Most Buffalo fans have a soft spot for Bill Polian, who built the Bills’ Super Bowl teams and was one of greatest general managers in NFL history. But they might wince when they hear what he has to say about EJ Manuel on the eve of training camp.
“They’re going to need patience,” Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “He’s really heading into his ‘first and a half’ training camp. He really doesn’t have a full year under his belt.”
Manuel played only 10 games as a rookie because of three separate knee injuries. Polian said it’s difficult for any rookie – and especially a quarterback – to gain a sufficient understanding of the NFL game after spending so much of his first season rehabilitating from injuries.
“He’ll tell you otherwise,” Polian said, “but my experience in the game tells me that there’s some carryover, but not a lot. So you’re going to have to be patient with him and understand, in essence, he’s starting over.”
Polian knows that Bills fans aren’t inclined to be patient. He’s knows what it’s like when the town is desperate for a winner. People don’t want to hear about starting over. They expect this to be the start of something big. Doug Whaley, the current GM, promised a playoff run this year.
The stakes are greater because of the looming sale of the franchise, and the notion that the men running the football operation might need to win in the short term to impress their new bosses and save their jobs.
So while patience is always advisable with a young quarterback, the clock is ticking on Manuel. There is enormous pressure on EJ to make clear strides this season and justify management’s decision to draft him 16th overall in 2013. When you consider what’s on the table – 14 straight years without playoffs, Whaley trading next year’s first-round pick for Sammy Watkins, the pending sale of the team – Manuel might be under the most pressure of any quarterback since Polian brought Jim Kelly to town 28 years ago.
That’s a lot of pressure for a guy with 10 career starts. But it comes with the territory. When camp opens at St. John Fisher next week, all eyes will be on Manuel (and of course, Watkins). Fans will be eager to see if he’s getting better, if there really is hope for him as a franchise QB.
Polian makes a good point. But things move quickly in today’s NFL. Teams can’t afford to be too patient at the game’s most important position. It can be disastrous to devote four or five years to developing a quarterback, only to find that he’s a fraud as a franchise guy.
The Bills have a lot invested in Manuel. They made him the first QB in the draft, a reach in the eyes of many. They traded next year’s No. 1 to move up for Watkins, grabbing the best talent in the draft to surround Manuel with the weapons to succeed in a hurry.
Whaley acknowledged it on draft night. He said you need to give a young quarterback the weapons to thrive. He doubled down on the Manuel pick and said he was confident about the Bills’ playoff chances. He didn’t seem to be asking for patience.
“Doug has his feet firmly planted on the ground,” Polian said, “and he knows what it takes. Fortunately, they have a good running game and good offensive line to go with him, and that’s always helpful with a young quarterback.”
Polian was a big believer in surrounding a QB with weapons. He did it in Buffalo with Jim Kelly and Indianapolis with Peyton Manning. Those teams were weighted toward offense, with elite skill players and stout offensive lines complementing a Hall of Fame QB.
But Polian cautioned fans not to expect Manuel and Watkins to blossom right away. He said even Manning and Marvin Harrison took a year to click. He agrees with me that Bills fans shouldn’t expect Watkins to play like a Pro Bowler right away.
“It’s extremely rare,” Polian said. “The jump now from the spread formation to the NFL is bigger than it used to be, because defenses are much more sophisticated. You don’t see zone all the time. You’re much more susceptible to press, combination coverages. You don’t have the advantage of the constant uptempo where you wear the other team out. It’s just a different game.”
This gets redundant, I know. But it comes back to the quarterback. It’s fine to talk playoffs; you can contend for a playoff spot with an average one. But the Bills haven’t had a franchise quarterback since Kelly, and until they do so they won’t be a title contender.
The defense made strides last season. On their best days, they can carry an ordinary offense. But it’s hard to imagine the Bills making a legitimate run if Manuel doesn’t make significant progress in his second season.
Whaley didn’t bring in an established backup. Maybe that’s because he believed in Thad Lewis. It’s also a sign that they don’t have the backup to threaten Manuel. They’re coddling the guy, trying to ease him into the franchise role.
At the very least, Manuel needs to separate from a marginal backup. It begins in camp. From the first day, he has to make it clear that he’s the man. Until then, critics will contend that Lewis is actually better – or even worse, that Jeff Tuel is as good as Manuel.
Manuel is the unquestioned No. 1. He needs to look the part, too. We don’t need a bunch of reports about how uneven his performances have been in camp, how the backups are throwing it better, and worst of all, how Watkins has better chemistry with Lewis.
Last summer, it wasn’t so much that Manuel dazzled the masses in training camp. It was more a case of his competition falling flat in camp. Once Kevin Kolb stumbled on a mat, there wasn’t much question that Manuel would be No. 1 for the opener – until he got hurt, that is.
That’s the question that will hang over the team all summer. Are Manuel’s knee injuries really behind him? Are they a “fluke”, as coach Doug Marrone contended when he made his ill-fated guarantee that Manuel would play in the finale at New England?
The first time Manuel stumbles at Fisher, fans will gasp and wonder if he’s injured his knee again. There are questions about his accuracy, his decision-making in the pocket, his footwork. The notion that he’s fragile only adds to the skepticism. Manuel seemed more sure of himself during spring workouts, more willing to carry himself as the Man. Marrone talks about the need for leadership to emerge on his team. He seems to be asking Manuel to act like a real franchise quarterback and take over the team.
It’s tough to be the Man when you haven’t done it on the field. You can’t blame fans if they’re impatient for Manuel to at least prove he’s better than Thad Lewis.