Stakes high as Bills ride with rookie QB

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
6:48
PM ET

 
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Trailing by six with a little more than 90 seconds left in last Sunday's victory over Carolina, Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone walked over to EJ Manuel on the sideline and prepped him for a game-winning drive.

"Hey, EJ. Easy," Marrone said. "Just relax, and let's go ..."

"I know, I got you," said Manuel, cutting off his coach.

"I know. I'm good," Marrone fired back at his quarterback, who had already thrown one fourth-quarter interception. "I'm not panicking. I want to make sure you're good."

"I'm fine," Manuel responded.

For a first-year head coach in the NFL, starting a rookie quarterback can be a double-edged sword. It gives him soft clay to mold, a clean slate in an environment where a college passer (or runner) can become a polished NFL quarterback.

It can also be downright terrifying. Coaching an NFL team is a high-stress business, and having the hopes of your team's season, or even your own coaching career, ride on a young QB only ups the anxiety.

Just two teams began this season with rookie quarterbacks at the helm: the Bills and the Jets. Those two 1-1 teams will meet at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, the first road test of Manuel's career.

The Jets and head coach Rex Ryan, who will be on the hot seat if his team does not improve this season, will only commit to Geno Smith as the starter on a week-to-week basis. Although Ryan downplayed it, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported this week that Matt Simms -- a backup quarterback in his final season at Tennessee -- had support within the organization if Smith struggles.

The situation is significantly less tenuous in Buffalo, where Manuel outplayed veteran Kevin Kolb in the preseason before Kolb suffered a season-ending concussion.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesUp next for EJ Manuel, the 16th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is his first regular-season road game.
"EJ earned that right early on and played well," Marrone said on WGR 550 in Buffalo on Friday. "Kevin Kolb had some misfortunes. EJ took advantage of it. He earned the job as the starting quarterback."

But if you think Marrone has a high tolerance for bumps in the road with Manuel, you are overestimating his patience.

"I think that sometimes when we talk about rookies, we'll say, 'He's going to make some mistakes. Everyone has to be calm and we're going to have some growing pains, and blah, blah, blah,'" Marrone told the radio station. "Not me. I'm responsible for putting the best darn quarterback we can out there."

Recent history in the NFL proves one thing: Don't expect to rest easy after your hand-picked quarterback is drafted in the first round.

For the Bills last spring, that was Manuel, who has three touchdown passes and one game-winning drive through two weeks. Last season, it was Robert Griffin III for the Redskins and Andrew Luck for the Colts. In 2008, it was Matt Ryan for the Falcons and Joe Flacco for the Ravens.

So far, so good for all of those teams, including the Bills.

But in 2011 it was Jake Locker for the Titans, Blaine Gabbert for the Jaguars and Christian Ponder for the Vikings. In 2010, it was Tim Tebow for the Broncos. In 2009, it was Mark Sanchez for the Jets and Josh Freeman for the Buccaneers. In short, not so good for those teams.

Those selections were part of the reason why Josh McDaniels is no longer the head coach in Denver and Gene Smith is no longer calling the shots in Jacksonville.

And in Miami, general manager Jeff Ireland has to be feeling lucky after having three tries -- Chad Henne (second round in 2008), Pat White (second round in 2009) and Ryan Tannehill (first round in 2012) -- to get it right.

With just two games under his belt, it's too early to make any declarations one way or the other about Manuel. The best we can do is interpret small signals, like the way Manuel handles himself in pressure situations.

"Everyone has to believe that that's the right person, the best player for them," Marrone told WGR 550. "The other players were a lot like the coaches in seeing how he reacted on game day, when you're in a different type of environment. And I think they've seen him react in a positive way. Everyone is behind him as they are every position."

His good plays against the Panthers might have trumped his bad plays. But if Manuel is to succeed long-term in Buffalo, that will need to continue almost every week, starting Sunday.

"I think consistency, being able to show that you can do it over a long period of time, that's what the challenge is," Marrone said. "I think that once you see that people have that ability to do something, then you have to make sure, we as coaches, we have to get it out of them. Every time they have to get it out of themselves. Then that's when you can start maybe putting labels on people."

And until that happens, expect Bills scouts to scour the country for quarterback prospects each fall.

That's just the brutal reality of the NFL.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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