EJ Manuel’s production in 2013 was about equal to or slightly better than plenty of rookie quarterbacks who turned out to be successful in the NFL.
That does not mean Buffalo Bills fans should feel certain that Manuel will prove to be the answer the team has sought for so long at the quarterback position.
It simply underscores the fact that it’s hard to know after one year if a quarterback is good enough.
The New York Giants’ Eli Manning, the No. 1 pick in 2004, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb, who came out of college with a skill set somewhat similar to Manuel’s, both were miserable as rookies. A generation ago, Hall of Famer Troy Aikman put up terrible numbers as a rookie. More recently, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles struggled as rookies in 2012.
Manning, McNabb, Aikman, Tannehill and Foles all got a lot better in their second seasons.
“Look at Ryan Tannehill and Nick Foles,” said former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein, now a CBS analyst. “These are guys in Year Two where it’s starting to really click for them.”
“I think it’s a four- to five-year process for a quarterback to get to the point where he really knows what’s going on,” Beuerlein said. “But you want to see that progression. You want to see those steps. Tannehill has shown it. I’d expect to see that kind of development from EJ next year.”
Some elite quarterbacks show the goods right away.
Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Carolina’s Cam Newton, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson are examples of top QBs who succeeded in their first seasons. Roethlisberger and Wilson had the good fortune of joining strong teams that were set up for success.
Bills scouts did not see Manuel as being as polished coming out of college as Luck or Griffin.
But the Bills’ coaches think they saw enough this season to suggest Manuel will develop into a winner, despite the fact he missed six regular-season games due to two different knee injuries.
“I think right now, he’s done a nice job, he’s progressed when he’s gotten a couple of games in a row,” said Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. “When it’s just coming off that injury, that’s when he’s kind of not been what we wanted. But it’s a difficult thing, especially for a rookie to come off that stuff.”
“I think when it comes to the physical aspect of this game, I think that he’s got it down; I think he’s going to be good,” Hackett said. “I think he needs to continue to get in shape, understand that this is his first season. He’s a 10-game-old now, so we’re going to slowly get that up.
“He’s got to do more, obviously,” Hackett said. “He’s got to work harder. But I mean, half the time, we’re just trying to get his body right.”
That’s a reference to Manuel’s mechanics, particularly his footwork, that are so key to properly reading his progressions and releasing the ball with the precise timing required in Hackett’s offense.
Manuel completed only 58.8 percent of his passes. That’s not good enough. The league average was 61.2 percent. But it’s hardly uncommon for a rookie. Tannehill completed 58.3 percent last year. Manning hit 48.2 percent as a rookie.
“I think he has good accuracy,” Hackett said. “I don’t think it’s a question of his accuracy, I think it’s a question of having faith in where he’s going to go with the ball, and trusting the system, trusting the defense. And I think that comes with time, that comes with an offseason, it comes with watching the tape.”
As the Bills prepared for the season finale at New England, Manuel learned things simply from reviewing the video of the season opener against the Pats.
“Going back and looking at it,” Hackett said, “you see him going: ‘Why did I do that? Why did I go there?’ … So he just has to be confident in where he wants to go with the ball. His accuracy’s not in question.”
More familiarity in the system, the Bills think, will make Manuel show better pocket presence. That’s a concern. Does he have the innate ability to process the information quickly enough to be an elite passer?
Hackett says he has seen many examples of times Manuel got to his fourth or fifth read and unloaded the ball to the perfect spot.
“You even look at the first game versus New England … he did it there,” Hackett said. “He went to his fifth read for a huge first down to Fred Jackson. And that was one they called illegal hands to the face, it was like third and 3, and he gets a huge gain to Fred on the side.
“That’s the thing, he shows that he can do it,” Hackett said. “He just has to do it all the time. He has to get more consistent. And that’s why I’m excited to get right back to work with him.”
In games at Pittsburgh and Tampa, Manuel struggled against some coverages that were thrown at him, including two deep safeties with man coverage underneath.
“Well, I didn’t see much against Tampa when I did that game,” Beuerlein said. “I was excited to see him up close because he had played pretty well prior to that game. It just showed he still has a long way to go.”
“No one doubts the physical skills,” Beuerlein said. “But it looked like in that game the game was a little too fast for him. He did settle down in Jacksonville and played pretty well. I was impressed with that comeback from the week before, especially after throwing an early interception against Jacksonville that was ugly. To see him put it back together and keep his composure and not let that snowball and play well from that point forward says a lot about him. So I’ve seen a lot of good in him, and I really do think he has the potential to be something special. But he has to see more.”
“Sometimes he does great versus it, and other times it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re in this! And what do I do?’ ” Hackett said.
“He’s shown that he’s done good versus Cover 2,” Hackett said. “Cover 2 versus Atlanta, he hits Robert Woods for a deep ball up the left side in Toronto. That was a Cover 2 adjustment. He saw it clean as day. It’s just about seeing that more.”
Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said last week “you know when you know” about whether a young quarterback has the right stuff.
The Bills can only hope they know after next season. The fact is with their previous three quarterbacks, they did not know after two seasons.
J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick all went into their fourth seasons with the Bills as the designated No. 1 before the team accepted the hard reality: They were not the No. 1.