EJ Manuel was a sports psychologist’s dream Wednesday as he prepared to start the season opener for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Manuel wasn’t buying into any questions that put a spotlight on the magnitude of his first start as the “present and future” of the Bills’ franchise.
“I know this is my first NFL game, but I’m not going to look at it like that,” Manuel said. “I’m looking at it as the Buffalo Bills’ 2013 season, the first game of that. We’ve got to go out there and play hard and execute our offense and know the defense will do their job, too.”
How will he handle his nerves before a sellout crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium?
“It’s still football at the end of the day,” he said. “You’re just going against excellent talent, and in order to match that, you have to play excellent yourself.”
And the fact that all of Bills Nation has an inferiority complex over the rivalry with the dreaded Patriots? Manuel seemed oblivious to the fact the Pats have won 23 of the last 26 meetings with Buffalo.
“I haven’t looked at it that way,” he said. “I’m just focused on going out there and playing on Sunday.”
Nineteen days after suffering a minor knee injury, Manuel looked athletic and agile on the practice field at One Bills Drive. He is scheduled to become the first rookie QB to start a season-opener for the Bills since Joe Ferguson did so 40 years ago.
“I haven’t had any hesitation,” Manuel said about his left knee, on which he wore a light brace. “It feels fine. It feels strong, so I can do all my normal movements I would do if I didn’t have the brace on. Just had the brace on just for, I guess, extra comfort.”
“He’s 110 percent healthy, looks good out there,” said coach Doug Marrone. “He’s actually looked a little bit faster, I think, because of the time off and the rest a little bit. You know how we use that expression fresh legs? I think we were able to see that, and we worked him. The trainers during the rehabilitation process worked him very hard.”
Marrone admitted that “obviously, being Catholic, there was a lot of prayers” for Manuel’s recovery in time for Sunday. The coach said it was apparent when Manuel worked on a limited basis at Sunday’s practice there was a good chance he could be ready. Manuel practiced fully on Monday and said he found out he was starting Tuesday night.
“I felt I would be good to go a few days ago, as far as my knee,” he said.
Bills veterans said Manuel has earned their confidence.
“He came in since Day One and worked hard,” said center Eric Wood. “He repeats mistakes very seldom, and that’s one thing that’s been super encouraging. Even today, little things, I’ll talk to him about and within the next team drill it’s already fixed or he’s already working better with us as an offensive line.”
“That arm is going to get us places, his legs will get us places,” said receiver Stevie Johnson.
The Patriots’ defense under coach Bill Belichick has not been kind to Buffalo quarterbacks. In 26 games since Belichick got to New England, Bills QBs have 26 TD passes and 40 interceptions, have been sacked 77 times and have a passer rating of 69.0. (The NFL’s 30th ranked passer had a rating of 72.2 last year.)
Manuel knows he’s likely to face pressure tactics from the Pats and hopes to rely on running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
“Just continuing to read and react, like I did in the first two preseason games,” Manuel said of dealing with blitzes. “Not try to do too much, make the play when it’s there. And if it’s not there, you have to check it down to somebody like C.J. or Fred, who can get yards just like you would if you were throwing it 40 yards down the field.”
Manuel will have a better idea of how simple it is by Sunday night.