After just 16 months and 14 unpromising starts, the Buffalo Bills are moving on from EJ Manuel. (My photo, above)
Head coach Doug Marrone has seen enough. On Monday afternoon he announced that veteran Kyle Orton — whom the club hastily signed in late August — will start at quarterback for the Bills on Sunday in Detroit.
The move is understandable, if somewhat of a surprise this early in the season, given that Marrone and GM Doug Whaley tried to convince the world all winter, spring and summer that EJ was Their Man.
It remains to be seen whether the less mobile if better-armed Orton (my photo accompanying), who’s 31 and was out of football for most of the spring and summer, can function any better behind that patchwork Bills offensive line.
Maybe Orton on Sunday would have been hit fewer than the nine times Manuel was by the league’s premier passer-pulverizer, J.J. Watt. Or maybe Watt would have plastered Orton even more.
There is no denying Manuel struggled mightily in Buffalo’s last two games, losses to San Diego and at Houston.
“We need to get better production out of that position,” Marrone told reporters Monday at One Bills Drive in Orchard Park, N.Y. “We have to make adjustments. We’ve got to make some changes because we can’t keep going in the direction that we’re going.”
In 10 starts last season, and in four to start this one, Manuel appeared incapable of ever leading the Bills to victory when either the run game was shut down, or the defence was porous. When both occurred, you got what happened two Sundays ago against the Chargers: enriched uglium.
Buffalo won its opener in Chicago on Sept. 7 mainly because the Bills rushed for 193 yards, and because Bears QB Jay Cutler was careless with the football. Manuel completed some clutch passes, yes, but he wasn’t relied on much — the club’s expressed if fragile aim in 2014. Manuel, for instance, threw but once on the Bills’ seven-play, 69-yard, game-winning drive at Soldier Field.
Buffalo beat Miami in Week 2 because the Bills’ pass rush tormented a flustered Ryan Tannehill, the Buffalo running game provided one huge play, special teams were fantastic and the Dolphins secondary unwisely ignored star Buffalo rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. Manuel can do enough to succeed, and did, in those glowing conditions.
The last two defences to face the Bills, however, took notice of the Watkins threat and calibrated accordingly. The Chargers and Texans stacked the box to stop the run AND made better efforts to take Watkins away.
Bingo. The winning formula.
Bills coaches had no antidote, probably because at this point in Manuel’s young career, there isn’t one.
Against the Chargers, the Bills’ dynamic running-back duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller rushed for just 59 yards total, Watkins caught only two of eight balls Manuel threw his way and the Bills got crunched 22-10. Manuel connected with a wide receiver on only one completion longer than 10 yards, and was awful in every way.
Against the Texans, the Bills inexplicably did not bother trying to establish much of a running game, even when they were ahead throughout the first half. Jackson and Spiller totalled 93 yards by game’s end, and Manuel threw a whopping 44 times, completing only 21. Again, he and Watkins misconnected more times than not (5-of-9).
That Manuel could not remotely keep up with San Diego’s Phil Rivers in an aerial shootout at the Ralph, you can understand. And Marrone apparently could accept.
That Manuel fared just as badly head-to-head against Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick — the belittled journeyman the Bills dumped so they could draft a first-round quarterback last year, who turned out to be Manuel — apparently was unstomachable for a franchise so desperate to avoid a 15th consecutive season out of the playoffs.
So, is it all Manuel’s fault? And is he all that bad?
Answers: no, and maybe not.
On the latter point, Manuel himself admitted in a training-camp interview that he was aware of mechanical issues he had to work on. Such as shortening his stride and making sure always to push off his back foot. Some long-time league observers believe it was worse than that, that Manuel’s mechanics top to bottom are a mess. Perhaps.
I’ll say this. His stance is too open, too often, which affects both his accuracy and ability to drive the ball on demand. And his hesitance to step into throws and just rip it was another big issue, which might have everything to do with what offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told me 10 days ago — that Manuel lacks “comfort” with a substantial chunk of the Bills playbook.
Manuel often imbued hesitance.
But on some plays, such as his quick-slant touchdown throw to Watkins on Sunday, his comfort radiated, and he’d fully look the part. Why such comfort escaped Manuel most of the time is perplexing.
And not his fault alone.
The Bills front office needs to shoulder a sizeable portion of the blame here. Not just former GM Buddy Nix, current GM Whaley and their scouting staff for selecting Manuel in the first place — widely seen even then as an over-reach at No. 16 overall, in what was gauged as a down year for quarterbacks.
The culpability also rises right up to president/CEO Russ Brandon. He was the one in January 2013 who signed off on this plan:
Hire a rookie NFL head coach; let him bring his young, new-to-the-NFL offensive coordinator with him from Syracuse University (Hackett); don’t hire a quarterbacks coach, even though the club’s plan was to go all-in with a new rookie quarterback in the coming May draft; then allow a rookie GM-in-waiting to take big risks to upgrade the offensive roster around that new quarterback.
Whaley (again, that’s my photo) now admits that not hiring a quarterbacks coach last year was a huge error, even if the plan had been to place Manuel under the wing of a knowledgeable veteran, Kevin Kolb. But the team knew Kolb was only one concussion away from having to retire and, sure enough, Kolb never made it out of training camp.
That Manuel never fully grasped or felt comfortable in Hackett’s offence is not all on Manuel.
At times Hackett would call plays for Manuel that were too college-y. Such as some of the read-option stuff, and those rollouts or bootlegs in the red zone, which usually work in college but not in the grown-man’s league, where speedy defenders rush up and rub out quarterbacks in an eye-blink.
Listen, the Bills might well make the playoffs now with Orton — this year and for years to come. Monday’s move might prove to be one of the shrewdest and boldest in club history: admit the error quickly, take your lumps, and move on before yet another season’s chances wither fast away.
But here’s the ultimate takeaway from Monday.
If the above principals weren’t all in with EJ before, they sure as hell have to be now with Orton. With no first-round draft pick next year (or fourth-rounder either, for that matter) — thanks to Whaley’s enormous draft-day gamble in May to trade up to get Watkins — Orton absolutely must work out.
Otherwise, Manuel will merely wind up the first of several 2013 rookies in the Bills organization to be told, some day soon, that he wasn’t good enough.