Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Sep 2014

EJ Manuel: What Went Wrong?

I guess when your team has new ownership, and everyone's jobs are up in the air, there's no time for quarterback development. Has EJ Manuel been good this year? No. Does it make sense to pull him four games into his second season for veteran Kyle Orton? I don't think so, but then, my job doesn't depend on Buffalo finishing 8-8. But essentially, what this means is that the Bills threw away two first-round picks in a three-year period, including of course next year's pick. I suppose Manuel could still amount to something. We'll read a lot about the hit to Manuel's confidence, but I suppose this is an interesting test case for questions about just how much confidence is a real issue with professional athletes. As I argued in Audibles a couple weeks ago, to get to the level of being a professional NFL player, you probably need to be the kind of guy who stays pretty confident even after failures.

UPDATE: I asked Matt Waldman for his thoughts on what's gone wrong with Manuel. He watched the Texans game and has these thoughts:

It's not always easy to pinpoint exactly why a quarterback gets benched, but EJ Manuel's case is a little more clear cut. The Bills' starting quarterback was 0-for-8 on throws to the intermediate range of the field between the hash marks. Only one of these throws appeared to be the fault of a receiver -- in the case of Robert Woods' slow reaction to turn look for the ball after his break. The rest were egregiously inaccurate in every direction: too wide of target; too far behind the receiver; and also sailing over the intended man. The Bills offense is a short passing game in concept and there are a lot of screen passes and short targets to the perimeter to stretch the field horizontally. It makes these intermediate targets in the middle of the field very important to keep the defense honest. Otherwise, the opposition can sit on routes and send pressure to disrupt the timing.

Manuel also made two crucial mistakes that cost Buffalo the game in a close contest that the Bills could have won. The first was a rushed throw to the flat that lacked enough touch when Manuel saw J.J. Watt coming free from the edge. The defensive end didn't have to do more than reach for the flat-trajectory throw for a pick-six. Manuel's second interception came on the second of two late fourth-quarter drives that could have put Buffalo ahead -- a ball he sailed over the seam that didn't account for the safety. This is an elementary consideration that Manuel failed to take into account.

The Bills staff may sense that they have enough talent to contend in a muddy AFC East and Kyle Orton might be a better match in terms of staying on the same page with young receivers -- especially with his timing and accuracy in the middle of the field. As a prospect, Manuel was a physical talent with a lot to learn about the fine points of the game, but few major flaws to untangle when it comes to fundamentals to throwing the football. So far, it appears Manuel is rushing his process, which has some to do with the Bills' pass protection.

Is there a chance he could develop? Sure, but in today's era patience is short. Manuel has all the physical tools, but his conceptual approach has lacked consistency and this is the ultimate difference between a good college option and a quality NFL starter. If Manuel earns another opportunity in 2014 and can't make good on it, don't count on him earning a third opportunity as a long-term option somewhere else.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 29 Sep 2014

41 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2014, 8:25pm by Noah Arkadia

Comments

1
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 4:35pm

My cousin is a Bills fan, so I watched a lot the BUF-SD game. There were Bills receivers open pretty regularly, but Manuel couldn't get them the ball. Also some pretty bad decision making. With even average quarterback play , the Bills would have had a good shot at winning that game.

Draft status aside, I can see why the coaching staff did this. They feel like the rest of the roster (good defense, good running game, decent receivers) can compete in a division that looks pretty weak right now.

2
by NJBammer :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 4:41pm

I'm of the school that says benching a badly performing QB is good for them. It let's them understand that progress is ok and all, but in the end performing during the game is what counts. I think more high draft QBs would profit from such adversity.

3
by theslothook :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 4:43pm

I wish I could ask the coaching staff why they drafted Manuel in the first place. The pre-draft concerns about Manuel's limitations have been exactly his undoing, so it shouldn't have a surprise.

I'll go a step further...the bills boast a pretty talented roster overall. Their D line is deep, their secondary has held up well - their receivers are talented. The o line is a weakness but has a couple good players. No, everything that sucks about this team is squarely on the shoulders of its qb. I guess that makes it like every other bills team for the last 14 years.

5
by Mike B. In Va :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 5:18pm

It was pretty clear that Manuel was outgoing GM Buddy Nix's pick.

That said, the entire thing has been pretty comically mishandled. We'll see if Orton can relive his time in Chicago with slightly better offensive skill players and a not-quite-as-good defense. This Bills team has the most talent of any team of theirs since the 1999 version that lost the Music City Miracle game, though the O line is a bit of a mess.

12
by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 1:56am

I heard somewhere that the Bills took Manuel because of his leadership presence, and that he had big hands compared to Geno. I believe Manuel could still turn out well, but he seems really inaccurate right now. With Orton, the Bills probably will win the division. Outside of Qb, they have the most talent, and don't seem to be poorly coached.

14
by Mike B. In Va :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:35am

I think they fell in love with the tools, and not the results.

Then again, apparently Geno *was* the second choice, and he's not really any better, for different reasons.

The "Nix's pick" language is getting walked back, too, and Whaley is taking responsibility, which is what you'd like a GM to do, so this isn't a TOTAL disaster. It's been kinda sad watching Manuel regress over the last two games, though.

4
by tuluse :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 4:54pm

Always been a Kyle Orton fan. Hope he does well, would be great to see him lead the Bills to a divisional championship.

8
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 6:32pm

/signed.

6
by speedegg :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 6:14pm

I'm not sure if EJ Manuel should have started anyway. Not knocking him, but jumping from a college offense to a West Coast offense that's similar to Sean Payton/Jon Gruden (LOTS of commands and verbiage) would be difficult for any QB. There are times where Manuel seems lost or he pauses (thinking too much?). I think it would be good if Manuel sat for a few games.

Greg Cosell had several interesting observations about Manuel. One of them was Manuel's biggest asset is his size. Which is a little funny when someone as experienced as Cosell comments on your size and not accuracy.

9
by Mash Wilson :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 6:34pm

Yeah, that strikes me as an indictment too. "He's not any good at football, but man does he LOOK like an NFL quarterback."

Manuel is commonly described in many of the same ways Blaine Gabbert was. STRENGTHS: Big, athletic, strong arm. WEAKNESSES: No accuracy, no feel for the rush, can't read coverage.

Yeah, good luck with that. And it's not like this is a great surprise. In both cases that was pretty much the scouting report coming out of college, and in both cases a sad-sack franchise demonstrated why they were so sad-sack by going ga-ga over the body and arm and drafting them far too high.

17
by tortoise40 :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 9:31am

Gotta disagree with one thing. He does seem to have a feel for the rush - maybe too much so at times - but No Accuracy and Can't Read Coverage are more than enough to doom a QB in this pass-happy league.

22
by nath :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:59pm

Exactly why I liked Blake Bortles despite his mechanical problems-- he didn't just look like a quarterback, he played like one, with a 67% completion rate throwing all over the field and a great sense for and ability to avoid the pass rush. FO alum Mike Tanier was fond of comparing him to Gabbert, but that was ridiculous-- Gabbert could only dream of being as productive in college as Bortles was.

29
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 12:16pm

He revised his comparison after preseason to Jay Cutler-eqsue. If you can be Jay Cutler and remove 2-3 boneheaded plays each game, that's a damn good qb.

28
by speedegg :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 3:15am

Yeah, that jogged my memory of what Greg Cosell said about the 2013 rookie quarterbacks. Cosell and Adam Caplan did a video segment for Eagles Film Room where they talked about some of the rookie QBs. EJ Manuel is around the 6:25 mark. Very interesting what Cosell's view of EJ Manuel (both strengths and areas of improvement). Size is an attribute, but the other thing was Manuel is not a "natural thrower" and that causes inconsistency in his accuracy.

Link: http://www.philadelphiaeagles.com/videos/videos/Film_Room_Essence_Of_QB_...

31
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 12:38pm

Thanks for posting that link; it was a great break-down of the 2013 quarterbacks. Geno still hasn't gotten the anticipation part down.

7
by Danimal :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 6:19pm

I'm a Denver fan and my memories are that Orton did really well here for a couple years. he only lost the job because of a team slump and the pressure to replace him with Tebow became a media-circus, then Tebow went on to have the luckiest stretch of games in the history of the world and our minds exploded. Then Manning showed up and we forgot all about Tebow and Orton in Broncoland.

I know nothing of Manuel, but I hope Orton does well.

23
by Hang50 :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 1:04pm

Same here. I never thought "hey, wow, the Broncos got Orton! woohoo!" but I never wrote them off either. I think he'll probably perform pretty well in Buffalo's system (as it's been described in this thread; I don't normally watch Bills games); it sounds like an NFL version of the Tiller offense he ran at Purdue.

10
by stevo :: Mon, 09/29/2014 - 9:38pm

You may need a lot of confidence to get to the NFL but there will be variance around that level. If you are in the lower end and have a coach/media telling you that you suck, one's confidence can be broken I imagine. Confidence means a lot in sports. Brett Favre made a career out of it.

11
by johonny :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 1:14am

Suddenly 8-8, 9-7 looks like enough to possibly win the AFC East. It is early yet and maybe the Pats turn it around but right now the whole division looks iffy.

13
by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 1:57am

If by iffy you mean terrible, than yeah.

15
by Mike B. In Va :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:36am

No kidding. If the Bills with Orton are actually the best team in the division, this is pre-Harbaugh NFC West territory.

16
by Dr. Mooch :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 9:13am

The similarity scores for Orton on his player page only cover his most recent backup years. Any chance we can see similarity scores for 2008-2011 when he was actively starting?

24
by RickD :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:08pm

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/O/OrtoKy00.htm

They have cumulative similarity scores starting with the end of the 3rd year, when Orton was most like Randall Cunningham.

25
by Dr. Mooch :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:13pm

Yuck.

18
by tortoise40 :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 9:34am

Accuracy AND understanding are what went wrong with EJ, and it all came to a head vs. the Texans. If he were making the throws, but having trouble with progressions and reads, I think the coaching staff would keep running him out there.
But he can't seem to do either right now. When makes the right read he can't put the ball on (or near) the numbers, and when he doesn't he's throwing the ball into coverage when other players are wide open. The frustration wasn't only with the coaching staff either - it seemed to be starting to make it's way into the room. Bills receivers were visibly frustrated on the field last Sunday, and with good reason. EJ completed just 33 percent of his passes to WRs over the past two games.

I (and every other Bills fan) wondered why the Bills coaching staff chose to drop EJ back nearly 50 times (vs. 23 runs) in a close game against the Texans when he was obviously struggling and Houston had gotten gouged on the ground by the Giants the week before. In retrospect, they might have been trying to give the kid every opportunity to show what he could do before they pulled the plug.

19
by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:17am

As far as the confidence question, I think that's just lingo for "won't get another chance". Or, in other words, it's not the player's confidence that is lost, it's the coaches' confidence in the player that is lost and will never return. And that is bad. Very bad. It basically means his next try will come in a new team, and logically that next team will never be as patient as the team that drafted him. At best he'll get a chance to "compete" in a "prove it" situation.

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Who, me?

21
by Sisyphus :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:59am

Why am I getting a picture of a Raider uniform in Manuel's future....

20
by CoachDave :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 10:54am

Waldman has been in love with Manuel since the draft (for reasons I could never figure out). For him to bag him tells you something.

26
by Biebs :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:22pm

I assume Geno and Manuel will be tied together for as long as they are both in the league (which may not be long). But I think the Bills built around the QB the right way. They have a ton of offensive weapons who are able to get open and make plays. It's easy to see Manuel isn't good enough, at least right now. Also, I think it's relevant that they do not have a 1st round pick next season.

The Jets have limited weapons, and their best weapon got hurt early in his 2nd game. I'm doubting that Geno will be good, but you have to give your young QB a chance to get the ball to open receivers. Time and again I watch Geno and I think, "no one was open". Half the incompletions he had on Sunday were dropped passes (including 3 from a unhealthy Decker, and a drop by Ivory that essentially ended the game). Again, this doesn't excuse the terrible INTs and the missed passes when he does have time.

30
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 12:25pm

The thing is, Geno has improved his accuracy this year, and it stems from improving his footwork. Accuracy doesn't usually improve much, so that's a good sign. He is still making foolish decisions with the ball, but that is something that can be changed. When Testaverde went to the Jets, Parcells told him to just tuck and run when flushed out of the pocket. Parcells had studied footage of Vinny, and realized that's where he made the most mistakes. Some of Geno's interceptions are due to not reading the field quickly enough, but the end zone interception against Chicago happened when he ran out of the pocket but still wanted to take a shot in the end zone.

You're right that the Bills surrounded their young quarterback with more offensive talent; one of the Jets fans gripes is that Idzik didn't sign another wide receiver this year even though they're under the cap by 20 million. In the Jets defense, there was nothing they could do in Geno's rookie year, and he wasn't going to start immediately until Sanchez got hurt, which was another foul-up.

32
by theslothook :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 4:13pm

I am just curious where Jets fans are with Rex Ryan? I've argued back and forth with Chase Stuart on this - who sort of blames Rex for the offensive ineptitude that has gone on for over 5 seasons.

I don't know if Rex or lovie for that matter are inadverntently sabotaging the offense - but I don't like blaming coaches when qbs turn into busts. Do we ever really credit Jim Mora for "developing" peyton manning or Belichick for developing Tom Brady?

I think Rex doesn't add anything offensively, but I feel its not his fault the team's talent has fallen apart so badly. Given what's hes been given, I think they are better than I would have expected.

33
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 5:13pm

I'm fully supportive of Rex. I'm also very hopeful for Geno, foolishly so. I don't want to root for the backup quarterback, even though he paid his dues in prison, and I won't. Jets fans in the stadium were chanting for Vick, so most of them are not as patient as me.

Blaming Rex for the offense seems really foolish, because the Jets offensive problems mainly come down to not having a good quarterback. It's not like the offensive line or the running backs have been horrid. The passing game is the problem. Sanchez should never have been drafted that high. He only showed great skill in handling the media. Geno has a lot more potential; his LCF was higher than Sanchez', about 2,000. His issues (reading defenses too slowly, not enough anticipation in throws), may be something that can alleviated in time, but they're killing the Jets now.

The team has more talent than last year. It was a miracle they won 8 games last year. The only spot on the roster that might be weaker is cornerback. They've improved their talent level at safety, tight end and wide receiver. Geno is still better than last year. What has changed is their luck (they lost to Green Bay and Chicago in absurd ways), and the schedule they are facing.

34
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 5:24pm

I wanted to make another point, but didn't want to put up an ungodly long post. Firing Ryan becomes even worse if Idzik replaces him with a defensive coordinator with a much different system. While they only have a defensive DVOA ranking of 16 right now, much of that is due to a lack of turnovers. They lead the league in sacks, are ranked third in yards, and have played much better than I expected, other than the lack of interceptions and forced fumbles. Hiring someone from the Seahawks to run the defense could mean wasting a lot of time and draft picks on it, when that isn't the problem right now. One of the things the Jets got right when they hired Ryan was hiring someone who wasn't going to expunge all the decent defensive players they already had.

35
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 7:02pm

The head coach is involved with reviewing and acquiring players. If they are not capable of identifying good offensive players it's a detriment.

I seriously doubt and do not buy any arguments that any coach simply ignores an entire phase of the team either (at least since Buddy Ryan left the league).

36
by theslothook :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 9:34pm

Is it really reasonable to expect coaches to be able to apply their expertise across any entire roster across all positions?

Most of the promotions occur from positional coaches to coordinators, hardly anyone goes through a juan castillo like tradition.

37
by BJR :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 10:20am

No.

But it should be pointed out is that the Jets have drafted a defensive player in the first round for the past 5 seasons, a period during which the offence has been consistently awful. Perhaps they are sticking rigidly to their draft board, or perhaps they believe they are better at evaluating defensive players, both of which could reasonably justify such a policy. But it becomes less of a surprise that Rex's defense manages to perform consistently well whilst the offence continues to stagnate/rot, and sooner or later this needs to be questioned.

38
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 1:57pm

This is completely correct, but only some of those picks have worked out: Wilkerson and Richardson have been great, but Kyle Wilson and Quinton Coples have been just ok. The jury is still out on Milliner and Pryor. They have picked offensive players in the second round 4 out of those five years, the exception being 2011, when they didn't have a second round pick. Vlad Ducasse and Stephen Hill were busts, the jury is still out on Jace Amaro, and it's not looking good for Geno Smith, even though I'm hopeful.

Their main problem is that they only had 7 picks combined in the 2009 and 2010 drafts. It doesn't help that only 4 draftees from the 12 in the 2014 draft are on the active roster. You can't blame all of their problems on Ryan, or even Tannebaum. Idzik picked the DROY last year, but most of his other picks and free agents aren't looking great right now.

39
by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 2:42pm

I also feel he doesn't add anything offensively. So why would you prefer him as a HC instead of as a DC?

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Who, me?

40
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 4:09pm

The Jets don't have a choice of preferring him as a DC than as a HC. It's either fire him, or not. They could hire an offensive guy and try to keep Dennis Thurman, but he'd might just follow Rex, since they've been together since their time at the Ravens. They wouldn't necessarily be back to square one on the defensive side, but it would depend upon the head coach's choice for defensive coordinator. Bring in a 4-3, and you'll waste a lot of time fixing the defense when not much was wrong with it.
But there are plenty of coaches who don't add anything on one side of the ball or the other; Sean Payton, John Fox, Mike McCarthy, Lovie Smith, Pete Carroll, and probably Mike Tomlin and Doug Marrone. The task of the head coach is to manage the overall team, and make tactical decisions on game day. Ryan has some failures in that regard; hiring Sparano as OC, taking timeouts and challenges at the wrong time (he's improved on this one), etc. That should be a major factor in deciding to keep him or not.

41
by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 10/03/2014 - 8:25pm

Coaches like Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton sure do bring something both sides of the ball. I don't know if it's the people they bring with them, the process or what, but they add value and that leads to success.

Would the Jets be excellent if they had very good offensive personnel? Sure. And maybe one day they'll even draft an offensive player in the first round. How much of that is Rex, I don't know, but I bet he's not on the GMs face demanding offensive players. I can easily see him going something like "Sure, offense, maybe, but defense wins championships. Besides Mark's gonna be alright, we don't need much from him."

There was an interesting thing he said one day, can't remember exactly, but he was alienting his own offensive players. Like they were kickers or something. Rex's problem is that he's not only best as a DC, even as a head coach he continues to think like a DC.

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Who, me?

27
by theslothook :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 11:47pm

I have a new take on young qbs. I don't think most fans realize just how terrible missing on a qb is. It essentially wastes three to 4 years of franchise and then you have to start over which means another year is spent grooming the next qb. As such, it behooves teams to decide pretty early if the qb is worth developing. In the case of Manuel and Geno, I give them at minimum two seasons to show me more than just flashes, but consistent improvement. If not, I pull the plug and move on. With tannehill, if he doesn't get markedly better after this year, I move on.

I suppose this isn't possible for high picks but otherwise, that's the sense I get.