Wow Ė just wow. Iím not really sure what to say after Sundayís thrilling last second, come from behind win. Back in the day you always counted on the Bills to pull it out, but thatís a bygone era Ė itís been quite some time since the Bills ended up on the right side of a win like that. These days winning by a point is so rare that even the Bills couldnít believe it Ė their official Twitter feed was excited that the game was going to overtime when Dan Carpenter kicked the final PAT, refusing to believe the Bills had just won.
Of course my phone blew up with texts as soon as the game wrapped up Ė funny how everybody wants to communicate with you when your team has just won a heart stopper. I had made a wager with a good buddy of mine who is a Panthers fan and barbeque expert (seriously Ė heís a certified competition judge) and Iím looking forward to a nice tri-tip roast done to perfection from his barbeque pit Ė who said winning wasnít sweet?
With the euphoria of a win like Sundayís itís easy to get wrapped up in it all and start to have delusions of grandeur, even for a curmudgeon like me. I have to tell myself that although the win was exciting, Iím still not thinking the Bills are looking at their first non-losing season in 9 years this year Ė thereís still a lot of ground to cover in the Billsí epic rebuild (a decade and counting!).
Even for someone rather cynical, it is easy to start daydreaming about what could be Ė the Bills of the future Ė could they be a force 5 years from now? Thatís where I have to stop myself Ė thatís the same type of unrequited hope that left so many of us fans open to severe scarring.
OK, warnings and disclaimers aside, letís look at the positives displayed by the 2013 Buffalo Bills on Sunday Ė itís rare that I want to look on the bright side, but heck Ė the Bills won and I have barbeque coming.
As I said last week, I really like what Iíve seen from the latest Bills quarterback of the future, E.J. Manuel. Thereís a lot to like about a big, athletic quarterback with a solid arm and good running ability, but those are only his physical attributes. Whatís Iíve been most impressed with are Manuelís mental abilities Ė his demeanor and his attitude. Itís been years since Iíve seen a quarterback with such poise and patience in the pocket Ė probably all the way back to Doug Flutie. Manuel seems very in control when he takes a snap Ė thereís no deer in the headlights, no happy feet, no urge to just get rid of the ball. He hasnít forced the ball like a gunslinger (Ryan Fitzpatrick), held onto it too long (Rob Johnson), or just gotten rid of it as if it was a hot potato (Trent Edwards).
Sundayís win illustrated just how poised Manuel can be. With 1:38 left on the clock and no timeouts, Manuel lead a quick and efficient 80 yard touchdown drive. He didnít panic; he didnít rush or force plays. He did have an interception that was overturned, but I think without the interference the receiver could have been there to make a play (or prevent an interception). He made a valiant effort to win it with his feet that fell short, but he did make sure to get out of bounds. If the drive was a test of his skill and mental abilities he passed with flying colors.
From an attitude perspective Manuel seems to relish his job as a leader, but not to the point of cockiness Ė he seems to understand that he may be the signal caller, but heís also a rookie on a team with some solid veterans. He genuinely wants to win, and he was genuinely emotional when he was able to do that Ė I love his passion.
Iíve never coached football, but I can guarantee that the things I like about Manuel are things you canít coach. You can coach mechanics. You can coach accuracy. You can coach target selection. You canít coach poise once you take the snap. You canít coach attitude. You canít coach escapability. You canít coach natural athleticism. Itís only 2 games in, but Manuel looks like he has these uncoachable x-factors that kept so many of his predecessors from success.
Of course part of the attraction with Manuel is his potential. Heís done a great job minimizing mistakes even if you factor in the fumble and the interception against Carolina, but heís done that in part by not taking many chances. Through two games we havenít really seen what Manuel can do with his legs Ė at least not by design. The read option, the offensive flavor of the month in the NFL, hasnít really seen Manuel keep the ball. Like many people Iím happy anytime a quarterback doesnít decide go run the ball and make himself a huge target to hard hitting defenders, but at some point you have to keep it if you want to be respected as a runner. The potential is there Ė it will be interesting to see how it develops.
The potential is also there to stretch the field by taking some deeper shots. In an effort to limit mistakes Manuel hasnít gone downfield often. When he has gone downfield heís had mixed results Ė some balls have been substantially off target, while some have looked very pretty (the touchdown to Steve Johnson in week 1 wasnít a bomb, but it was very well placed and one of Manuelís longer throws).
The things I still want to see from Manuel Ė running the ball and throwing downfield Ė are things that will likely come with time. The game plan is likely to open up a bit as Manuel shows he can handle it. These are plays that can be called. Whatís more, these are things that can be coached Ė if those skills need work they can be developed through coaching, practice and hard work. Iíd much rather have a young quarterback who needs coaching on how to throw a better deep ball than a young quarterback who needs to learn how to maintain his composure in the pocket Ė you either have that or you donít.
Having a game winning drive under your belt has got to give you a tremendous burst of confidence when youíre a rookie quarterback, and thatís potentially the biggest dividend of Sundayís win. The win is nice to have in the win column, but I doubt it will be anything more than a number at the end of the season. It could, however, be a launching pad for the next phase of Manuelís development Ė that would be truly exciting.
So yes, Iím optimistic about the Bills quarterback. Iím trying hard not to get too excited Ė I was excited when Trent Edwards played well in his first few games and there were also stretches when it looked like Ryan Fitzpatrick was going to be a solid quarterback and neither of those situations turned out well. With only two games down itís easy to get excited and lose your sense of reality, but I really do feel that the Bills might finally have something. I really hope thatís not just the thinking of a quarterback-starved fan mentally willing it to be so, but it does feel different this time around - time will tell. If nothing else, itís a good thing to ponder over some good barbeque.