Orchard Park, NY (WGR 550) -- It's a peculiar and common theme at One Bills Drive since Jim Kelly retired. When the end of the season draws near, a poor effort from the team's quarterback in a loss will draw criticism from the media, fan base and there may even be questioning about whether or not that player is the longterm answer.
Welcome to December in Buffalo, EJ Manuel.
The rookie quarterback had his worst performance of his rookie season, throwing four interceptions on the way to an embarrassing 27-6 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bills selected Manuel with their first round pick in April, and have anointed him the player that could be the long-awaited answer at the most important position in football.
Head coach Doug Marrone has said on more than one occasion that he is a firm believer in what Manuel can become. The rookie head coach relayed that to reporters back on November 10, one day removed from the team's 23-10 loss in Pittsburgh.
"I know this. I will say this. He will play to a point one day where I’m going to be able to stand here and say you know what, I’m proud of him. It’s awesome. He’s that type of quarterback that we all want."
Before this past weekend against the Buccaneers, that outing against the Steelers was Manuel's worst to date. Despite the performance, Marrone once again reaffirmed his overall belief in Manuel's prospects and suggested it's not as simple as black and white when it comes to the fault of the quarterback in an overwhelming defeat.
"He has the ability to do it, there’s no doubt in my mind. The problem is that it’s like anything else, he’s going to take a lot of the heat because of the position and that comes with it. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that the people around him are doing what they’re supposed to do," he said. "There are times when things break down and it’s not necessarily his fault. Whether it be a route, a wrong route, a missed assignment up front, not winning the physical battle somewhere along the line. I think all of those things factor in to play."
After the loss, the coach admitted that they may need to scale things back for their rookie quarterback for the final three weeks of the season. The hope is to put Manuel in a situation that can yield better results while not making it overly complicated, or as the coach puts it, to "create a foundation and identity."
While there were other influences as to why the offense was so ineffective according to Marrone, he did admit that they need better play from their rookie quarterback.
"He did not play well," the coach said when asked to assess Manuel's performance. "Are there things he could have done a better job of progression-wise and read-wise? Absolutely. Again we’ve got to work harder in our preparation and get him prepared. He understands that, we talked to him about it and he’s ready to go."
So what happens in the case that the offensive line is blocking well, wide receivers are where they need to be and the quarterback play is still below the desired level? Marrone said that the team wouldn't hesitate to replace the rookie in a game with that scenario.
"To sit here and say, that if everything was going well around him and he was the culprit, it would be easy for me to say and we’d go ahead and pull him and put another quarterback in there," he remarked. "I don’t have any problem with that."
Manuel will make his 10th start of the season this coming weekend. The Bills get back to practice on Wednesday morning, preparing for their second straight contest in the state of Florida. They'll go on the road to square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Joe B's Take:
While it's no surprise that Doug Marrone would back his young quarterback still with under double-digit starts in his professional career, it's still a little concerning that now there's talk of scaling things back for the rookie, along with lingering trouble with his reads and progressions. Fans were not pleased after Manuel's performance in the loss to Pittsburgh, to which the coaching staff attributed the poor performance to rust (it was his first game back from a four-game absence, which is a fair point). This time around, the offensive line was mentioned a few different times as a reason that Manuel wasn't able to operate as efficiently as he needed to. Quality quarterbacks are able to make their teammates look better even if some adversity is thrown their way. Sooner or later, Manuel will need to show he can put the team on his back and make everyone else around him better. With a very winnable game in Jacksonville coming up, it would be a good start for the rookie to put together a solid performance against a weak defense. He could likely keep the naysayers off his back for the off-season if the Bills manage to defeat the Patriots at Foxboro during the final week of the season, too. The one commonality, though, is that Manuel must show those signs of life to be much more consistent than they have been at this point in the year.