Kyle Orton’s decision to retire Monday puts the Buffalo Bills in a familiar, if unenviable situation – tasked with identifying a franchise quarterback.
Can 2013 first-round draft pick EJ Manuel still be that guy?
“That’s something we’ll look at throughout this offseason,” General Manager Doug Whaley said during his year-in-review press conference. “By sheer numbers, we’re going to have to add one, maybe two more. But that’s something that we’re going to go through with a fine-tooth comb and see if we can figure it out.”
After a season in which Manuel was benched after just four games in favor of Orton – a journeyman who skipped all of training camp – that’s not a ringing endorsement.
“I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing. It’s something that we’re going to have to see,” Whaley said. “He did take a little of a regression back, but we’ve also seen some progression in what he’s been doing at practice. So it’s to be determined. And again, we’re going to do our due diligence and leave every option open at that position.”
If Manuel isn’t able to win the job against whoever it is that is brought in to compete with him, it will be a high-profile draft bust for the Bills. Asked who should be held responsible for the selection Monday, Whaley got testy.
“I always say it’s a Buffalo Bills’ pick,” he said. “You guys can assign blame wherever you want, but when we’re in draft meetings it is a consensus recommendation for our whole organization of where this guy’s valued and where we should pick him in the draft.”
Asked later in the press conference if “assigning blame” was an admission of a failed pick, Whaley told a reporter “that’s what you were trying to say.”
When it was pointed out that the GM was the one who used those words, he responded: “I wouldn’t say it was a failure. His career’s not over. It’s just getting started. So that’s how I feel about it.”
Prior to Orton’s announcement, Manuel spoke about what his future with the Bills may be as players cleaned out their lockers.
“I think I’m still a major factor on this team as far as the offense, as far as leadership, so we’ll see,” he said.
At the time Manuel was benched – which came after Week Four, with the Bills at 2-2 on the year – Marrone met with the quarterback and told him how he responded to the adversity would give the team an indication of his future potential.
“I thought that he did a very good job,” the coach said Monday. “I think that his accuracy has gotten better. I thought his decision-making on where to go with the ball has gotten better from a standpoint of where he was in practice and what we were looking for him to do.
“But in saying that, and you can see improvement in that part of the game, you still have to be able to do that when you get onto the field.”
The next chance for that won’t come until August.
Whaley said he was in “full support” of Marrone’s decision to bench Manuel and that he thinks it will be beneficial for the player’s career.
“He was able to take a deep breath, decompress and see how someone else does it, a guy that’s been in the league for a while and has had some success,” Whaley said. “I think he picked up some nuances that he can incorporate in his game and hopefully get him to where we want him to be, where he wants him to be and that’s a starting quarterback that can produce at a high level in this league.”
A significant challenge for Manuel will be to win back the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates. Despite the offense sputtering with Orton under center, Marrone stuck with him even in a meaningless season finale Sunday at New England.
If the organization wanted to learn more about Manuel, it passed up the opportunity to do so several times as Orton’s play regressed, with the coach continually uttering some variation of the veteran giving the team “the best chance to win.”
“I’m not going to take it as a shot,” Manuel said. “If that’s how coach feels, that’s how he feels.
“I think my teammates will in the long run respect how I handled the situation. I know a lot of guys have told me they’ve noticed improvements in my game. Any time I’m hearing that from my teammates, that goes a long way for me.”
It was clear Monday that Manuel wasn’t interested in discussing the situation surrounding his benching in any great detail.
“We’re still 9-7 as a team, so it’s not just about me,” he said. “I’ll be able to start thinking about all that stuff, reflect on that the next couple weeks, but obviously we didn’t get our main goal as far as getting to the playoffs. But 9-7 is a lot better than our record last year and the years before that.”
As for what went wrong in his four starts – in which he went 76 of 131 (58.0 completion percentage) for 838 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3 – Manuel lamented getting caught up in the intricacies of the position.
“I don’t think I lost myself,” he said. “I think I was more focused on trying to do everything exactly correct instead of just playing football.
“I’ve been doing scout team the past couple of weeks and I think that just really allowed me to be myself, to go out and play. Not worry about footwork, not worry about just being robotic, just playing football and truly enjoying it, having fun.”
Receiver Robert Woods noted that Manuel started to look “confident” in practice as the season wore on.
“He’ stress-free out there,” Woods said. “Just out there playing, making some throws. We always tell him to ‘have that same mindset when you become our starting quarterback again, just keep playing free and stay confident. … We’re all growing and getting better, so we’re rocking with EJ.”
At least for now, that is.