Niagara Gazette

December 28, 2013

MEILER: Manuel finishes season trending downward

By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — When Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone announced Friday that EJ Manuel would miss the season finale Sunday in New England, he also opened the door for talking heads (and typing fingers) to comb through his quarterback’s rookie season and find a way to describe it in summation.

Chances are, if you’re reading this column, you already have an opinion on Manuel’s rookie year. He showed signs when he was actually on the field, with both his arm and legs. He also missed six games, reminded Bills fans of a certain “Captain Checkdown” and was only consistent in his inconsistency.

In 10 games (really 9 1/2 after leaving the Cleveland game early), Manuel finished 33rd of 38 qualified quarterbacks in yards per game (197) and yards per attempt (6.44). He was 30th in quarterback rating (77.7) and 28th in completion percentage (58.8). His home-road splits were terrible, too. Going by QB rating, Manuel’s 91.8 at home would’ve been good for 10th best, while his 64.4 on the road would rank last in the NFL.

Stats can be misleading, though, because of the variation of offenses throughout the league. In CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills have the 15th and 16th leading rushers in the NFL, and two wins with Thad Lewis under center prove that Buffalo has enough talent on the roster stay in games regardless of who is playing quarterback.

The problem with Manuel is that he seems to be trending downward. There will be bumps in the road with any rookie playing the toughest position in any sport. The hope is that they start to show some consistency and improvement as the season goes on.

Manuel peaked with the game-winning drive against the Carolina Panthers (a very different Carolina team than the one that could end up with top seed in the NFC after this weekend) on Sept. 15. He wasn’t even the surefire starter before the preseason, when he pleasantly surprised and earned the opening day start, regardless of Kevin Kolb’s injury.

He was OK in the opener against New England, had arguably his best game against the Panthers, then fell back to earth hard the following week at the New York Jets, taking eight sacks and completing just 19 of 42 attempts.

The rest of the season was a series of ups and downs. He was great at home against the Jets on Nov. 17 (20 for 28, 245 yards, 2 TDs), but had horrible games at Pittsburgh on Nov. 10 (22 for 39, 155 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and at Tampa Bay on Dec. 8 (18 for 33, 184 yards, 4 INTs).

Now, the overwhelming narrative is whether or not the Bills are better (or, better yet, not worse) off with Lewis under center, the biggest issue being that it’s actually a fair question.

Manuel could still become a franchise quarterback. He’s shown the tools that led the Bills to draft him in last year’s first round, and the second offseason of an NFL quarterback’s career is arguably the most important. Manuel has eight months to get healthy and use his limited NFL experience to improve. Nothing should be new to him from this point.

Still, it’s a safe bet that most franchise quarterbacks weren’t teetering on the brink of a QB competition with an undrafted practice squad pickup seven months into their careers.

Respond to Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.