Manuel Out Ahead

The Buffalo Bills’ quarterback battle has bigger implications than any other roster battle. The race to replace Kiko, play next to Aaron Williams, or claw up the receivers’ depth chart are all competing for second place. EJ Manuel is in competition with himself. He’s not going to be replaced unless he reveals himself to be a Decepticon double agent and starts throwing to cornerbacks on purpose. But the version of Manuel that prevails will determine the season’s course.

EJ Manuel’s play will determine the success or failure of the 2014 Buffalo Bills. (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Only Manuel can stop Manuel. Coping with existential haze is the easy part. The Bizarro version spells his name “E.J.,” and the periods just don’t look right.

Nothing that happens in the preseason proves anything, but Manuel still showed something. He appeared both decisive and evasive in a little more action against Carolina than during the Hall of Fame game. We’re still slogging through exhibition season, but the most recent semi-contest counts for more than that first tantalizing, yet frustrating, taste.

Moving the chains against the Panthers in August doesn’t establish him as a successful starter anymore than completing a pair of his seven attempts against the Giants showed he was a bust. Still, his calm confidence should assuage fans who indulged in preseason panic after the Canton affair. Fans punching the drywall is the only way Manuel will learn to complete more than half his passes.

All summer offers is promise. On that note, Manuel should promise to play like the good version of himself when the season changes to both fall and real football. Simple efficiency will do it, and he just has to replicate his levelheaded performance in Charlotte.

The refs should do the same. If the offense hadn’t been jobbed by officials who don’t know how to spot a ball, the Bills may have put up a touchdown on the opening drive, which would have made the evening feel even more promising. It’s never too early to whine about the refs, and at least they’re presently only ruining games that don’t count.

Manuel would be greatly aided if wide outs keep playing to their attributes as they did against the Panthers, a species allegedly consisting of predators. Sammy Watkins took until his second preseason game to run routes with the unerring precision and magnetic hands that have made us lose our freaking minds with anticipation during camp. The rookie is adjusting to saving a franchise quite well. And Mike Williams literally rising to the occasion will provide the help his young battery mate needs.

It doesn’t feel right not complaining about Manuel’s potential. Well, he was sacked on the second drive’s opening play after he disregarded a chance to toss away the ball. Maybe he is very selfish and didn’t want to throw his first incompletion. It’s more likely just a choice he should learn to make in that moment. Absorbing a tackle in preseason game number 1A isn’t even enough reason to fret. Isn’t EJ thinking about sports radio callers?

If he can resolve to make the right pass instantly, Manuel won’t just need the help of flag-happy zebras to get ahead, even if they’re really going to penalize defensive backs for basically giving stern looks to wideouts. Add a running game deep enough where Bryce Brown and Anthony “Sweater Cannon” Dixon are battling for third-string carries, and the quarterback can feel even more relaxed.

If he plays with that much assertion during the season, it’ll be Manuel taking pressure off the run game. That’s the personnel race where every Bills fan should be cheering for the same guy.

About Anthony Bialy

Anthony Bialy recently moved back to Buffalo from New York City and acts like he never left. He thinks "Buffalo 66" is biographical and considers it a crime against mankind that Steve Tasker is not in the Hall of Fame. He likes getting Tim Hortons on the way to get Labatt Blue. Follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyBialy.

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