After spending a good part of the last three days trying to come up with a simple explanation for what went wrong for the Bills in general, and E.J. Manuel in particular, on Sunday in Pittsburgh, We Want Marangi’s investigative team has reached an inescapable conclusion.
There isn’t one.
There are a number of reasons that Manuel, making his sixth professional start after missing a month with the second significant injury of his rookie year, was not ready to mentally digest and physically react to the defensive schemes devised by Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator for the better part of the last two decades. (Jeremy White of WGR offers a breakdown of the various looks LeBeau threw at Manuel, as well as the generally grim results, using the coaches’ film now available at NFL.com to members of the general public with way too much time to spend on such things.)
Aside from LeBeau’s strategizing, there were the cold, windy conditions at Heinz Field, generally a pretty brutal place for much more accomplished quarterbacks and teams to get much of anything done offensively.
And a battered receiving corps that, after Stevie Johnson hobbled off with a sore groin, offered Manuel the following array of targets for much of the fourth quarter: wide receivers Marques Goodwin (eight NFL regular-season receptions before Sunday), Chris Hogan (three) and Marcus Easley (zero), as well as tight end Chris Gragg (also zero).
Not to mention a running game that never got going, even with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson the healthiest they have both been at the same time in a couple of months.
A defense that got worn down by a previously feeble Steelers running game and had trouble getting off the field (the Steelers were 6-of-9 on third-down conversions in the first half as they took a 10-3 lead, as well as physical control of the game) did not help, either, putting additional pressure on an already-shaky Manuel.
This being the internet, where even the most reasonable of explanations for just about anything get summarily dismissed as excuses, it is easy to forget all those other factors when Manuel looked as bad as he did.
No question, Sunday was Manuel’s worst day since arriving in Buffalo. He missed badly on a fade to Johnson from the 1-yard line, turning Jairus Byrd’s 57-yard interception return into a field goal that felt like a turnover. He also missed low and wide at various times, and too many of his completions required the receiver to reach back or come to a dead stop, negating any chance of breaking free after the catch.
As noted by Doug Marrone after the game, Manuel’s footwork was a big part of the problem. Rather than setting his feet in the pocket, he appeared to be running in place from the time he took the snap until making a throw, robbing his passes of accuracy and zip, both particularly crucial given the blustery conditions and diverse coverage schemes they had to travel through.
Those issues are especially troubling with the New York Jets coming to town Sunday. The Jets, you may recall, sacked Manuel eight times while harassing him into his previous worst day as a pro when the teams met in New Jersey.
If there’s any consolation to a display that triggered memories of departed Buffalo quarterbacks we would rather not mention, it’s that several of his more acclaimed and/or experienced peers had pretty lousy Week 10s, as well.
Neither reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco of Baltimore or Ryan Tannehill, in his second full season as Miami’s starter, completed a pass that traveled more than 15 yards downfield.
Last year’s other Super Bowl quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, didn’t hit on a throw more than 10 yards past the line and got sacked six times (stats on the collective futility of Flacco, Tannehill and Kaepernick gleaned from ESPN’s weekly power rankings) in San Francisco’s 10-9 loss to Carolina. At home.
Even Andrew Luck, the 2012 first overall pick with a 17-7 record as a starter heading into Week 10, threw four interceptions and took three sacks in Indy’s 38-8 loss to the Rams. Also at home. (Yes, Luck also completed 31-of-52 passes for 421 yards, which proves only how empty passing statistics can be when compiled while trailing hopelessly.)
None of which is meant to rationalize Manuel’s struggles. But even the best quarterbacks have terrible days J.P. Losman had some pretty good ones, while Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick put together extended early-season stretches — in 2008 and ’11, respectively — strong enough to make you think the Bills finally might have had the position figured out, before reality set in.
When you consider Manuel has yet to take first-team reps for more than a month straight as a professional, it would be pretty short-sighted to think Sunday is as good as he is going to get, or that there is any point in discussing any other options in the immediate or longer-term future.
Marrone — who might want to talk to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett about designing some goal-line pass plays that don’t so obviously look like pass plays before the snap — seems ready to give Manuel every possible chance. The rookie coach chose to stick with his rookie quarterback with the outcome still in doubt in the third quarter, rather than give relative veteran Thaddeus Lewis a shot at sustaining Buffalo’s already wishful playoff hopes.
Either Manuel, Marrone and Hackett will work things out, or not. If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of opportunity, and that decision won’t be made until at least a year from now.
NFL.com’s Marc Sessler offered a list of 12 teams that will or could be looking for a new starting quarterback in the offseason. The Bills, having invested so heavily in Manuel, were not among them.
Unless Manuel experiences a career-threatening injury, change of heart over his career choice or alien abduction, they won’t be in that market any time soon. No matter how ugly things get Sunday against the Jets.
David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.