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Initial reaction: EJ’s situation rivals J.P.’s

Jerry Sullivan

One of the drawbacks of covering the Bills for the last 14 years is that history – mostly bad history – tends to repeat itself.

I’ve lost count of the times I leaned back in my press box seat, looked down the row at my Buffalo colleagues and announced that I’d seen this game before. You get a numbing sense of deja vu. I can only imagine how depressing and redundant it gets for the fans.

Lately, I’ve been getting flashbacks to 2005. There are vivid and troubling parallels between this season and ’05, one of the more tumultuous in the history of the franchise.

That season was J.P. Losman’s second in the NFL, same as this one for EJ Manuel. Unlike Manuel, Losman had played very little as a rookie, but when Tom Donahoe cut Drew Bledsoe, he anointed J.P. as the franchise QB. The pressure on Losman to justify the move was enormous.

That team also had an inflated sense of its playoff possibilities. It had a defense that was expected to be among the best in the NFL. Remember Takeo Spikes declaring the linebackers the best in the league? Impressionable fans are saying the same thing about the current Bills’ defensive line.

A second-year coach, Mike Mularkey, was looking to establish himself as a leader. But he was compromised by management’s decision to get rid of Bledsoe and saddle him with an unproven QB.

Losman wasn’t ready. Two weeks into the season, veterans were muttering that the kid was jeopardizing their playoff hopes. Kelly Holcomb soon took over. The whole thing blew up. Mularkey lost the locker room and resigned at the end of the season. Donahoe, at odds with Wilson and the public, lost his job.

Nine years later, the Bills are going all-in on a shaky young quarterback. Jobs and reputations are at stake. There’s a fragile, uneasy feeling around the team, a sense that the whole thing could crash.

It’s too soon to make a judgment on Manuel. He’s played only 10 games in the NFL. But he needs to do it now. The pressure went to another level on draft night, when General Manager Doug Whaley traded next year’s No. 1 pick to move up for receiver Sammy Watkins.

Whaley promised the Bills would be a playoff contender this season. He said he had no problem putting his job on the line. And jobs are surely on the line, with the franchise about to be sold for some $1 billion to an owner who will demand a new level of competence from his people.

On draft night, Whaley said he wanted to give Manuel the weapons to succeed. He doubled down. Teams don’t wait as long for their QBs to evolve nowadays. There’s too much at stake. By putting their faith in Manuel (and not signing a proven backup), the Bills gambled on Manuel taking a big step in his development this season.

The signs are not encouraging. You expect a franchise QB to dazzle in his second training camp. Manuel has been mainly dreadful. His decision-making and accuracy – big question marks at Florida State – still leave much to be desired.

Manuel is still too eager to check down, unwilling to take chances down the field. He’s too timid, on and off the field. No matter how poor his performance, he is reluctant to point the finger at himself.

Coach Doug Marrone, who was more edgy this summer and blunt about his team’s shortcomings, wasn’t exactly glowing when asked about Manuel last week.

“Obviously we’re looking for him to progress and keep coming along and to keep working with him and do everything we can to make him better,” Marrone said. “No different than any other player we have starting for us.”

Oh, but it’s much different. The Bills rationalize Manuel’s play by reminding us that the men around him need to be better. But the quarterback is not “any other player.” He’s the player around which every NFL team’s fortunes revolve. It’s EJ’s head that’s spinning.

Of course, it will all change if Manuel lights it up in Chicago. Playing well on the road would go a long way toward appeasing his critics. Manuel completed 55 percent of his passes on the road in 2013, averaging a measly 5.72 yards a throw with a 64.4 QB rating.

The Bills haven’t had a winning road record since 1999, the last time they made the playoffs. You don’t win tough road games without a QB who makes the big throws and lifts his team in hostile circumstances.

Optimists hope Manuel can be at least average – an efficient, mistake-free game manager who doesn’t cost his team games. They assume the defense will be great, that it will again accumulate sacks and turnovers in large numbers and this time stop the run.

That’s wishful thinking. The defense is good, but far from great. The D line isn’t even the best in the AFC East (the Jets’ is).

They’re without two of their top five players from last year, Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso. Mario Williams is a physical marvel but shows up half the time.

In the Bills’ six road losses, they gave up 30.5 points and 353 yards a game. That’s great defense? They were a high-risk, high-reward unit. In the road losses, they allowed nine touchdowns of 35-plus yards. They allowed 100-yard rushing days to such immortals as Bilal Powell, Bobby Rainey and, at home, Shane Vereen.

Fans look on the bright side. But long-suffering Buffalo fans have a need to believe that’s greater than the reality. Sure, if a handful of plays went the other way last season, they could have been 10-6 instead of 6-10.

But a lot of teams can lament narrow defeats.

The Lions and Texans both lost five games by three points or less. The Titans lost four games by three points or in overtime. The Bucs, Ravens, Falcons, Vikings and Dolphins all lost four games by four points or less.

That’s the NFL. Whaley thinks his team is good enough to win those close games.

Management crows about a deeper roster. I think the talent is overestimated, but so be it. That makes it even more imperative that Manuel justify the investment and be The Man.

If he doesn’t, it could get ugly fast. I remember 2005. The air in the locker room got toxic when Losman stumbled early. The same thing could happen if Manuel falls on his face.

That’s the bargain Whaley struck with his team, and the public, by trading next year’s No. 1 and going all in on Manuel. The gamble was colossal, and the consequences would be equally great.

Marrone was begging for internal leadership in the spring. Last week, he said the leadership had improved. But I wonder if what the coach really wants is for Manuel to take over and lead, like a real franchise QB.

Of course, a quarterback becomes a true leader when he backs it up on the field.

Maybe no team has great leadership until the guy under center has the respect and confidence of everyone around him. Just watch. If Manuel plays well, we’ll be talking about what a leader he’s become.

Maybe he’ll surprise us. Lord knows, we’re due. But after 15 years of this, I labor under a weary skepticism, a suspicion that it’ll be the same old story. I see 5-11, which happened to be their record in 2005.


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