Buffalo Bills‘ starting quarterback EJ Manuel is having commitment issues – namely committing to looking downfield for the big play every once in a while.
In the Bills’ third preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Manuel completed 17 of 27 passes for 148 yards, averaging a meager 5.5 yards per attempt. Manuel has been quick to go to the short dump off pass throughout his young career regardless of better options downfield.
In his rookie season Manuel averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt, 32nd among all quarterbacks last season.
Last year his tendency to check down so often could have been explained away by his unfamiliarity with a new offense, lack of downfield threats on the Bills’ roster, and more than likely a bit of tentativeness while playing on a knee that was not fully healthy but with Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams in the mix, Manuel’s knee back to 100 percent, and his second year in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett‘s scheme there is little reason for his primary receivers Saturday night to have run back Fred Jackson and tight end Scott Chandler.
In three preseason games, Watkins has caught a grand total of three passes for 21 yards. Granted some of that had to do with that Watkins missed the entire second quarter (of the third game) with the starting unit after getting drilled on a hit by Pittsburgh rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier that left him with a rib contusion and prevented Watkins from returning to the game.
But even before that Manuel has not been looking to Watkins as often as he could or should. What is the point of having two large, athletic, explosive downfield threats such as Watkins and Williams if Manuel insists on simply dumping it off to the nearest receiver – one who is usually not much past the line of scrimmage?
This can’t make the Bills’ brass and head coach Doug Marrone happy considering how much they gave up to acquire Watkins in this year’s draft – staking their own futures on Watkins and Manuel forming a dynamic offensive duo as Andy Dalton and AJ Green or Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have.
Both Watkins and Williams fit the prototype of the NFL’s new age receiver – big, fast, and strong enough to go up and outmuscle most defenders for the ball. It is why defensive coaches have looked for larger (taller) defensive backs to counteract such receivers.
But without a quarterback who is able and willing to put the ball up where they have a shot at making such a play they might as well be very expensive decoys.
Buffalo already had one ‘Captain Check Down’ when Trent Edwards was drafted in 2007 and became their starting quarterback soon afterwards – they are not in need of another one. Especially one who went 16th overall in the 2013 draft and is more athletic and, in theory, more talented than Edwards ever was.
It is perplexing that Manuel seems to have lost his confidence in his arm and ability to play at this level before his career has even really begun. It is like Manuel made a subconscious decision to relegate himself to little more than a game manager because that is in essence what he is doing if he is not going to use his big arm and take chances on the long ball.
However, being a game manager would show that mistakes are at a minimum and the quarterback is rarely the one that loses the game for a team – think Alex Smith – but that does not accurately describe Manuel either.
Manuel’s tentativeness alsovmay be a contributing factor in the Bills’ constant struggles in the red zone which have carried over from last season. In Saturday’s game, over the course of four trips into the Steelers’ territory the Bills’ starting unit produced just two field goals – that is simply not going to cut it in today’s high scoring league.
Manuel has yet to throw a touchdown pass in three preseason games. The Bills have a solid run game with the versatility that CJ Spiller brings and the reliability that Fred Jackson offers but they are not deep or especially gifted at the tight end spot so if Manuel isn’t able to improve on last season’s performance that’s going to put an awful lot of pressure (and wear and tear) on their running backs and defense to hold up this team once again.
And as was seen last year that is not nearly enough to contend in the AFC East.
The potential loss of Watkins – at this time the results of X-rays were unknown – would deal a further blow to Manuel’s development and trust in his downfield options.
Even if Watkins’ injury turns out to be little more than bruised ribs (which can still remain an issue for several weeks) the fact that it could hold Watkins’ out of valuable practice time – time necessary to get on the same page with Manuel – is not good news for the Bills.
With or without Watkins it’s time for Manuel to start looking beyond the short game and believing that he is capable of making a game changing play when the Bills need him to. Manuel needs to return the ‘Captain Check Down’ title to its rightful owner – Edwards – and become the quarterback from Florida State that the Bills’ front office drafted.
Otherwise, his NFL career will be over before it even has the chance to get off the ground.