Maybe it’s in EJ Manuel’s nature to pull things out of the fire just as they’re burning up. Despite leading the ACC in completion percentage (68.0%) and finishing second in adjusted yards per attempt (8.8) in 2012, and puting up numbers the year before that were almost as impressive, the Florida State star was considered an afterthought by some in the 2013 pre-draft process. On Monday, Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said on ESPN that when he put together the rosters for the all-star event, he received alerts from several schools that Manuel was not one of the top six senior quarterbacks in the country, and he should be passed over. Savage didn’t listen, and that was fortuitous for Manuel. Despite a weighty personal situation -- his mother was preparing to undergo breast cancer surgery -- Manuel went to Mobile, Ala., for the week, and fairly lit it up.
Not only did he appear to be the best of the six quarterbacks at the event (a list that included Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib, Zac Dysert, Landry Jones and Tyler Wilson), but also he took home the game’s offensive MVP trophy and impressed the NFL coaches who worked with him.
The Buffalo Bills selected Manuel 16th overall, making him the first quarterback taken in the 2013 draft, and the only one in the first round. When he took the field on Aug. 11 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium for his first NFL action he was going up against Andrew Luck, the first quarterback taken in the draft the year before. Of course, Luck was taken first overall by the Colts, and we already know what Luck can do. The jury was still out on Manuel, as it seemingly has always been.
Manuel did not enjoy a strong start, admitting later that nerves got to him. Buffalo’s first drive started with three straight C.J. Spiller runs, and then Manuel missed fellow rookie Robert Woods on a deep pattern over the middle. Woods had beaten his defender with inside position, but Manuel couldn’t get him the ball. He then threw a screen to Spiller six yards behind the line of scrimmage that the Colts immediately blew up, and the Bills had to punt. On the second play of Buffalo’s second drive, Spiller fumbled Manuel’s handoff, and the Colts recovered. Manuel rolled right and threw a worm-burner to tight end Lee Smith on the second play of the next drive, and his debut was starting to look like a disaster.
What seemed to shake Manuel out of his funk was the 24 yards he gained in a scramble on the next play. He took the ball out of shotgun, didn’t see what he wanted, and took off through empty space for that long gain. He then started to hit his targets in a no-huddle sequence, and started to look a bit like a first-round quarterback.
But it was the two-minute drill at the end of the first half that really showed when he could do. Starting from his own eight-yard line, Manuel completed nine of 10 passes for 68 yards and added four yards rushing on a drive that ended with a pinpoint touchdown throw to receiver Dorin Dickerson from 19 yards out. The Bills went no-huddle the entire drive, and Manuel set the pace all the way. He was composed in the pocket and went through his reads even when there was pressure in his face, and though many of the routes were of the “first read open” variety, the touchdown pass to Dickerson was a stick throw in front of two converging defenders.
He ended his day with 16 completions in 21 attempts for 107 yards and a touchdown in Buffalo's 44-20 win. After the game, Manuel said that he was ready for more.
"My main thing was, I wanted to operate the offense like Coach [offensive coordinator Nathaniel] Hackett has taught us and get all of the other guys in position. The veterans have done a great job helping me and bringing me along and things like that. The main thing is to continue to go out there and execute.”
Head coach Doug Marrone was measured in his praise, but he really liked what the two-minute drill showed.
“We’re on the minus five, we’ve got three timeouts, and there’s a minute-50 left,” Marrone said. “To do that it’s very impressive, no matter who you are, so I was excited about that. I don’t like to compare games to scrimmages, because the games are a whole lot different for him. Am I surprised that happened? I don’t know. I think that’s happened to a lot of young players when they come in there. What I’m looking for is how they react to things, and are you just going to get better and better as the game went along? Not to say that he settled in and everything was fine, that’s what it looked like. You just have to wonder how it’s going to be going forward, but you’re seeing some good things.” Manuel gets his next shot to exhibit more of his talent against the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night. The next step will be for Manuel to open it up on the deep routes, and connect more consistently with a group of targets that could surprise this season.