Optimist club is looking past Pats' history - The Buffalo News
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Optimist club is looking past Pats' history

Doug Marrone issued the official announcement, the one all Bills fans were waiting to hear, at the start of his first Media Day press conference on Wednesday afternoon:

“He's 110 percent healthy,” Marrone said. “He looks good out there, and that's what we're going to go with.”

Marrone was in an upbeat mood. It was understandable. No offense to Jeff Tuel, who was a nice story for awhile there. But it would have been a letdown if the much-anticipated EJ Manuel era had begun with Tuel starting at quarterback here on Sunday against the Patriots.

But Manuel will get the nod in the opener, which came as no surprise. It's nice to hear that the rookie is at 110 percent. That means he's in even better health than he was before he tweaked his knee. In fact, Marrone said Manuel might be even faster than he was before he hurt the knee.

I'm sure the fans would have settled for 100 percent, or even something in the 92-94 percent range. Manuel is the franchise, the future, the man who is expected to drag a once-proud NFL franchise out of a 13-year morass of losing and dysfunction.

Of course, while rejoicing over Manuel's availability for New England, it's wise to remember that he's a rookie who will be playing in his first regular-season NFL game. This isn't, say, Tom Brady returning for the '09 opener after recovering from major knee surgery.

Manuel had two terrific games in the preseason, and it'll be fascinating to see how he performs in his first real game. But let's keep this thing in perspective.

Manuel has missed two weeks. He will be making his debut against a Bill Belichick defense. It would be unfair to expect too much from the guy.

Don't tell that to Marrone. When I asked him if people might be expecting too much from Manuel, he acted as if I'd grown a second head. What was I suggesting, that he lower his expectations for one of his players?

“I can't speak for other people,” Marrone said. “But I'd be lying if I stood here and said I don't expect him to do great things. That's why he's out there, along with the other players. We expect not just EJ, but all of our players, to perform at a very, very high level, and that's our expectation.

“The reason I say that is because if I lower my expectations of any player on this team, then am I doing my job as a coach?”

I imagine fans appreciate a coach who expects big things, who won't give his players a crutch to lean on. Marrone is just confident enough to think he can win right away. Manuel, who played in four bowl games at Florida State, agreed with his coach.

“For myself, I expect greatness all the time,” said Manuel, who was wearing a sleeve over his knee. “I know this is my first NFL game, but I'm not going to look at it like that. I'm looking at it as the first game of the Buffalo Bills' 2013 season.”

Manuel said it will be a special game, because it's the opener and a divisional battle. The fact that it's the Pats is incidental.

“I don't really look at it as far as going against Tom Brady,” he said. “I'm playing against his defense, not him. So it's just another game.”

Let's not get crazy here. Just another game? Try telling that to all the ex-Bills who never beat the Pats, or went 1-15 against them. It's “just another game” that the Pats have won 22 of the last 24 times, outscoring the Bills by an aggregate score of 702-352 – almost exactly two-to-one.

Granted, Manuel wasn't around for any of it. Marrone hasn't lost to New England. Neither has his young offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, or any of his rookies. But the New England history hangs over them just the same. They have to own it before they can change it.

It starts with the quarterback. Manuel has the physical tools. He's smart and mature and has the makings of a leader. But you can't really tell about a young quarterback until he confronts the singular pressure of a regular-season NFL defense. Marrone admitted that much.

“Yeah, obviously that's something we have to prepare him for,” Marrone said. “We've seen a lot of pressure in preseason and OTAs. He's responded well to that. Again, it's his first game. We'll give him everything he needs to be successful, and he's going to go out there and play.”

Going against Belichick isn't an ideal way to start a career. Brady can't envy Manuel at this point. But he danced around the question when I asked him if he could imagine being in Manuel's shoes.

“I'm in my own shoes,” Brady said on a conference call. “I've got a lot to prepare for myself. I'm not worried about what EJ's thinking about right now. I've got plenty of things for me to think about.”

Brady has an almost entirely new cast of receivers, for one thing. But that's not likely to slow down the Pats' offense, which led the NFL in points and yards last season and ran 1,191 plays, easily the most in the league and only eight short of the league record.

The Patriots like to play fast, same as Marrone and Hackett. It'll be interesting to see if the Bills slow it down some. Asking Manuel to run the offense at the Pats' tempo might be asking too much.

Really, do you want a rookie engaging Tom Brady in a shootout?

Manuel seems confident enough. He has spoken with his friends and fellow quarterbacks, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson, who led their teams to the playoffs as rookies a year ago.

“Seeing how those guys did as rookies when I was still in college gave me a lot of confidence moving forward,” Manuel said. “That was one of my goals. I said, 'Hey, I want to be one of those rookies who gets to go out there and have a successful year as a young guy.' ”

He has a great chance. That doesn't mean he has to lead the Bills to the playoffs this year, or beat the Patriots right away. It's good to push your expectations high. Buffalo can use more of that.

Just remember that Manuel is a rookie, starting his first NFL game, and that the standard he's shooting for is on the opposite side of the field.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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