by Anthony Stampone
If there has been anything that we as Bills fans may have been sick of waiting for answers on has been, “Who is our starting QB”? In addition to that question the next most prevalent and probably annoying question has been, “Who is the primary back up to our starter”? Every single day we have been bombarded with a non-stop influx of news and subjective points of view from all corners of the football world as to which one of our three quarterbacks was leading the competition. The circus that has surrounded this competition seemed to even be perpetuated by our HC Rex Ryan by seemingly down playing the quarterbacks in the competition except Tyrod Taylor and taking every chance he could to remind the fan base that Tyrod was there if his name was neglected to be mentioned by a reporter asking about the QB competition going on since OTAs and mini-camp.
Since the beginning of this off-season it seemed somewhat inevitable that the new Bills coaching staff was out to replace EJ. Once Ryan and OC Greg Roman stepped foot on One Bills Dr., their intentions couldn’t have been more clear; find a suitable veteran QB that could be counted on to manage the game and bring in another QB to compete with this veteran for the starting position. Keeping in mind that deals had to be worked out and the right guys had to become available and want to come here. Who these two guys were going to be was anyone’s guess until we saw Cassel’s and Taylor’s names announced as being added to the Bills roster. Over a short period of time we found out that Tyrod Taylor a relatively unknown player in the league has had Ryan’s eye for quite some time. Cassel was the reliable steady presence of a veteran that he always wants on his team whether that person was going to be a “Game Managing” starter, or a backup that could be counted on if called to duty. With the two most important and influential coaches on the offensive side of the each getting a guy they wanted, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for EJ, and that was his days in a Bills uniform were numbered.
As the offseason has progressed from OTAs, to mini-camps, and now to our current position of waiting for real football to start; preseason football we have been told that the three men at the QB position for our Bills will be given a fair shot at earning the starting position . With each passing day of this offseason and now preseason has gone on we have heard over, and over, and over, that EJ was performing as the 3rd of the three QB in this competition and was repeated being treated this way. The first example of this became clear to more than just a few thousand fans that made the trip to St. John Fisher College and major media outlets during the team’s first preseason game that EJ wasn’t being held in high regard in the competition. After most of us having nothing to go off of besides radio shows and news releases to have an idea as to how the competition was shaking out, seeing EJ being placed as the 3rd string QB in the first preseason game was our first look as to where the coaches felt EJ stood in the current competition.
The coaches could spin it anyway they want to, and calling the joint practice scrimmage with the Browns a “start” in the competition for EJ, any sports fan knows those statements held no water. Most coaches in the NFL don’t hold the preseason in high regard for players auditioning for important starting roles, let alone the most important position on the field and consider their own practices as a better gauge of evaluating a player. A half speed run scrimmage with an ex-co coach wasn’t telling anyone anything and definitely shouldn’t count as a “start”. It was becoming more and more clear that EJ was number three of three in the competition. Then something changed major changed, EJ started to show up regardless to what situation he was in.
Yes, I am well aware of the reports that have been out there since the Bills starting practice stating that EJ had shown little to no improvement over his previous two years, his mechanics still weren’t where they needed to be, and his accuracy was still what appeared to be beyond repair. I also would be lying that I didn’t harbor the same sentiments. From what little I could see on TV, read in the news, or hear on the radio I felt it was same ol’ EJ and that even though he may have only played in 14 games in two season, I felt there was enough pro-tape on EJ plus the news coming from those watching this year competition to come to the conclusion that it was time to move on from EJ as the starter and maybe even as a player on this team. Let’s face it, the guy was benched for Kyle Orton last year who came to the team with no preseason, wasn’t ever considered to be any kind of star or even above average QB in the league. EJ couldn’t even get in the game at the end of the season when the game didn’t matter and there wasn’t anything to play for. EJ’s issues go back to even his college days and besides having a strong arm and good size, he was never saw as any kind of can’t miss prospect and it had shown for two years and seemed to continue into this year.
There is one major change was made that even though it may have taken some time to show in EJ’s play (which we are all getting to now see) that may have just needed a little bit of time to kick in to help make him not only a better QB, but one that should be considered for the second spot in this race and that is OC Greg Roman. Roman has not been in the NFL in a high ranking coaching position for a long time, but in the time has been an OC he has proved he has what it takes to make do with what he has and to bring out the best in those players that line up under center. The first and most clear cut example of Roman’s ability to shape, model, and flat out fix a QB was the forgotten and dubbed bust Alex Smith. I am realistic, I realize that Alex Smith is no Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or even Tony Romo, but he is a quality starting in the NFL now and that is due to Roman’s coaching. Next is Colin Kaepernick. Viewed by most if not all reports on Kaepernick was that he was an extremely athletic but very raw talent. Not only did Roman take this strong armed athletic long shot and get him NFL ready, he also was able to build him up into the replacement for the new and improved Smith. Yes, Kaepernick’s performance and numbers took a substantial drop as did the whole 49ers offense, but one could make the case a lot of that was due to the nightmare that was boiling behind the curtain between then head coach Jim Harbaugh and upper management/ownership. Now that Greg Roman has the clear support from his new bosses to do what he does best it appears that he is back to his old tricks of developing once failed QB’s and fixing their careers by developing around his players to maximize their skill sets and the weapons he has at their disposal.
At first it didn’t seem that Roman’s QB magic wasn’t taking with EJ. He was reportedly still under throwing, over throwing, and flat out missing his targets, that was until the last two weeks and a half weeks. Now that Manuel has had time to work with a consistent group of receivers, learn his new role in a very exciting, intricate, and interesting offense designed by Roman and modeled to help Manuel showcase the skills he does have. I realize that much of EJ’s preseason game success has come against 2nd, 3rd, and 4th string players, many of which won’t even be on an NFL roster come the final cuts are made on September 5th. However the reverse can be said about how impressive his performance have been in those situations since EJ was playing with players of the similar skill set and left to run for his life in order to make plays, and as we have saw especially the last two games EJ has not only done that but he has done it effectively.
I do want to make one point very clear, even with the growth EJ has shown over the last few weeks I do not think he will be nor do I think he deserves to be the starter on this team. I do however believe that EJ has made it clear that he does no longer belongs in the basement of this QB competition, and has maybe even made the decision for the organization as to who can be and should be the clear cut number two QB on the team. EJ has shown significant improvement in his reads, accuracy, and decision making to show that he can be a viable QB for this team. More interesting than that with EJ’s improvements he as indirectly made Roman’s job easier as the teams OC. Tyrod should be and probably will be the starting QB on this team as he has shown he can do everything that EJ and Cassel can do and then some. He can stand in the pocket and make multiple reads and make the right decision where to go with the ball and has the arm talent to make all the throws. Tyrod also has an added element to his game that neither Cassel doesn’t come close to having and EJ can do but isn’t anywhere near as good at, and that is knowing how and when to tuck the ball and take off and create another element to this offense. With that said EJ does have these skills. With having two fairly comparably skilled QB’s it will make game planning for other teams easier for Roman with knowing that if something happens to Taylor, EJ can step in and play a similar role in his preferred offense that Cassel simply cannot.
Going on how EJ has performed he is progressing in his abilities to read a defense, look off a safety to open up lanes for his receivers (See Clay’s touchdown), and hitting them perfectly in stride more than 5 or 7 yards down the field, he has not only earned the right to see more time on the field during this competition with the number one offense but also that he seriously needs to be considered as the second best QB on this team. Only time will tell what the coaching staff feels about EJ’s most recent improvements and Cassel’s clear cut limitations that Cassel should be this teams number three QB or if there is market value and demand out there, move Cassel while they have time. This team is so deep at so many position, some we knew we had others such as the WO position we are finding we are deeper than anyone knew and could always use another final roster spot. The Bills can still carry three QBs by sending Simms down the practice squad and getting value for Cassel while the value can be had (getting our late round pick back and saving around $4 million in cap space for this season would be plenty). EJ has done what many people including myself have been hoping he would do, prove us wrong and be the player the Bills said he could be when they drafted him in the first round. EJ will not be the week one starter, but he will be a very strong and valuable number two.