Bills Switch to Backup Plan

Calm fans wonder if the coaching staff acted too rashly. A strange Bills season has entered goateed Spock parallel universe territory. Buffalo shelved a quarterback they knew to be a project. It’s not like they can blame the last regime for drafting him. Halting preparation in an attempt to make the playoffs now better work out, as it’s not like they can console themselves with a high first-round pick next year.

A change with three-quarters of 2014’s schedule remaining may have been provoked by sinking morale. Winning half the games should feel better than this. Instead, the prototypical Buffalo fan’s thoughts turned to wasted temperate Sunday afternoon after consecutive drubbings. Did we miss sunshine or some other nice weather just to watch this team’s lapses under a roof in Houston? A quarterback swap following an infuriating accumulation of missed opportunities in a winnable game made me parched. I wish I had a Bills-themed beverage to quench my thirst.

Maybe it’s best that EJ Manuel rented. Yet, he can’t be considered a bust 437 attempts into his pro career. He still doesn’t have a full season of starts if anyone’s writing him off completely. Manuel was supposed to gain pocket patience through repetition. Instead, the Bills now bank on him getting better by not playing more. Here’s hoping he’s capable of learning by watching.

Buffalo must avoid replicating a low point in a playoff drought packed with them. Present staff should bear 2005’s horrid situation in mind, when Mike Mularkey, who was presumably hired by the Patriots to be the Bills coach, pulled his young quarterback in favor of a mediocre backup in order to win immediately. The squad ended up with five victories at the cost of J.P. Losman’s development, the last quarterback who needed such hindrance. Other than that, the swap worked.

Of course, this situation isn’t identical. If they were brothers, Kyle Orton would be Peyton to Kelly Holcomb’s Eli, minus the records, Super Bowl rings, and ads where the younger sibling’s jersey is tucked into his jeans. Either way, a staff that had put its faith in EJ now needs Orton to pull off a rather minor miracle.

The Purdue man turned out to be too expensive as an insurance policy to never cash. If you pay potentially eight figures to get a guy only though next year, he’s going to play soon after the incumbent struggles. Letting a good backup idle while the starter is stuck in neutral wastes resources.

The Bills decided the situation warranted deploying reserves. The patience required to let a first-rounder work though struggles has been postponed. Unused fire department axes aren’t necessarily a waste of taxpayer money, but they should only be used in emergencies.

(David J. Phillip | The Associated Press)
J.J. Watt made life difficult for EJ Manuel on Sunday. (David J. Phillip | The Associated Press)

I blame DJ J.J. for making EJ look bad. Nothing napalms hopes like flaming interceptions. Teams should win when their defense scores, and the Texans holding to form in the most devastating way possible doesn’t offer much comfort. Big plays that exploit a young quarterback’s lack of vision can overcome so much, such as a team losing more yards to personal fouls than gaining on rushes.

A frustratingly tentative Manuel didn’t screw up on his own. Momentous turnovers distracted from a hideous end to the half where the Bills seemed unaware that an inbounds completion keeps the clock moving. That was almost as bad as defenders enjoying a college flashback by forgetting ball carriers are only down by contact in the pro game. Regardless, Manuel has learned the quarterback is going to get the most blame.

There are too many weapons at hand for the Bills to find themselves mired in a defensive struggle between struggling offenses. The thrower, catchers, and blockers didn’t have enough overlapping fine moments. Buttery wide-out hands can be remedied with napkins, but a porous line is trickier to mend. As in the NCAA basketball tournament, guard play defines how far a team will go, and this presently doesn’t seem like an Elite Eight team. Despite it all, Buffalo still found themselves in position to win, if you hadn’t gotten enough of fate being a tease.

Shining moments weren’t enough to keep EJ from approaching T.J. Graham territory. Does Sammy Watkins dodging his way into the end zone assuage worries? No? Well, how about Mike Williams accumulating 50 yards in the first three games followed by 80 on one fantastic play in the fourth? Still nothing? Scatter-shot accuracy affected his last game for now more than dramatic completions.

The staff could help the new starter by tailoring a game plan to his strengths. They don’t need to change much: coaches had Manuel throwing as frequently as a savvy veteran. Orton may as well have already been starting. It’s hard to stick a defeat completely on an admittedly underwhelming Manuel when the team refuses to set up passes with frequent runs. They may have lost, but at least coaches proved how stubborn they are.

A veteran fourth-rounder will step in for the young first-rounder who followed the Ivy League seventh-rounder in the Bills’ ceaseless blasted quest to get someone other than Jim Kelly to be a half-decent quarterback. As was his habit, Ryan Fitzpatrick found himself involved in a Bills loss. They never get the timing right. A dramatic touchdown paired with a pair of interceptions reminded us what life was like with him under center, aside from how he didn’t throw away this particular outing.

Get your Orton-related slogans on cotton as soon as possible. As for Manuel, he’s for now no longer part of Buffalo’s top commercial activity, namely the current player t-shirt industry. All fans want is for garments with graphics featuring present players to be current for more than a few games. I hope the lady in Tennessee who bought my Fitzmagic one on eBay enjoys it, or enjoyed it if she turned around and sold it to someone in Houston.

The gutting loss is exacerbated by a quirky former ally getting a victory in a zero-sum game. Still, Fitzpatrick is not someone to loathe now that he’s gone. Manuel similarly remains affable: like the fancy college lad, the Florida State product is an anti-Ville Leino. We can at least still admire the thought of our ex trying to convince his kids to abandon the gear of the team dad played for two transactions ago, and not in a humorless sense like another underwhelming quarterback who left for Texas.

Meanwhile, coaches decided Manuel isn’t on the verge of being calmly consistent. Losing to the previous Bills quarterback didn’t help the now-former first-stringer create contrast. Fitz started over six percent of the franchise’s games during his era of Buffalo’s oft-frustrating history. Meanwhile, consecutive losses by his replacement were taken as a sign that he was keeping the franchise from moving forward. He didn’t swear at an upset fan if you need to cheer up by comparison.

Football is one of the few areas where those involved can shake hands right after trying to smash each other’s bones. It’s possible to remain friends with players who are removed as a simple business transaction. Buffalo has sadly learned to be wary of growing attached to competitors even if they’re decent fellows. Personnel moves are necessarily cold even when they impact our neighbors.

Such indifference must remain in mind for coaches as they field a lineup, lest the new owner in turn looks to find his own fresh sideline crew. Switching from Manuel is how Doug Marrone is trying to keep the same thing from happening to him. The Bills must get better play calling and blocking as well. If they’re going to mortgage the future, they should at least get wins out of it.

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.