Counting the Starts of EJ Manuel

Say this for Buffalo’s summer: if there’s a limit on good plays in a calendar year, they didn’t come close to reaching it. NFL scientists believe there are no theoretical barriers against gaining many yards multiple times. That means the Bills can go ahead and start excelling without excuse now, as they didn’t waste much of the imaginary allotment. Treat low expectations as a gift.

EJ Manuel looked very comfortable and poised in the pocket yesterday. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
EJ Manuel only has 10 starts under his belt. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

With the quarterback position, it’s hard for hopes to sink more. Perhaps hearing calmer friends and relatives demand playing time for Kyle Orton after every EJ Manuel incompletion will soothe your nerves, but coaches should give the present starter at least three or four snaps before yanking him. I made a Vine you can play to preempt those who feel a bit rash.

If nothing else, we don’t have to brace for advocates of Jordan Palmer starting. A man who played like a coach in his few snaps never even got to patronize the Anchor Bar. Matt Leinart can commiserate.

By contrast, Orton has time to read the playbook, which will make Twitter and sports talk radio super-fun if a few Manuel passes hit the turf. Until then, it’s important to remember we’re only waiting for the present starter’s 11th game. It’s a small comfort that many of those now good at the same job were not so at this point.

Looking at how other quarterbacks performed after 10 starts is one way to cope with fears that Manuel is doomed. For every impressive Wilsonesque, Roethlisbergery, or even Ortontorian performance from day one, there are many other signal-callers who struggle once they’re paid to do the job. Wondering what to do with a massive paycheck is the last thing on the mind of quarterbacks who are new to both legal drinking and universally superhuman cornerbacks.

As much as we want clarity, it’s important to avoid passing judgment about a second-year quarterback who hasn’t even started a full season’s worth of games.  The fact he was known to be a project shouldn’t be used as an excuse, especially with fans who were cranky about the playoff drought over a decade ago. But Manuel needs a few more healthy games before we begin calling him EJP Losman.

At least there’s a precedent of improvement among youthful quarterbacks who initially look baffled. The problem is that their individual experiences are not transferrable. But the wish to copy those who put it together is the best chance the Bills have.

For example, Eli Manning had an abysmal 55.4 rating after nine games and seven starts his rookie season, while even his brother oscillated a little at first. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford completed 53.3 percent of his passes during his 10-start rookie season for 6 yards per attempt. Don’t get too excited, but Manuel was statistically better.

The star-crossed Sam Bradford was uneven and largely mediocre in his first season for a lousy team. As for even bigger swings, Cam Newton was amazing or lousy as a rookie depending on the week, which means nothing has changed too much. Andrew Luck was mostly good starting early except for a few bad decisions leading to interceptions, as Matt Ryan similarly shined despite a few weeks of struggling with inaccuracy. Of course, they joined teams that weren’t struggling like our beloved Bills were. Examples are as varied as quarterbacks.

Each new starter is an individual in a unique circumstance. Coaches, wideouts, blockers, college style, maturity, and personal gifts qualify every comparison. Still, young passers who struggle often share the common trait of overcompensating for the new level’s onslaught. Haste in targeting or reading defenses is normal. It’s better for a new starter to be too nervous than unaware of peril.

Telling Manuel to be calm is good advice, although it’s easier to share wise words than put them into actuality. It might take more exposure for him to execute properly when it counts, which is frustrating for everyone involved.

If it helps, his passes don’t need to be perfect: that’s why management added a human video game character with magnetic hands and another wideout whose height is irrelevant to how high he can jump.

He must master quick throws soon. The Bills’ West Coast-themed offense is in the hands of a Virginian who went to school in Florida and plays in Buffalo. Geographic discordance aside, Manuel’s troubles lie in his jitteriness. One fewer espresso might be all it takes.

Rookies typically struggle to cope with a much faster pro game. By contrast, Manuel’s biggest problem is reacting too quickly. His habits of hurrying reads and settling for underneath throws indicate he’s nervous to hold the ball too long. The understandable anxiety is a tendency that can be corrected, sometimes with nothing more than more tries.

As someone renowned for being levelheaded to a fault, Manuel just might need a little more exposure to relax in the right way. Having a proven veteran backup aboard ready to step in might be the motivation he needs to get fiery. It’s not to get Manuel wound up, but he may not get more than another 10 games to show his temperament can match his play.

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.