If the Buffalo Bills are to take a major step forward and challenge in the AFC East (a division they haven't won since 1995), they'll need great seasons from quarterback EJ Manuel and running back C.J. Spiller. The Bills could succeed if Manuel, their first-round pick out of Florida State, adapts to the NFL sooner than later and takes his mobile style and impressive arm to the next level. And for that to happen, Manuel will need Spiller, the fourth-year back who can hurt a defense in many different ways.
On Sunday, the Bills welcomed both players back to participation in practice; they had been out for very different reasons. On Aug. 18, Manuel underwent a minor surgical procedure to deal with swelling in his left knee. The procedure came a couple of days after Buffalo's 20-16 preseason win over the Minnesota Vikings. In two games, Manuel completed 26 passes in 33 attempts for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. If Manuel isn't ready to go for the opener, the Bills would start fellow rookie Jeff Tuel from Washington State. And if that happens, Tuel would be the first undrafted first-year professional quarterback to start his first regular-season game in the modern era.
But Sunday saw Manuel participating in individual drills, and head coach Doug Marrone anticipates that Manuel will practice on Monday. Marrone said that if Manuel is a full participant in practice on Wednesday, he would be the starter against the New England Patriots on Sunday.
"He looked good. He looked good. I say that not knowing what can happen in the next couple days," Marrone said. "As far as today, I think he looked good and we were excited about it, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression ... two to three days from now I don’t want to be communicating, ‘Well wait a minute, he looked good, you led us on to believe that he’s feeling alright,’ I don’t try to play any games. Again, we’ll just see how he goes during the week and Wednesday we’ll make the decision. It’s either going to be EJ or its going to be Jeff. Both guys will be available for the game."
Manuel knows that the choice is ultimately Marrone's, but he's eager to get back on the field.
"I am a huge team player and just want to be back," Manuel said. "Obviously if I am healthy enough to go out there and make plays, Coach Marrone makes the decision, [but] I would be more than happy to go out there and play."
If the decision was up to him, Manuel said he would "most definitely" play.
As for Spiller, he was fully healthy through the preseason, but he had some tragic family circumstances to deal with. On Aug. 24, according to police, Hubert Allen Jr., Spiller's step-grandfather, shot four people in Lake Butler, Fla. Two of those people died, and the 74-year-old Allen then turned the gun on himself. Spiller said that he learned the news before the Bills played the Washington Redskins on that same day, and he chose to play, gaining 39 yards on eight carries in a 30-7 loss. Spiller was excused immediately after, and he returned Sunday.
"It was very emotional," Spiller said of his last week. "If anybody in here has lost anyone close, I’m sure some of you have, a grandparent or something, you can understand or feel the emotions that I was going through. First, I just want to say I found out before the [Redskins] game, then my decision was to play. This organization, I mean this a first-class organization. The way they send their support, their thoughts and prayers to everybody involved because if you don’t know, my hometown is a 1,900 population. It’s a small community, so when they [the Bills] wanted to send their condolences down to all of Union County, it speaks volumes about the organization that we have here.
"Like I said, the supporting cast of Coach Marrone, our CEO Russ [Brandon] and our GM Doug Whaley -- I was texting those guys, checking up on them, they were checking up on me. I was letting them know I was pretty good. I just wanted to get that out the way and thank everybody for the privacy for the most part with my family. We were grieving and everyone was trying to get a statement, but it wasn’t the appropriate time that I thought. I told them I’d handle everything as far as a statement once I got back to Buffalo."
Spiller, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2010, had a career year in '12 with 1,244 rushing yards and 1,703 total yards from scrimmage. He told the media that he'll be ready for the season-opener, even if his mind has been elsewhere.
"I’d be lying if I said I’ve put it behind me," Spiller said. "It’s still early, there are still emotions there. When I get out there on the football field, that’s all I’m worried about. Obviously when I go home and stuff like that you should be able to cope with it. I’m pretty sure if I need any guidance or counseling, I can get that. "For the most part, once I touch the field, my main focus is football. That’s how my whole family wanted it. That’s how my Mom wanted me to do. She told me when I come back to make sure my focus is on getting ready for New England."