Two practices are all that remain in the Buffalo Bills’ offseason.
Two mandatory minicamp sessions, on Wednesday and Thursday, are what separate the players from a six-week hiatus before preparation for the 2015 season shifts into high gear during training camp.
For the three candidates for the Bills’ starting quarterback job, it is a home stretch of sorts, the final portion of the first phase of their competition.
It is a chance for someone to create perhaps a little bit of separation in what so far has been an ultra-close battle … mainly because no one seemingly has done a whole lot to stand out.
Rex Ryan, for one, expects that to change once training camp begins on July 31 and through the preseason, the next two portions of the competition.
“We may not have the elite of the elite at that position,” the Bills’ coach said Tuesday, after his team finished the first of its final three offseason practices in the ADPRO Sports Training Center. “But we have some good players at that spot and the competition, I think, is just going to bring them all up and that’s exactly what you want. And we’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor are already elevating their performances, because on Tuesday all three managed to make some of the more impressive throws seen during practices open to the media.
Manuel, in particular, stood out with a long pass to Marcus Easley for a touchdown. Besides firing a pretty rainbow strike, Manuel made a smart adjustment at the line when he recognized the ability to exploit the fact there were no safeties in the middle of the field.
“That was just a check,” he said. “I changed the protection, and then just gave different routes outside. That’s one thing I’m proud of. I think my rookie year” in 2013, “I may not have been confident enough to do it. I may have seen it, but I may have not wanted to do it. And now, just feeling relaxed more and seeing what the defense is giving us, I’m making the check and throwing the ball down the field. Ease did a great job getting off the line.
“It’s still practice, but at the end of the day, that is progress.”
Given the general pessimism that hovers over the Bills’ quarterback situation while optimism can be found practically everywhere else in and around the team, any progress is worth noting.
For Manuel, such a play, even in a minicamp setting, could represent a breakthrough of sorts. He has carried the label of a quarterback who hesitates too often, who won’t challenge the defense to try to make a big play for fear of making a big mistake.
“Trusting what I see instead of second-guessing myself,” Manuel said of what it meant to him. “Now, if I see something, I’m going to go with my gut. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and if I’m not, I’m still trying to make a play. That’s the way I’m going about it now.”
All three quarterbacks, along with Matt Simms, are getting a better grasp of the scheme of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
That doesn’t mean they have it all figured out. They are still making mistakes, but the errors appear to be decreasing as the number of properly executed plays seems to be on the rise.
“The thing I really liked most was that when there was a mistake made by the secondary, we took advantage of it offensively,” Ryan said. “Now, unfortunately, the defense took advantage of the mistakes that the offense made. So I think there’s a little of that stuff going on.”
However, the good news for the Bills, at least on Tuesday, was that the defense’s advantage didn’t look to be quite as lopsided as it was during OTA practices.
“I think we had a better grasp” Tuesday “of what we had in the past,” Cassel said. “And it was good, and hopefully we can build on that.”
“I think we’re right where we should be,” Manuel said. “I obviously know, once we get into the season, once we get into the thick of training camp, things may change as far as what we do out here in practice. But right now, we’re doing a good job picking up what Coach Roman has us doing.”
The quarterbacks and the other members of the offense are making strides in areas such as terminology, formations, route-running, and reads.
But they still have a long way to go.
“It’s very early,” Cassel said. “I mean, it’s late in the offseason, but at the same time, it’s early in the system, so we still have to study really hard and I think this time’s critical for us, especially as we grow closer toward the season.”
It’s also important for the quarterbacks, in particular, to show Roman and quarterbacks coach David Lee how well they’re absorbing the playbook on the practice field.
That doesn’t simply mean doing things right the first time. It means recognizing when mistakes are made and correcting them immediately.
“The little things and the details,” the coaches “shouldn’t have to keep reminding us,” Taylor said. “There’s definitely a certain expectation of the things he wants us to know and things which we have covered going back to Day One. Some of the stuff, we should be able to go out there and correct on our own.”
For now, there are two more chances for the quarterbacks to show just how much progress they’ve made.