happy” with any of the Bills’ quarterbacks.
“I would love to see EJ come on,” Kelly said. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great leader. I’ve heard him speak to the team. I’ve heard him speak to the receivers before they take the field. His leadership is there.
“Everything is there, but I have not seen what we all want to see. And I’m sure he feels the same way. It just hasn’t happened and hopefully that’s just because of preseason. …. That is a position without a doubt that is going to determine how the Buffalo Bills do this year. We have a good defense, great receivers, good running backs. It’s up to EJ. He’ll take us as far as he can and I just hope he starts playing better.”
Downing understands that those outside the organization may be a bit slower to come to the conclusion that Manuel is the right quarterback to lead the team back to prominence.
“People are going to judge EJ on production, and certainly the No. 1 aspect of production in football is wins and losses,” Downing said. “So when EJ plays winning football for us, and plays it consistently, that’s when he’ll be validated by the people outside this building.”