NEW YORK — EJ Manuel asked the question, and I don’t believe he enjoyed my answer.
In a brief interview session Thursday afternoon at the Super Bowl media center in Manhattan, the subject of the Buffalo Bills drafting another quarterback was broached.
“I don’t know,” Manuel said. “I’ll have to see if that happens.”
Manuel, having been informed by his handler he had a busy schedule and needed to move along, began to turn away. He seemed to force a smile and stopped.
“You guys think they should, or … ?” Manuel asked as some sort of challenge.
“I do,” I replied.
Manuel gave a prickly smile.
“OK,” he said, eyes narrowing.
“That’s the most important position,” I continued and would have been glad to explain my stance. But he had places to go.
“Appreciate it,” Manuel said, his words dripping with sarcasm. “Thank you.”
Manuel walked away.
Who knows what little occurrences motivate an athlete to work harder and dare for greatness? Maybe Manuel feeds off a writer’s skepticism and genuinely valued my opinion. I doubt that.
Besides, I prefer to think nothing should motivate Manuel more than rebounding from an unsatisfactory rookie season bogged down by three knee injuries and inconsistent performances.
The Bills don’t know substantially more about their quarterback situation today than they did 10 months ago. Manuel’s first impression was mediocre, with intermittent spurts of radiance and occasional splatters.
That’s what rookies do. What they’re not supposed to do is keep getting hurt.
Manuel revealed Thursday he required a second surgery on his left knee after the season. He called it “a minor procedure, like a 20-minute, in-and-out cleanup of the ligaments and things like that.”
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15, Manuel’s lone road victory, he suffered his third knee injury in four months. He missed the final two games.
He had his first surgery when he tore his left meniscus in August, forcing him to miss the final two preseason games. A right knee injury sidelined him for four regular-season games in October and November.
“The good thing is they’re not ACLs or MCLs that take a year or however long to recover from,” said Manuel, in town to work with local kids at the Panini Pop Warner Skills Clinic today at Chelsea Piers. “If I’m going to have a knee injury, I would rather have the ones that I’ve had.
“I’d rather have them earlier, I guess, than later to get it behind me and start our legacy as a team.”
The Bills’ fortunes won’t necessarily ride on Manuel, but I know they will depend on how well he plays.
No matter how sincerely the Bills believe they nailed last year’s first-round draft choice – and there’s little proof of that yet – they should find a way to double down on the most critical position.
The Bills can’t move forward as a franchise until they have a quarterback, and ignoring the very real possibility that Manuel won’t pan out would be reckless.
The Bills can’t afford to coddle Manuel simply because he was their first-round pick last year. They’ve missed the playoffs 14 straight winters. Players such as Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams don’t have seasons to waste.
The if-come is hazardous. That’s true if Manuel doesn’t suffer another injury for the remainder of his career.
But all three of his knee injuries occurred on common, clean football plays. The defenders didn’t hammer him with malicious intentions. Officials didn’t throw any penalty flags.
A major reason the Bills drafted Manuel was his ability to run. Unless they want to convert him into a pure pocket passer, he’ll be vulnerable.
The Bills must pause to consider Manuel might be injury-prone. He said Thursday he planned to wear a brace on his left knee from now on.
Bills coach Doug Marrone has stressed Manuel is no more susceptible than anyone else to getting hurt. Marrone has said his opinion is based on Manuel’s medical history prior to turning pro and Manuel’s ability to recover quickly from each knee injury.
“It could happen to anybody,” Manuel said. “It’s just unfortunate it happened three times, but the season is over with now, and we can look forward to a new one.”
Marrone, however, knows how negatively stigmas can impact a player’s psyche. He has counseled Manuel about the cynicism fans and media will have about the quarterback remaining healthy.
The Bills own the ninth overall draft choice. The top prospects, Texas A&M daredevil Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Blake Bortles of Central Florida, all could be off the board by the time the Bills pick.
When it comes to landing a franchise quarterback, the Bills should consider all options – even if that means trading up.
There’s a sentiment that drafting a first-round quarterback two years in a row simply is not done. That’s generally accurate. It has happened six times in NFL history, but the Baltimore Colts were the last to do it in 1982 and 1983, taking Art Schlichter fourth overall and John Elway first. The Colts traded Elway to the Denver Broncos.
But money isn’t an issue like it used to be. Investing in first-round quarterbacks doesn’t jam a team’s salary cap anymore. The rookie wage scale is an effective cost control. The Bills are well under the salary cap.
The Bills, of course, have other holes to fill. They need another linebacker and a couple more offensive linemen and maybe a tight end and a safety and more cornerbacks.
They could choose to dedicate their first-round pick to another position and find insurance for Manuel through free agency. Veterans such as Michael Vick, Josh McCown, Matt Cassel and Chad Henne are available.
None could be Buffalo’s franchise quarterback.
Another top quarterback prospect would create competition. Neither the Bills nor Manuel should be afraid of that.
If one establishes himself as the team’s clear-cut leader, then the other still would remain an asset. The Bills could keep him as the backup, continue to groom a potentially valuable asset or trade him.
So when Manuel asks me if the Bills should draft a quarterback in the first round, he shouldn’t take my answer personally.
The Bills need to get their quarterback situation right, and with Manuel they might discover too late that they’re knee-deep.