So here we are, five weeks into the Doug Marrone-EJ Manuel era, and faced with our first genuine crisis. Down at One Bills Drive, they’re frantically trying to cope with two rookie mistakes, one by each of the M&M Boys.
Manuel, a bit overzealous in his first prime-time appearance, tried to do too much on a scramble Thursday night, leaving himself with a sprained knee and his team searching for a suitable replacement at quarterback.
Marrone, meanwhile, was scrambling to fix his miscalculation on Manuel’s backup. Having seen Jeff Tuel melt down in his regular-season NFL debut, the new coach quickly surmised that an undrafted rookie might not be good enough to cut it in big-boy football, after all.
Now, with Manuel sidelined for what Marrone called “a few weeks,” General Manager Doug Whaley and his staff were combing the streets for a veteran quarterback who might give them a better chance to win while the franchise QB’s lateral collateral ligament is healing.
Marrone said not to assume that he can’t find a guy who will be more ready than Tuel to start against the Bengals in eight days. That’s a departure from early September, when Marrone was willing to start Tuel in the opener against the Pats if Manuel hadn’t been available.
The thinking at the time was that Tuel knew Nate Hackett’s system better than anyone the Bills could find on the street. Asked Friday what had changed since then, Marrone danced around the question.
But it’s obvious that Tuel’s wretched performance against the Browns opened the coaches’ eyes. They’re rookies, too, remember. Evidently, Marrone and Hackett needed to see that making plays against a top NFL defense in October isn’t quite as easy as carving up the Bills secondary in camp.
They’re 2-3. That’s about what people expected. But overall, the Bills are ahead of schedule. The fact is, if they had a capable backup – Kevin Kolb, say, or even Ryan Fitzpatrick – they might be 3-2 and being sized up as a playoff sleeper in a balanced AFC.
They’re not deep or experienced enough to be a legitimate contender. But Marrone told his veterans they were going for the playoffs this year. He can’t lose them by taking further chances on an unqualified quarterback.
Give him credit for realizing his mistake with Tuel and moving to correct it. Marrone has been good about revisiting his blunders. He admitted the challenge in Cleveland was a mistake.
He knows that with a capable QB, the Bills might get an extra win or two while Manuel is on the shelf and stay on the fringes of a playoff race that has Cleveland, Tennessee and Kansas City bidding for the postseason after finishing with double-digit losses a year ago.
Josh Freeman seems like a good fit, assuming he’s emotionally intact after his ugly parting with Tampa Bay. Freeman had a rough start to this season with the Bucs, who cut him amid leaked reports that he was in Stage 1 of the NFL’s drug program. Freeman says the drug was a medication for ADHD.
Freeman is a proven, second-tier NFL starter who threw for 4,000 yards and 27 TDs last year. In 2010, his second pro season, he had 25 TDs and only six interceptions, leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record.
Freeman’s career numbers are strikingly similar to Fitzpatrick’s. He’ll be eager to prove he can still be a starter in the league. He would be better than what we saw from Tuel on Thursday. Or for that matter, Vince Young or Tim Tebow.
Freeman would be no threat to Manuel, the unquestioned franchise guy. Presumably, the kid will be better for the experience. It’ll give him more time to watch and learn. One thing Manuel has to understand is the need for a franchise QB to treat his body like the family’s finest china.
That’s not easy for a rookie, especially one playing his first prime-time game. It’s not the worst thing for Bills fans to know that Manuel tried to do a little extra on a night when his teammates were hobbled, exposing himself to injury. But it wasn’t very smart.
“It was one of those things where EJ has to get out of bounds or get his pads down,” said Fred Jackson. “Protect himself a little bit. It’s something he’ll learn. He’s got to take care of his body.”
Marrone said you can’t take the competitive spirit out of a young player. But there’s a line between tough and unwise. Tom Brady is one of the fiercest competitors you’ll find. But Brady avoids contact because everyone in the New England franchise relies on him being healthy.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Eric Wood said with a chuckle. “Some quarterbacks won’t take a shot if a first down to win the game depended on it. Maybe EJ needs to come closer to that. But as a rookie, he’s out there trying to prove himself. Prove himself as a competitor, a playmaker for us. He’s got to take less hits, though. That was an unnecessary hit. But a lot in football comes down to bang-bang decisions.”
An NFL team makes countless decisions. Some work out better than others. Manuel decided to try for extra yards after scrambling for a first down. Marrone gambled that Tuel would be a sufficient backup when he lost Kolb. Now they have to deal with the consequences.
Fans can only hope that Manuel recovers soon. The new era was going rather nicely. Every week was a new learning experience for Manuel, and the games were close and entertaining. Now, he’s back to getting his education in meeting rooms and on the sidelines.
Let’s hope he gets back in a hurry. After five fun weeks, the football season just got a lot less interesting.