Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel in 2014. The Bills are confident in his abilities as a backup quarterback. File photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans may not want to hear it, but coach Rex Ryan is 100 percent comfortable with, and confident in, EJ Manuel as the team's backup quarterback heading into the season.
Manuel was forced to play almost the entire game at Washington on Friday because third-stringer Cardale Jones did not dress due to a shoulder injury, and starter Tyrod Taylor played only two series as Ryan bucked the trend of playing starters for a half in the third exhibition. Manuel completed 21 of 39 passes for 221 yards and had the potential game-winning touchdown pass with 10 seconds left nullified by a questionable offensive pass interference penalty on receiver Greg Little. Manuel was then sacked on the next play, and his desperation final-play pass in the end zone was intercepted.
"I really like the way he played," Ryan said. "I like the way he competes. He has a great look in his face, man, he loves playing. Guys, you know what, sometimes quarterbacks take a little longer to develop, and I think this is the best EJ Manuel that I've seen."
Manuel has been an ongoing irritation for the fan base because the Bills picked him in the first round back in 2013, and he has never lived up to that status. "Bust" is not too strong a word because Manuel was thought to be the Bills' quarterback of the future, and he most assuredly is not that, nor will he ever be. You can't strike out on first-rounders like that.
He was thrust into a starting role as a rookie when veteran Kevin Kolb got hurt in training camp, and Manuel had some good moments, and there was still hope that he could develop into a solid starter. But four games into his second season, then-head coach Doug Marrone benched him in favor of Kyle Orton - even though the Bills were 2-2 - and Manuel has started just two games since.
Last year he lost out to Taylor in a spirited quarterback competition, and in his only two starts while Taylor was out with a knee injury, the Bills lost to Cincinnati and Jacksonville.
In this the final year of his rookie contract, Manuel knows his role, and he's determined to be ready if Taylor gets hurt.
"I'm going to be the backup going into the season, so when I get a chance to play, whether it's mid-game or a start if Tyrod is down for a game, that's my main focus, to be ready," he said. "My main focus hasn't been what the fans are saying, or my position or anything like that, it's truly just getting better and that's how I can help the team win."
Like Taylor, Manuel has grown into coordinator Greg Roman's offense in year two and feels confident in how he can operate within the system. He also has grown up as a teammate and now feels like he commands a little more respect when he gets into games.
"I've grown so much, my approach, my preparation, in the huddle telling guys what to do, getting guys in position to make plays and making sure everybody stays calm," Manuel said Friday night following the 21-16 loss to Washington. "I think that's the big thing a quarterback has to do all the time is keep everybody relaxed and keep everybody calm. Even in the last play of the game, I was still telling people, 'We still have a chance to win this game.' It didn't go our way and that happens sometimes, but like I said, I'm really proud of the guys that were in."