Every article, analysis or casual conversation about the Buffalo Bills this offseason has circled back to one conclusion, followed by an inescapable question.
This team looks loaded … but who the heck is going to play quarterback?
With training camp starting Friday, finding an answer will be priority No. 1 for coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
The three candidates – EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor – failed to separate themselves in any meaningful way during spring practices. It may not be until the week before the Sept. 13 season opener against the Indianapolis Colts before a winner is named. That has left plenty of time for debate and worry in Bills Nation.
Ryan says he understands fans’ frustration about the never-ending search for Jim Kelly’s successor as the organization’s franchise quarterback, but feels that a three-man competition is a reason to be excited.
“That’s going to make guys better,” he said. “There’s a comfort level with the fans, just like me, in knowing that somebody’s going to have to earn the job.
“I think our fans also look at our roster and they get really excited. At that spot, you know what, it’s just not about one position. It’s about our football team and we’re pretty darn excited about what we have.”
Ryan’s glass-half-full approach hasn’t swayed those outside the organization.
Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit ranked all 32 presumed starting quarterbacks in the NFL – putting Cassel dead last with the caveat, “Put EJ Manuel or Tyrod Taylor here if you want. Whatever – you get the idea.”
More recently, Mike Sando of ESPN.com asked 35 coaches and executives around the league to place every starting quarterback in tiers. With Cassel as the presumed starter, the Bills finished 31st, ahead of only Geno Smith and the New York Jets.
At Grantland, writer Robert Mays includes the Bills’ offense in an article about four units that need to match the production of their counterparts.
So the national consensus is clear. The Bills don’t have what it takes at quarterback.
“It’s great motivation to prove ’em wrong,” Cassel said.
But does that even need to happen? Is it possible for the Bills to win – i.e. make the playoffs – without an elite quarterback? The Bills went 9-7 last year with Manuel and Kyle Orton. They combined for a 36.5 QBR score (ESPN’s quarterback rating system), which finished 30th in the NFL. Sando points out that only the 2009 New York Jets – coached by Ryan – have finished a season better than .500 with a QBR score of 37.0 or lower.
Perhaps that’s why Ryan says it’s OK the team doesn’t have an established depth chart at the game’s most important position heading into training camp.
“There’s not going to be any separation until the pads come on,” he said. “Is time on our side a little bit? Yes it is. In an ideal world would you already have your quarterback named by now? Yeah, that’s an ideal situation, but you know what, we’re not there. We’re in an ideal situation to have competition at that spot and I welcome it.”
The last shot
This isn’t how it was supposed to unfold for Manuel. Entering his third year in the league, this is when the 2013 first-round draft pick should be the unquestioned leader of the offense.
Instead, the tenor of the organization has completely changed. When the Bills moved up in the 2014 draft to take Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins – parting with a 2015 first-round pick in the process – General Manager Doug Whaley said “we want to surround EJ Manuel with every possible weapon we can to help us get to where we need to go.”
But after a season in which Manuel lasted only four games before getting benched, that outward show of support has vanished.
“The way we looked at it is, we don’t have a proven franchise quarterback,” Whaley said before this year’s draft. “That’s obvious. But what we wanted to do is be perfect everywhere else, where that guy doesn’t have to put the game on his shoulders and be the man. We want him to be able to just make right decisions and be able to put the ball in the hands of the playmakers.”
Throughout his time in Buffalo, Manuel has maintained an optimistic outlook. So it’s no surprise that even though he enters this training camp in a much different position than he was in the past two, he’s focused on the positive.
“They’re giving me a fair chance,” he said. “It’s really up to me to go out and do what I’m supposed to. That’s all you can do in this profession, because nothing is guaranteed ever. If you’re not getting your job done, they’ll replace you.”
Because of injuries as a rookie and the ineffectiveness that caused him to lose his job last season, Manuel still has only 14 career starts. He’s 6-8 in those games, throwing for 2,810 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 58.6 completion percentage.
“Everything that’s happened to this point in my career, I’ve used as motivation,” he said. “The good and the bad. I think sometimes people get so caught up in the negative. I step back and I’m like, ‘I’ve had success. I’ve done good things.’ I’ve won tough games, games that people said we wouldn’t have won. I’ve helped my team do that.”
If Manuel feels like his development was stunted by injuries and the quick hook former coach Doug Marrone and his staff had last season, he’ll never admit to it publicly.
Instead, he’s focused on how the competition can make him better.
“It’s wide open,” he said. “I think what that promotes is just focus, knowing that I have to come into every single practice and put my best foot forward, because it is a competition. Even if it’s not in team period, when we’re just doing drills amongst ourselves as quarterback, I try my best every single time. You can’t slack off.”
Manuel has a couple of things working in his favor. No. 1 is a new coaching staff. That means a clean slate. No. 2 is his contract.
Manuel has two years left on his rookie deal and will earn slightly more than $1.2 million in base salary in 2015, with a salary-cap hit of $2.423 million. If Manuel were cut, he would actually count $5.25 million against the cap, because his contract is fully guaranteed, meaning the Bills would lose $2.827 million in space.
So if he can show the promise that made Whaley convinced he was worth a first-round pick, there is still time for Manuel to establish himself as the franchise quarterback he was supposed to be.
“This team is definitely in position to do big things,” Manuel said. “Once we get everything squared away and figured out, I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll go out there and do what we need to do to get to the playoffs.”
Like he did when signing Orton, Whaley felt the need this offseason to acquire a veteran quarterback. He did so by trading a pair of low draft picks to Minnesota for Cassel, an 11th-year veteran.
The similarities between the two are almost scary. In 10 NFL seasons, Orton went 42-40 in 82 games as a starter, throwing for 18,037 yards, 101 touchdowns and 69 interceptions with a 59.5 completion percentage.
Cassel is 33-38 in 71 starts over the same time span, throwing for 15,727 yards, 96 touchdowns and 70 interceptions with a 59.0 completion percentage.
From a backup who made the most of his opportunity (Cassel went 10-5 as a starter for New England in 2008 when Tom Brady was lost for the year in the season opener) to a franchise quarterback in Kansas City to a veteran who’s been in competitions the past two seasons in Minnesota, Cassel has experienced it all in his NFL career.
Given that the Bills are in a “win-now mode” as evidenced by their other offseason moves, the idea that Cassel would have a leg up in the competition as the quarterback with the most experience makes sense.
But that did not happen during the spring. Cassel, though, has been around long enough to know not to start pressing.
“You just go out and do your job every day,” he said. “You have to continue to go out, work, learn the system. We’re all learning and growing in the system. … They’ll name a starter sooner or later, so go with it when that happens.”
Learning a new system is something Cassel, 33, is all too familiar with. Roman will be the eighth offensive coordinator he’s had in the past eight seasons.
A veteran presence and ability to adapt to new schemes, however, won’t be enough to win the job. During the spring, Cassel wasn’t accurate enough and turned the ball over too much – both of which will have to greatly improve during the preseason.
Cassel also has something else working against him. Whereas Manuel’s contract is a reason to potentially keep him, Cassel’s deal could have the opposite effect.
With only one year left and a base salary of $4.15 million, the Bills could save that entire amount by releasing him. That space could then be carried over to next year, when the team will have to re-sign players like Marcell Dareus, Stephon Gilmore, Nigel Bradham and Cordy Glenn.
“It’s an exciting time,” Cassel said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. Now it’s our job to go out there and prove we’re worth those expectations.”
The wild card
During the spring, Roman was asked about the competition between Manuel and Cassel. Before answering, he gently reminded his questioner it “wasn’t fair” to leave out Taylor.
So yes, the former Baltimore Ravens’ backup is squarely in the mix.
Ryan’s interest in Taylor dates to his days with the Jets. He finally got the chance to coach him when the Bills signed Taylor to an incentive-laden contract in March.
“I’m not gonna say he’s Russell Wilson, but he’s got a little of that in him,” Ryan told a Toronto radio station when Taylor was signed. “He’s able to run zone reads and pull the ball down and be effective.”
Taylor gives the Bills the most athleticism at the position, which could be attractive given the success Roman was able to have at times in his previous stop in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick.
It would be a big leap of faith by a team with playoff aspirations, though, to put such an unproven commodity under center in Week One. Taylor’s experience is limited to 14 games that were either blowouts or inconsequential. As such, it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions from his stats in those games (19 for 35, 54.3 completion percentage, 199 yards, zero touchdowns, two interceptions).
Taylor, who will turn 26 during training camp, is just seven months older than Manuel. He also has virtually no NFL mileage on his legs, which Ryan says makes him the fastest quarterback in the league.
“Coach has done a good job of splitting reps … and giving us opportunities to go out there and work with the ‘ones, twos, threes,’ ” Taylor said. “All of us have worked with each group an equal amount of time. That’s all I can ask for.
“All I can do is control my daily performance and how I prepare. That’s the main thing that I’m focusing on right now, just prepare as much as possible. Move the offense when I’m in, and just take care of my job.”
Whether that job becomes his permanently will be decided starting Friday when the Bills take to the practice field at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.