I have reluctantly, sometimes painfully, preached patience with EJ Manuel. But I must admit my patience was wearing awfully thin during the first quarter Sunday when the Bills rookie quarterback was about as accurate as a tipsy, blind-folded dart thrower. After bouncing one throw and sailing another easy throw out-of-bounds, he finally connected with a receiver on a screen pass. Just one problem: The receiver was wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey. At that point, I was almost ready to start journeying toward the camp that wants to draft another quarterback in the spring.
Manuel managed to bounce back by engineering three long scoring drives, two of which culminated in short touchdown passes – a 7-yarder to wideout Robert Woods and a one-yarder to fullback Frank Summers. The other march was capped by an 8-yard run up the gut by Manuel on a quarterback draw. Following his zero-for-four start, he completed 17 of 20 for 193 yards and two scores. I also liked the effectiveness of his runs. Discounting the two late kneel-downs, he rushed for 39 yards on eight carries. He did have a costly fumble on a sack, but, all-in-all, it was a decent turnaround from last week’s atrocious, four-interception showing.
And while it was good that Manuel garnered his first victory in five road starts, let’s not read too much into it. He was, after all, playing a depleted team that was missing its leading rusher (Maurice Jones-Drew) and receiver (Cecil Shorts III) as well as one of its starting offensive linemen. And I’d hardly call Everbank Field a hostile environment. Heck, the stadium appeared to me only about a third full, which is par for the course in Jacksonville, the NFL’s most apathetic market.
So, these were positive steps in the pro football education of EJ, but they weren’t huge leaps and bounds. More like baby steps.
Interestingly, these next two weeks will be better measuring sticks because the Bills will host a Miami Dolphins team trying to secure a wildcard spot at the Ralph followed by a visit to Foxboro against a New England Patriots team that is battling Denver and Kansas City for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. It would be nice to see solid performances in each of those games by Manuel, who is 4-6 as a starter with 11 TDs and nine picks.
A victory in either of those games would match last year’s Bills win total, but the most important thing at this stage is Manuel’s progress. He needs to improve in order to earn more trust from his teammates, coaches and Bills fans. He has plenty of work to do before quelling fears that he isn’t the quarterback of the future.
The performers who impressed me most in this 27-20 victory were safety Aaron Williams, cornerback Nickell Robey, and wideouts Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson. Williams made a superb interception early in the first quarter, then in the third quarter made an even bigger play, stripping wide receiver Denard Robinson of the ball just as he was about to cross the goal line. Robey, an undrafted rookie, had a strip and fumble recovery to go with a late sack. Woods had five catches for 82 yards and a score. In the previous four weeks, he managed a total of five catches for 59 yards, while bouncing back from injuries.
Although Johnson managed just one catch for four yards, the mere fact he played merits praise. See, the night before the game he learned that his mother had died unexpectedly. Coach Doug Marrone told him to go home to be with his family, but Johnson insisted on playing because he believed that’s what his mother would have wanted.
OFFENSE: Manuel played well after a horrid start, and was effective both throwing and running. The Bills ground game returned. Fred Jackson had 80 yards and C.J. Spiller 67 as Buffalo rushed for 198 yards, 131 more than the previous Sunday. B
DEFENSE: Buffalo recorded five sacks and forced four turnovers. Stephon Gilmore had a big interception in the end zone to preserve the win as the Bills made a goal-line stand that featured a tackle for loss by Jim Leonhard. They did, though, allow 159 yards rushing, disappointing when you consider the Jags were without leading rusher Maurice Jones-Drew and two offensive linemen. B
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman had a good day, averaging 45 yards on four punts. Dan Carpenter connected from 40 and 43 yards, but missed from 53. Bills had to deal with a couple of coverage and return penalties. B-minus
OVERALL: Good bounce-back game after last week’s debacle. It was encouraging to see Manuel right himself after a bad start and be more decisive with his throws and running. This was his first road victory, so that’s a positive, too. As I said, these next two games will be sterner tests against two division rivals with something to play for. We’ll have a better read on EJ after these two games. B