LONDON — EJ Manuel and Doug Marrone meet again. The quarterback benched by the head coach gets a chance at revenge across the Atlantic Ocean.
After his news conference, Manuel stepped outside at “The Grove” — the Buffalo Bills’ pristine estate of a practice facility for the week — and didn’t break his smile. He’s stress-free. Really has been since Day 1 of training camp.
Extra motivation? Nah.
“I want to win, of course,” Manuel said. “It’s not to necessarily get back at Coach Marrone or anything like that. I don’t hold grudges, man. You know me. He was our coach last year. He’s not our coach anymore.”
But walk through the garden, around a soccer field toward the Bills’ makeshift locker room in this England countryside and running back Boobie Dixon knows Sunday is different for his quarterback.
“He’s not going to say that but we’re all competitors,” Dixon said. “I know he wants to win badder than anybody affiliated with the Bills. So to stick it to them, yeah, I hope he does. I hope he carves ‘em up.”
And with that, it's EJ Manuel Time again — for better or worse. On Thursday, the Bills declared Tyrod Taylor (knee) out for Sunday’s game against Jacksonville. Coach Rex Ryan said Taylor couldn’t step into his throws Wednesday and that the knee was sore afterward. So Manuel, rocky through a 34-21 loss to Cincinnati, starts again.
It's another chance to prove he belongs in a game the Bills sorely need. At 3-3, discontent is running high from the defensive line wanting to rush to Percy Harvin contemplating retirement.
Marrone threw in the towel after four starts last season.
Since then, Manuel insists he’s grown.
“Believing in myself,” Manuel said. “I worked extremely hard to get back to where I’m at. I feel like I’ve earned everything. It’s not like this was all given to me or anything like that. I had to earn my time to get back to this point. So I’m proud of that. I know there’s still a lot of work to be done and I’m eager to get it done.”
Against the Bengals, Manuel completed 28 of 42 passes for 263 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Watching film on Monday, he realized he was playing too much off of what he saw on tape, knowing he must simply "play the game." One play, Manuel realized he could’ve thrown a hitch route instead of going downfield to Chris Hogan. Another play, he missed Sammy Watkins on a backside slant when Watkins turned Pacman Jones inside-out. It's important to adjust on the fly.
From Day 1, Manuel has loved Greg Roman’s offense in Buffalo. He saw Colin Kaepernick shine under the offensive coordinator in San Francisco and believed he had a similar game, bringing Kaepernick's name up again Thursday.
And watching the tape this week, Manuel saw the Jaguars load the box with seven, eight defenders to stop the run. Considering he'll be without Watkins, Percy Harvin and Marquise Goodwin, Manuel can expect the same treatment (and then some) on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
Roman wants to see him cut it loose.
"If you prepare with no conscience, you can play with no conscience," Roman said. "I feel like he's preparing that way. We just have to bring that to the game. Nobody has the right to just go out and wing it unprepared. You have to earn the right to go out and let it rip. He’s been doing that. It’s just like a test in grade school.”
Accuracy remains a glaring concern — and who knows if it’s fixable. As legend goes, Manuel threw one pass into the hospitality tent during training camp, another ball into a cameraman’s rib cage on the sideline and, on Thursday, skidded a walkthrough dump-off into the dirt against air.
Roman called working on the fundamentals “a beautiful obsession” for all quarterbacks, similar to a golfer putting 100 times a day. But this is Manuel’s third NFL season. Quite possibly, Marrone was right in giving up on the 2013 16th overall pick out of Florida State.
For one week, it’s on Roman and the Bills to accentuate what Manuel does well. Hence, the designed QB runs last week. He is a 6-foot-4, 237-pound man who can move the pile.
In one situation Thursday, Roman told Manuel he wants him to turn into Marion Motley, the old Cleveland Browns fullback/linebacker from the 1940’s and 50’s.
“He said, ‘Who’s Marion Motley?’” Roman said. “Anyway, he’s a big, strong athlete. Very powerful. I was with Steve McNair and he reminds me of Steve McNair in that regard.”
Sitting out can be a double-edged sword, Manuel said. The week-to-week roller-coaster can benefit a quarterback. Then again, watching another quarterback make mistakes from the sideline can help, too.
Said Manuel, “I’ve seen quarterbacks — Blake Bortles, for example — who’s young in his career and is starting to turn that corner and get better and better more consistently. Same for me. I feel I started to turn the corner back in the preseason when I had an opportunity to show what I can do.”
Buffalo probably wouldn’t mind Bortles right now. While the Jaguars are 1-5, he’s shown glimmers of being a franchise quarterback.
Whether or not the 2014 benching was justified is up for debate. Manuel had completed 58 percent of his passes for 838 yards, six total touchdowns and three interceptions through a 2-2 start. Manuel was out, Kyle Orton was in and the Bills finished 9-7. When the move was made, Dixon says many players in the locker room were taken aback.
“I definitely thought it was unfair," Dixon said. "I thought it was just too early. We were still building as a team. We had a lot of new pieces and I just think he needed more time and we needed more time. ... It kind of upsets you a little bit. You have a guy, he’s the guy and the next thing you know he’s not the guy."
Added safety Bacarri Rambo, “He studies like he’s going to start every week and he practices that way. I can play for a guy like that and go battle on the field for him any day.”
Quiet. Calm. Collected. “Extremely confident.” These are words Dixon and others use to describe Manuel on repeat. Dixon even calls Manuel’s arm strength downright “crazy.”
Maybe Manuel won’t show any signs — at all — of bad blood. But this is a quarterback who lifted an index finger to his lips to signal “Shhh…” after a game-winning touchdown in an exhibition win over Cleveland. Dixon absolutely sees extra motivation in this reunion.
Marrone will be on the other sideline. Taylor will be in street clothes. Call it the Doug Marrone Bowl or The EJ Manuel London Invasion. Whatever.
Again, the embattled quarterback takes center stage.
“You’ve got to be motivated when you’re in his position," Dixon said. "He got demoted unfairly last year and Tyrod stepped in this year, he’s the man, so you kind of have to feel some type of way in order to come out here and perform. You feel motivated because you feel like you can be the man also.”