Marrone: EJ Manuel has to just ‘let it loose’

BILLS

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Quarterback EJ Manuel hasn’t lost games for the Buffalo Bills with sloppy play. That’s always Job No. 1 for rookie signal-callers.

But two weeks ago, in his second game back from a sprained right knee that had sidelined him for a month, Manuel raised his game to the next level.

He led the team to a convincing 37-14 victory against division rival New York Jets — not so much because of the bad plays he avoided, but this time because of the big plays he made. With his arm.

In the third quarter of that game, Manuel completed consecutive deep passes into a strong wind that covered 83 yards, the second of which was a 43-yard TD to fellow rookie Marquise Goodwin.

Manuel and his teammates play the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Rogers Centre in Bills-in-Toronto VI (4 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/Citytv).

After Wednesday’s practice, I asked Bills head coach Doug Marrone about the delicate balance a rookie passer faces: trying not to lose games, but not being so careful as to hesitate to make plays that are there, and thus stifle his team’s attack.

“I do agree with a lot of that statement,” Marrone said.

“When we were looking at the quarterbacks (before the draft), one of the characteristics we were looking for was someone who understood the responsibility of holding that football … I think you’re correct. He’s shown that responsibility.

“At some point that responsibility can hinder, at times, performance because you might not go ahead and make that throw that you may see.”

Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have now encouraged Manuel to open up his game, accordingly.

“EJ understands it,” Marrone said. “We’ve been saying to get back there and throw it. Just throw it. Let it loose, let it loose.

“Right now he is very cautious, which I think we can all appreciate. The fastest way to lose games is obviously the turnovers.”

Manuel led the Bills to a 2-2 record before he injured his knee on the first Thursday in October, at Cleveland.

The first win came against Carolina in Week 2. Against what we now know to be one of the NFL’s best defences, Manuel led the Bills down the field in the final two minutes — with no timeouts — and threw the winning touchdown to Stevie Johnson in the final seconds.

In the second win, Manuel carefully picked his spots while Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw recklessly at times all game long, in getting intercepted five times. The defending Super Bowl champs lost to the Bills on those mistakes, 23-20.

In Cleveland in Week 5, the score was tied when Manuel was on the verge of capping a touchdown drive to put the Bills ahead. That’s when he got slammed in the right knee as he ran down the sideline.

With Manuel out, rookie Bills backup QB Jeff Tuel struggled to complete a pass as Cleveland came back to win.

Tuel and Thad Lewis led the Bills to only one win over the next four games.

Manuel was rusty and played with uncertainty in his first game back, a loss Nov. 10 in Pittsburgh, and that’s when rumblings began in Buffalo. Some people wondered whether Manuel would ever have what it takes to successfully quarterback at the NFL level.

Against the Jets, he silenced many of those doubters with his big-armed performance at windy Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“It gave me a huge boost in confidence,” Manuel said on Wednesday. “I think not just myself, but the overall team. I think it was a team victory, it wasn’t just me that made plays.

Marquise (Goodwin) and T.J. (Graham) both made huge plays on those touchdowns.

“I raise my own bar and I set my own bar, so I definitely want to hold myself to a high standard. I don’t want to revert back to having games where it’s inconsistent or anything like that.”

At 4-7, the Bills normally would be far out of the playoff hunt. But not this year in the AFC. Nine teams either at 5-6 or 4-7 are in the chase for the conference’s second wildcard playoff berth.

Everybody has five games to go. And although the Bills face a tough task in passing all six of the 5-6 teams above them, their remaining schedule is among the easiest in the league.

If Manuel keeps the hot hand — especially now that he has all four of his top receiving targets healthy (Johnson, Graham, Goodwin and rookie Robert Woods) — and the Bills defence plays as stoutly as it has most of the season, Buffalo has a chance to stay in this thing.

First things first, though. Manuel has to play boldly, as well as carefully, against the 2-9 Falcons.

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