The expectations for E.J. Manuel are soaring. He’s on the verge of leading the Buffalo Bills to a 2-1 record that competes with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in the AFC East, and he’s doing it with great efficiency. A three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 95.9 passer rating make Manuel two of the league’s best by those metrics. But it’s important not to forget that he’s still a rookie despite his early success.
He’s still learning how to play the quarterback position — he’s just doing it on the job like most recent rookies have. He’s also going to hit a wall in a few weeks, at the midseason point when he’s facing tougher defenses such as those fielded by the Dolphins and Bengals. It’s bound to happen because of how raw he is. His slow reading of the game still hurts him at times, though the Bills’ coaching staff has done an excellent job of not letting that become a greater issue, and his footwork can still get messy.
Footwork is a frequent discussion point when it comes to analyzing quarterbacks. It’s the first thing individuals with the clicker will look for. Game tape analysts look for the hips and which direction they’re facing in, the lead foot, the back foot, the transfer of weight, and the hips once again. These are the things that decide where and how the ball is going to travel to a target (not entirely the arm despite many thinking so).
For Manuel, his early season success is not surprising. He was showing improvement in his final year at Florida State, a tough thing to do considering the coaching there. He was finding his reads quicker and climbing the pocket better. He was using his mobility smarter, choosing to manipulate the pocket to buy time to find his reads rather than just taking off. These improvements have translated over to the pros, where he’s built on them to become a better quarterback. But there’s still a big step he needs to take to gain consistency week-in and week-out like the league’s best, which he could very well become once he gains more experience and gets more coaching.
Manuel doesn’t always rotate the lower half of his body when throwing, particularly on a deep ball. Rather, it’s almost like he squats and then heaves the ball. This was seen against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2, a game that came down to the wire and maybe wouldn’t have had he connected on a couple of big throws downfield.
The first of those throws came on 1st-and-10 with 4:41 left in the second quarter. Manuel was in shotgun with two receivers in the field (wide side), a tight end to his left, and one receiver near the boundary (short side) to his right. The single receiver to his right was T.J. Graham, a third-round speedster from a year ago that was set to run an out-and-up route from an inside release.
When the play began, Manuel caught the long snap and took a quick three-step drop. He immediately looked to his left, appearing to read the slot receiver’s square-in route, then the tight end’s. Then he shifted focus from the middle of the field to the deep right, where Graham’s inside-out break at the 50-yard line caused the defensive back to hesitate and fall behind in coverage. Graham also blew by the single-high free safety supposedly patrolling the middle of the field. That left him streaking down the sideline all alone, waiting for the ball to float through the Orchard Park air and softly land in front of his chest and into his outstretched arms.
To make that throw, Manuel had to be patient in going through the step-by-step process of throwing the ball. He needed to set his feet, rotate his hips, and then point them and his lead food in Graham’s direction before releasing the ball with his back foot on the ground still. He didn’t do that, as instead he rushed the throw, consequently not rotating his hips, and he raised his back foot off the ground before his release. The ball arched high and predictably fell short of Graham’s arms.
In an effort to hide Manuel’s flaws as he still eases his way out of them, the Bills’ coaching staff has made the game simple for him. They’re not asking him to be Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t have to make too many coverage reads before and after the snap, and there doesn’t appear to be many plays where he’s not simply going through progressions.
Progression reads, like coverage reads, are tied to the rhythm of the drop back, but where they differ is that progression reads are 1-2-3 regardless of the coverage. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is using a lot of this with simple concepts, such as the slant/flat combination, that slow the game down for his quarterback and minimize his mistakes as he learns on the job.
The first drive’s third play in the second quarter shows this. Manuel is in a shotgun set on 3rd-and-2, with dynamic running back C.J. Spiller offset at his right. Graham is once again the single receiver along the boundary on the right. He’s set to run a three-step slant while Spiller runs a quick arrow route into the flat. Manuel’s read is flat to slant.
Defensively, the Panthers look to be playing one deep safety with a player in the hole at the middle of the field. The cornerback positioned outside of Graham is the key here. If he runs with Graham inside, Spiller is clearly open in the flat. If he stays in the flat, that’s a quick throw from Manuel to the slant. Simple one-two.
Although it may seem like it was a coverage read because the cornerback was the focus, it wasn’t. He’s simply a key or indicator of where the read will take Manuel to. It takes him to Spiller in the flat here.
These are simple reads put together for Manuel by Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone. It’s a smart way to handle the inexperience of a young quarterback because it doesn’t put too much pressure on him to develop quickly while also putting the team’s best interests first. Fortunately, Manuel hasn’t had many issues while distributing the ball to his receivers in this offense. He’s performing at a high and efficient level, which has some expecting him to quickly develop and soon become an upper echelon quarterback, but he’s not there yet. He’s still green.