Quarterback EJ Manuel received a strong vote of confidence from the most important football minds at One Bills Drive on Monday.
President and CEO Russ Brandon, General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone spoke on a wide range of topics during a press conference to wrap up the 2013 season, which ended Sunday with a 34-20 loss to the New England Patriots.
Their faith in Manuel, who played in just 10 full games during an injury-plagued rookie season, was the hottest topic.
“We’re certainly behind him,” Brandon said. “We’re going to put everything behind him and try to see some marked improvement moving forward.”
Marrone met with Manuel earlier in the day and informed him he would be the starting quarterback heading into the 2014 season.
“We feel very comfortable with the future with EJ,” the coach said.
The Bills went 4-6 in games Manuel started and finished, part of a third straight 6-10 season. Manuel suffered three separate knee injuries dating back to the preseason.
He missed the Bills’ final two games of the season because of a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his left knee – the same injury that he suffered in October in his right knee and subsequently missed four games.
“Obviously, he’s disappointed with the injuries that have occurred,” Marrone said. “The plan right now – he’s going through a process of getting himself rested, healed and then start again with the rehabilitation for strengthening those areas of his body.”
The Bills believe Manuel will benefit - both physically and mentally – from having an entire offseason to prepare.
“Last year at this time, he was preparing for the combine and interviews,” Marrone said. “Now we need him to get prepared to be the type of quarterback that we need him to be.”
While Whaley made it clear that he’s “absolutely” on board with Manuel as the starter, he did not rule out adding another quarterback to the roster, whether it was through the draft or in free agency.
“We’re going to develop our board like we always do and research every position top to bottom,” he said, “and not only during the draft process, but also the free-agent process. If we feel a player is out there that can help us get past the 6-10 mark, we will not be beholden to taking someone that we think doesn’t help us as much as another player.”
Whaley said in his experience, young players make the biggest improvement in their professional careers between their first and second seasons.
“What I liked about him were the games when we needed him most in crunch situations, he gave us a chance to win,” the GM said of Manuel. “That, to me, is a very high mark of a characteristic you look for in a quarterback. Things he needs to improve on will come with time. You’ve got a young guy, who’s getting a lot of things thrown at him … coming to being the savior of a franchise. So that’s a lot of pressure on a guy. I think he stood in front of all that pressure and performed admirably.
“Does he want to get better? Yes. Do we think he will get better? We know he will get better, and it’s just going to take some time.”
Time and patience, of course, are in short supply among the team’s fan base – understandably so after 14 straight years of missing the playoffs.
“You guys have a quick hook on these guys,” Whaley said of evaluating young quarterbacks like Manuel. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that quick of a hook, but we do want to see progress and step forward.”
Whaley said it’s a case-by-case basis when judging whether a quarterback has that unidentifiable “it” factor that leads to him being a franchise signal caller.
“You would like to have a guy have at least 16 games under his belt and one year of continuity with receivers and practice time to get a baseline,” he said. “That’s going to be tough to do with EJ right now, so I can’t give you a specific timeline.
“But you know when you know. That’s hard to put in words. After so many games, you get a feeling ‘all right, this guy’s got it or this guy needs some more time, or this guy doesn’t have it.’ That’s one thing I have full confidence in the coaching staff – we’ll get every resource we have in order to get EJ to be successful.”
Other highlights from the trio’s press conference, which lasted more than 35 minutes:
• Marrone said wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard is no longer with the team. Hilliard, who had a 12-year playing career in NFL, was in his second season as a position coach after spending the 2012 season with Washington.
“We appreciate what Ike has done in helping us try to reach our goal this year and we fell short,” Marrone said, indicating that there was a difference in philosophy between the two.
Marrone said that he will go through an evaluation process with the rest of his coaching staff, but that he didn’t foresee many changes.
Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman has particularly come under fire, and that only intensified after the Bills allowed two long kickoff returns in the second half of Sunday’s loss to the Patriots.
“Right now, we’re going to sit down, we’re going to evaluate everything. We’re going to see what we need to do to move forward,” Marrone said. “There are things we need to do. As long as we’re all on the same page with what we need to do to get this organization back to where we want it and get to the playoffs, there won’t be any problems and there won’t be many changes from that respect with the coaches that are here.”
• Whaley said the Bills will make an offer to impending free agent safety Jairus Byrd, and hope to have the three-time Pro Bowler back.
“We’ve had a conversation, myself and Russ, sat and talked to Jairus, and we’re going to make an offer to the guy and we’re going to try to keep him,” Whaley said. “We’re going to try to the best of our abilities, because we’re in the business of collecting good players, and he’s a good player.”
To that end, Whaley said the Bills would not rule out again using the franchise tag on Byrd. Such a move would surely anger the player and his agent, Eugene Parker, and would cost the Bills a one-year guaranteed contract of $8.29 million.
“That’s always an option. We’re not going to back ourselves in a corner and eliminate any possibility of trying to retain a good player,” Whaley said.
Byrd did not speak with reporters while players cleaned out their lockers.
Whaley said the team also has an interest in retaining kicker Dan Carpenter and punter Brian Moorman, both of whom will be free agents in March, and will likely reach out to the agents of each soon to make contract offers.
• Brandon said the organization remains in evaluation mode regarding the Bills in Toronto Series, which calls for one regular-season game in each of the next four seasons to be played in the Rogers Centre. All signs continue to point to the Bills looking for a way out of the deal.
“Nothing’s changed since the last time I spoke on it,” Brandon said. “We’re going to have a thorough organizational meeting on anything and everything that touches the football operation. We’re going to do everything in our power — as I told coach Marrone when we hired him and Doug Whaley — that we will provide every resource available to assist and empower them in their roles.”
Brandon also says the team is evaluating its training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, but the only potential change would be to stay at camp longer while renovations are done at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
• Whaley said wide receiver Stevie Johnson is “under contract and we expect him to be here.”
Asked later about that not sounding like much of a ringing endorsement for the enigmatic wideout, Whaley said: “I was taken aback by the question. … I was kind of amazed by why that would be a subject to ask, that’s why. … We expect him to be here. Obviously he was dealing with a tragedy that our hearts go out to him. We’re supporting him 110 percent.”
Johnson has three years remaining on his contract. Cutting him would create another big hole to fill on a passing offense that finished 28th in the NFL.
• Whaley said quarterback Kevin Kolb, who spent the year on injured reserve because of lingering problems with concussions, has been in constant communication with the team’s medical staff and will go through a season-ending medical exam. After that, the team will make a decision on his status for next year. Kolb has one season left on his contract.
“He didn’t make it today, but he will soon be getting checked out,” Whaley said. “Then after that, we’ll see what the medical staff comes up with.”
Whaley said the team was pleased with backup quarterback Thad Lewis, but made it clear the team was open to adding more competition to the quarterback room.
• Brandon said that Ralph Wilson, the team’s 95-year-old owner is “doing great,” and that he’s in daily communication with him.
“I talk to Mr. Wilson every day. Nothing’s really changed in that capacity,” Brandon said. “We talk every day about everything, so I keep him updated on everything relative to the organization.”