One look at EJ Manuel, and it’s clear he is bigger and stronger. He estimates that he has gained eight to 10 pounds during the offseason, adding muscle with the intention of enhancing his ability to stay healthy.
“I feel a lot better this way,” Manuel told reporters earlier in the week. “I still feel like I’m quick and fast and able to move around. I think that’s just about being durable and obviously being able to take a full season.”
He spoke matter-of-factly, sounding as if he believed there was going to be a full season for him to take at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
It isn’t that Manuel is oblivious to the fact he’s competing for the starting job he held as a rookie in 2013 – when injuries caused him to miss six games – and through the first four games of last season. He just seems to project an attitude that convincing a new coaching staff the position should be his is doable.
When someone asked if, with so much attention given to the fact the Bills acquired 11-year veteran Matt Cassel via trade and signed Rex Ryan favorite Tyrod Taylor in free agency, Manuel felt as if he were “under the radar,” he said, “I don’t. I feel like I’m right there in the mix, so I’ve just got to go out every day and get better.”
Last Wednesday, during the one organized team activity (OTA) practice of the week the media was allowed to watch, all of the Bills’ four quarterbacks at the time looked to be in need of improvement. One was Jeff Tuel, who was released Friday and replaced by Matt Simms, who was cut by the New York Jets on Thursday.
Manuel, Cassel and Taylor had moments that ranged from mediocre to awful. They had good moments, too, but nothing spectacular.
It could be argued that it’s far too early to make harsh judgments. At least some of the misfired passes could have resulted as much from a lack of familiarity with a new scheme and, especially for Cassel and Taylor, a new surrounding cast as they did from simply poor throws and bad decisions.
Ryan, for one, said the real competition won’t begin until training camp, which opens on July 31. But Manuel isn’t allowing himself to think that way.
“Game on!” he said. “The competition, I feel like it started when we first got back” in early April. “But it’s been good to get back on the field with everybody else. Obviously, we’ve been going through plays the past couple of weeks, but going against the defense is a lot more fun.
“I think right now you just want to put your best foot forward as a competitor. As an athlete, you always want to go out and do your best. You don’t want to put anything bad on film, so whether” competition beginning with training camp is “true or not, I don’t know. But I think, as an athlete, you’ve got to go out there and do your best every time.”
The new coaching staff has brought a different twist to the quarterback battle by having two offensive units work simultaneously from different spots on the field. The idea is to give the maximum number of repetitions to all four quarterbacks. Last week, Manuel, Cassel and Taylor generally received equal turns with what, at least for the time being, served as the first-unit offense.
The approach is nothing new for Manuel.
“We did this at Florida State during our spring drills,” he said. “I actually like it because you get more reps. Everybody really gets a fair chance to show what they can do.”
What Manuel is setting out to show, more than anything, is that he can be a more accurate thrower than he has shown through 14 career starts, including 10 as a rookie. He went from completing 58.8 percent of his passes in 2013 to 58 percent last year, giving him a career completion percentage of 58.6.
Manuel has made accuracy a priority in all of the individual work he has done through the offseason, including the time he spent under the tutelage of former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg. With DeBerg, Manuel concentrated on improving his throwing motion.
After the first OTA practice last week, Ryan went out of his way to compliment Manuel for his grasp of the offense and “letting it rip” rather than being hesitant in the pocket.
“It’s funny, when you don’t think about it that much, it just kind of instinctually happens,” Manuel said of being accurate. “I think what really helped is just preparation before going into practice and knowing the plays that I’m going to run and just being able to dissect to myself and have a better understanding of what I’m doing on the field versus whatever defense they throw at us. I think that’s what really helps accuracy.”
It’s the same mentality that Manuel says is vital to have when facing one of the top defenses in the NFL during practice.
In the past two years, he has experienced more than his share of frustration from struggling against the collective dominance of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Jerry Hughes up front and solid play at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, Manuel is more willing to take those regular challenges in stride.
“I think, being that I’m a little older now, I don’t get as frustrated if something doesn’t go right, how we wanted it to,” he said. “I think you have to understand that it is a process. We’re putting in new plays every day. Obviously, the defense is doing new things over there. We’re not game-planning those guys, so sometimes they might have our number, but other times we’ll have theirs. So it doesn’t really matter.”
Nor does the recent speculation – quickly shot down by Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman – that Manuel could be cut in training camp if he fails to show substantial progress.
Nor does the possibility of ending up as the No. 3 quarterback behind Cassel and Taylor, not necessarily in that order.
“It doesn’t fire me up,” Manuel said. “I think if I just continue to focus on what I need to do to continue to get better, I think that’s just what matters for me.”