EJ Manuel has settled into his role with the Buffalo Bills as Tyrod Taylor’s backup quarterback.
But don’t mistake that for settling.
Manuel knows the situation in front of him: He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season and his chance of ever becoming the franchise quarterback the team hoped he’d be when they selected him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft is out of his hands.
That job now belongs to Tyrod Taylor, and barring a catastrophic injury or a gigantic slide backward in his play, it will be his for the foreseeable future.
That means Manuel is staring at what could be the final 16 games of his career in Buffalo.
“My focus right now is just finishing whatever I have here,” Manuel said after a recent training-camp practice at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. “Whatever my situation is, wherever I’m at, I have to put myself in the best position moving forward, but also help this team win. That’s the most important thing.”
Ideally for the Bills, Manuel will not factor heavily into the team’s plans this year. That’s not meant as a knock against him, but rather an acknowledgement that Taylor is now that man, and if Manuel is in for extended time, it’s because of injury or supremely poor play.
But as last year showed, that possibility has to be accounted for. A sprained knee knocked Taylor out of two games, and Buffalo dropped them both – putting a huge dent in the team’s playoff chances.
If Manuel is called upon again this year, the team has been steadfast in its belief that he’ll be up for the challenge.
“The team feels great about him,” coach Rex Ryan said. “I love his preparation. It’s never wavered. In fact, I think he’s better now than I’ve ever seen him. So, you know, I’m really happy with EJ.”
A total of 15 teams started more than one quarterback during the 2015 season, and Ryan said the Bills are “comfortable if that happens.”
“We almost have an ideal situation,” Ryan said. “We’ve got a clear-cut starter and guy that is really, you know, coming into his own. We’ve got EJ Manuel, in my opinion, an outstanding backup quarterback and we’ve got a guy developing maybe even faster than we thought in our third quarterback. So, I feel really good about all three of those guys.”
Manuel’s performance through two preseason games has been strong. He’s a combined 18 of 31 for 170 yards and two touchdowns.
“Definitely the comfort level is very high,” Manuel said after Saturday’s 21-0 victory over the New York Giants at New Era Field. “The way we speak in the film room, going over plays, installations, and things like that it is totally different than last year. So that’s going to help us in the long run.”
During an interview at camp, Manuel expanded on playing in the same system for the second year in a row.
“Things are starting to develop in mind moreso than having to write it down on paper,” he said. “That’s a good feeling. It kind of gives you confidence when you go in and run plays in practice. I’m definitely making the strides I want to make in being more consistent every day.
The 27-year-old Taylor and the 26-year-old Manuel both grew up in Virginia. In fact, their high schools are only 22 miles apart. So Manuel was thrilled to see his friend land a contract extension.
“I watched him all year last year work hard on the job,” Manuel said. “He didn’t step off the gas. If anything, he pushed even harder. He was there every single morning at the time doing workouts, watching tape.
“So I’m really proud of him. He’s obviously somebody I’ve known for a long time, so to see him have that success motivates me and tells me I can do the same thing in the future.”
While that may sound like a realization that the writing is on the wall, Manuel insists he’s not closed the book on his career in Buffalo.
“We’ll see,” he said. “A lot of that depends on how we do this year and all that kind of stuff.”