The Buffalo Bills can steal one of Bill Belichick’s NFL records with a good game Sunday.
They’ll have to rely on EJ Manuel to do it.
The Bills have turned the ball over just nine times through their first 15 games. The NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season is 10, set by Belichick’s Patriots in 2010 and matched by the 49ers in 2011.
Tyrod Taylor limited opponents to six interceptions this season while the Bills have lost only three fumbles. But Taylor isn’t playing Sunday. He’ll be a spectator while Manuel gets his first start in 14 months.
The Bills’ “business decision” to sit Taylor increases the degree of difficultly to complete their record-breaking season. Taylor is known for protecting the ball – only three qualifying quarterbacks have fewer interceptions this year – but Manuel has thrown 15 picks in his 16 career starts.
Still, Manuel is relishing the opportunity to play once more before entering free agency. He was home in Virginia for his mother’s birthday on Tuesday when he got the call from senior offensive assistant Chris Palmer that he’d be starting this week.
“He let me know before I found about Coach Ryan (getting fired) and everything,” Manuel said. “I was just excited to get an opportunity and very appreciative.”
Just like interim coach Anthony Lynn wished his opportunity didn’t have to come at his friend Rex Ryan’s expense, Manuel admitted it was a bit strange to replace Taylor after he was sat for financial reasons. But players were quick to mention that “it’s a business” after Ryan was fired, and this is no different.
“I mean, of course any time something like this happens – I know when I was a starter and I got replaced, it was awkward for me,” Manuel said. “Even coming to practice the next day, it just felt weird. I’m sure it’s a little different for him. At least for me, it was good to get back on the saddle and get a chance to get some time with those receivers and tight ends. It was good for me. I felt real good.”
Manuel said he has felt himself improving while spending time as the backup.
“I think coverage recognition is probably, night-and-day, much better,” he said. “That’s an area where I needed to grow a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. Going against our first-team defense every single day for the last 15, 16 weeks has really helped me out tremendously.”
Manuel will be an unrestricted free agent when his rookie contract expires after the season. All he wants to show the league is that he can win.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Manuel said. “At the end of the day, everybody can play in this league. Everybody can throw. I think quarterbacks are based, or you’re judged, off of winning. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”
One of the biggest things a quarterback can do to help his team win is limit turnovers. The Jets rank 30th in the league in takeaways, but turnovers have been a knock on a Manuel. The memory of his fumble and two interceptions in two and a half minutes against Jacksonville last season may be burned into some Western New Yorkers’ minds.
For his career, Manuel averages a turnover every 25 pass attempts. He’ll need a clean game Sunday to finish the work Taylor started on the turnover record, and the other ballcarriers will need to pitch in, too.
“I’d be lying to you if just I told you that we do some super thing to protect the ball,” running back LeSean McCoy said earlier this year when asked about limiting turnovers.
“(If) you want to win games, you can’t have turnovers. It’s as simple as that. A lot of guys are really dedicated to protecting the ball, and it shows from the numbers. … There’s really no secret. Just protect the ball. If you have to punt it, punt it. But don’t give them a turnover and give the other team field position.”