For Buffalo Bills fans, 2013 was to be the year of E.J. But it turned out to be the partial year of E.J. due to injuries that kept him out of two pre-season games and six regular season contests. And for that reason, 2014 will also be the year of E.J. as we continue to analyze the Bills quarterback.
Manuel ended up with ten starts in his rookie season and recorded wins over Carolina, Baltimore, the New York Jets and Jacksonville. He had losses to New England, the Jets, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Manuel was knocked out of the game in Cleveland with the second of his three knee injuries on the year.
The teams Manuel beat, ended up with a combined record of 30-30. The teams Manuel lost to, finished a combined 33-42. He went 3-1 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 1-3 on the road and 0-1 in Toronto.
Manuel completed 58% of his passes for 1,972 yards and threw for 11 touchdowns to go along with 9 interceptions. He was sacked 28 times. Manuel added 186 yards rushing and two TD's.
Not once did Manuel pass for at least 300 yards. He recorded four games of 200+ yards and six games where he was under 200 yards passing. Manuel threw for multiple TD's only three times in the 10 games but he only had two multi interception games, which is a good sign for a rookie quarterback.
There was a perception that Manuel didn't throw the ball deep much or perhaps Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett didn't trust Manuel enough to call deep passes. According to Profootballfocus.com, 13% of Manuel's pass attempts were for 20 or more yards, ranking him 13th in the NFL. Quarterbacks who attempted less deep balls, by percentage, include: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. Manuel's deep ball accuracy wasn't particularly strong as he completed just 29% of those 20+ yards attempts. Manuel completed 68% of his passes from 0-9 yards and 51% from 10-19 yards.
Here's an interesting stat on Manuel from Profootballfocus.com. When blitzed, Manuel threw five touchdowns and one interception. When he wasn't blitzed, Manuel threw six TD's but was picked off eight times.
I don't see how anyone can reach a definitive answer on Manuel's future since he missed so much playing time. His season was a mixture of good and bad. For me, his biggest positives were the ability to bounce back in games in which he started badly and to follow up a terrible performance with a win. Manuel's three worst performances were at the Jets, at Pittsburgh and at Tampa Bay. Following the loss to the Jets, the Bills came home and beat Baltimore. After the thumping in Pittsburgh, Manuel had his best game of the season in a romp at the Ralph over the Jets team that smacked him around earlier in the season. After the defeat in Tampa, where Manuel was downright ugly, he came back and recorded his first road win, over the Jaguars.
But the Florida State product has a lot of things to work on. His accuracy must improve and not just on the 20+ yard passes but on the short to intermediate range throws as well. Manuel must do a better job of trusting his receivers and throwing them open. Instead of waiting and throwing when a receiver is open, he needs to put the ball in the air, at times, and let them make plays. Manuel was outstanding at that in the home win over the Jets but that was the exception and not the norm for the season.
My guess is the coaches drummed it into Manuel's head that a punt is better than a turnover but I'd like to see him take more chances. There were too many times where Manuel settled for a check down when there was a play downfield waiting to be made. As the season went on, Manuel also exhibited the habit of spinning around while moving out of the pocket, in an effort to avoid pressure. But he's also turning his back to the play and has to re-establish his field of vision when he's done spinning.
No question though, the biggest issue with Manuel from 2013 was his inability to stay healthy. The third knee injury was the one that tipped it for me. If I were the Bills, I would definitely spend one of my 2014 draft picks on a quarterback. Not in round one and perhaps not in round two although I'm flexible on that second rounder. Neither Thad Lewis nor Jeff Tuel are legitimate answers although Lewis showed he can get you through a game or two. So the Bills need to bring in another QB from the draft who will serve as their developmental guy.
Having said that, there is no question in my mind that Manuel should be the starter going into next season and there's no need for an open competition at training camp. The Bills need to spend as much time as possible getting Manuel ready for what will hopefully be a full season of action for him.
There were two story lines in the backfield. Fred Jackson had a bounce back year and C.J. Spiller didn't get the ball "until he puked". Jackson, who was limited to 10 games in both 2011 and 2012 due to injury, played through injuries and didn't miss a game. Jackson's 207 carries were his most since 2007. His 4.3 yards per carry was up from 3.8 in 2012. Jackson set career highs with nine rushing touchdowns and 54 first downs rushing. After fumbling four times in 10 games in 2012, Jackson had just two fumbles this season. The Coe College product also had a career high 47 catches. Doug Marrone also learned what previous Bills coaches knew about Jackson, that he is a key man and leader in the locker room.
Something just didn't seem right for Spiller this season. I'm not sure if it was the early season high ankle sprain that he tried to play through, his role under Marrone/Hackett which was clearly different than the one for Chan Gailey or perhaps the fact that the Bills operated in less spread formations than they did last year. In all likelihood it's a combination of those reasons. Spiller had only six fewer carries this season than he did in 2012 but his rush yardage total fell from 1,244 to 927. The drop in the passing game was more noticeable. Spiller had 10 fewer catches this season than last but his yards per catch plummeted from 10.7 in 2012 to 5.6. All in all, in total yards from scrimmage, Spiller was down nearly 600 yards.
He definitely wasn't on the field as much this season although it didn't start out that bad. Spiller was on the field for 59% of the offensive snaps in week one and 57% in week two. His participation took a major dive by week three, which is when he sustained an ankle injury. Spiller didn't top 40% on snap totals until the final two games of the season. His snap total for the season was 35%, down considerably from 56% last season. But that stat can be somewhat misleading because Jackson missed six games in 2012 so Spiller naturally would have been on the field more.
For what its worth, when Spiller was on the field, he did get the ball. Out of 394 snaps, Spiller had 234 touches for a total of 59% which is a career high. His touches total in 2012 was 42%. The two seasons prior to that it was 31% and 40%.
One of the top story lines of the season were the performances from rookies. In addition to Manuel, draft picks Robert Woods, Kiko Alonso and Marquis Goodwin all made notable contributions with Alonso clearly atop the list. The linebacker from Oregon was on the field for a team best 1,177 defensive snaps. The next best total was 1,028 from Mario Williams. Alonso, considered a co-favorite for defensive rookie of the year with Sheldon Richardson of the Jets, led the team in tackles with 159, tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and recorded two sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Woods, who missed two games due to an injury, had 40 catches which tied for seventh best among rookie receivers. His 587 yards was fifth best and his nine catches of 20+ yards was fourth best. Goodwin has surpassed TJ Graham as the Bills main deep threat despite missing nine games as a result of injuries. The speedster from the University of Texas had three catches of 40+ yards(all went for touchdowns) which was third best among rookie receivers.
He wasn't drafted but don't forget about Nickell Robey, who took over the nickel cornerback job and helped give the Bills a solid top three corners with Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin.
In addition to the rookies, the Bills talent evaluators also had success with veteran players brought in this season. Free agent Manny Lawson ended up third on the team in tackles and helped improve the run defense. Jerry Hughes, acquired in trade with Indianapolis, recorded a career best 10 sacks. Jim Leonhard tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Alan Branch was a solid addition to the defensive line rotation and helped pick up the slack when Alex Carrington was lost to a season ending injury. Dan Carpenter was brought in to replace an injured Dustin Hopkins and produced one of the best seasons ever for a Bills kicker. Carpenter was 33-36 in field goals including a perfect 19-19 in kicks under 40 yards. He was 10-11 from 40-49 and 4-6 from 50+ yards.
Carpenter was one of few bright spots when it came to special teams, the least consistent of the three units. The Bills got next to nothing out of their return games. Buffalo averaged 20.4 yards on kick returns, the team's lowest total since 2002. Goodwin, who was explosive on returns in the pre-season, had nothing longer than a 28 yard return in the regular season. McKelvin had his worst season as a punt returner, averaging just 5.6 yards with a long of 21. This after averaging 18.7 yards last season and 19.5 in 2011. McKelvin also had 7 fumbles on returns.
The biggest area of improvement for the 2013 Bills came on the defensive side of the ball where new Coordinator Mike Pettine earned himself a special place in the hearts of Bills fans with a scheme that was aggressive, attacking, and featured a variety of looks . The Bills were better in pretty much every important statistical category. Of course you can argue it would have been hard not to improve on what the Bills had done over the last two years on that side of the ball. Buffalo gave up fewer points, rushing yards, and passing yards. The opponents completion percentage went down as did the third down conversion percentage, which went from 44% in 2012 to 37% this season.
The Bills had 11 more interceptions than last season and set a franchise record for most sacks in a season with 57. There was an eye popping improvement in red zone defense as the Bills touchdown rate went from 69% last season to just 48% in 2013.
Defensive Backs Coach Donnie Henderson should probably get some kind of award for the work he did. The Bills began the season without their two best players in the secondary, Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd. But Henderson was able to turn McKelvin's game completely around and turn the rookie Robey into a fixture in the nickel defense. Gilmore struggled when he came back from a broken hand but in 11 games played he gave up just one touchdown. I can't really credit Henderson for Byrd making the Pro Bowl again but maybe Henderson can convince Byrd to stay since he will once again be a free agent, unless the Bills place the franchise tag on him.
Finally, the Bills were better on their own turf this season and were in every game. They were 4-3 at Ralph Wilson Stadium which isn't necessarily a record worth cheering about but those three losses were all at the hands of playoff teams and all were close games. The Bills lost by two points to New England, by three in overtime to Cincinnati and by 10 to Kansas City in a game where the fourth string quarterback started(Tuel) and threw a game changing interception returned for a touchdown.
The 6-10 record is exactly the same as it was after the 2012 season but for me, this group of Bills left me with a different feeling. A feeling that the organization took a step forward with an increase in talent level on the roster and improved coaching, in most places. Now its on to the off season plan, which is another column for another day. Suffice to say it should include getting a big wide receiver, an upgrade at tight end, a rebuilt offensive line with new starters at left guard and right tackle and giving Byrd the multi year contract he deserves. Do that and terminate the Toronto series and Bills fans will be eagerly anticipating the 2014 season.