BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Thanks to their appearance on Thursday Night Football versus the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night, Friday has been unusually busy with news regarding the Buffalo Bills. The injury-plagued Bills continue to take hits to their team health in their 37-24 loss to the Browns, while the punting unit’s struggles to stop Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin has cost at least one Bills player his job.
EJ Manuel Out “A Few Weeks” with LCL Sprain
The primary concern for the Buffalo Bills and their fan base since Thursday night’s game has been the health of quarterback EJ Manuel, who left the game and did not return after taking a hit to his right knee in the third quarter.
Bills coach Doug Marrone provided some clarity about Manuel’s injury on Friday, defining the injury as an LCL sprain according to the team’s official Twitter account. Marrone said the injury, which will not require surgery, is expected to keep him out “a few weeks.”
“A few weeks” is a vague phrase that likely speaks to the uncertain of how long Manuel’s recovery will take. Numerous NFL reports, however, have indicated that he will likely miss at least four games. According to WGR’s Joe Buscaglia, Manuel could be back as early as four weeks but could miss as many as six to eight weeks. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said his understanding is six weeks is a “solid estimation” of how long Manuel will be out, but seconded Buscaglia’s report Manuel could be back in four weeks or possibly be out longer than six weeks.
These reports contain both good and bad news for the Bills. The good news, first and foremost, is that Manuel’s injury could have been much worse. While Manuel is going to miss significant time this season, his prognosis going forward is much better in that he did not tear any ligaments and will not need surgery.
The bad news, however, is that the Bills will be without Manuel for an extended period of time, and that news alone could be enough to end the Bills’ chances of being a contender this year.
The Bills will certainly hope to have Manuel back in four weeks if possible, but it is more important that the Bills ensures Manuel is able to get proper treatment and have a full recovery prior to returning. With a number of tough games coming up on the schedule, it is likely that the Bills will no longer be serious playoff contenders by the time Manuel is ready to return to the lineup. The Bills should play Manuel’s return conservatively with his future in mind, rather than trying to rush him back and leave him more susceptible to injury.
Given that, the Bills need to be presently concerned with ascertaining a contingency plan for Manuel’s absence. At the minimum, Manuel is likely to miss the Bills’ next four games versus the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. Those four teams have a combined record of 13-3 through their first four games. The Bills would have been underdogs against all of them even with Manuel healthy, but if they are stuck with undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel as their starting quarterback, they will have almost no chance of victory.
Should the Bills Sign Josh Freeman?
Marrone confirmed Friday the Bills are in the market for another quarterback, and will look “outside the organization.” While the Bills are likely to promote Thad Lewis from their practice squad to add depth at the quarterback position, it does not seem they consider him a viable option to start in Manuel’s absence.
Who could the Bills bring in from outside the organization? Quite frankly, there is one obvious option that stands out as the best possibility for the Bills, and that would be signing Josh Freeman, who was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday.
Forget about Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow and Brett Favre — Freeman is the only viable starting quarterback option on the free-agent market. While the end of his time in Tampa Bay was messy to say the least, his release may have come at the perfect time for him to come in as a temporary starting quarterback for the Bills.
Freeman was benched after three games at least in part due to his awful performance in those games, completing just 43 of 94 passing attempts. That said, Freeman still has the physical tools to re-establish himself as a top-32 NFL quarterback, and he would be a immediate upgrade over Tuel, who simply is not ready to be the Bills’ starting quarterback.
If Freeman is going to sign anywhere soon, the most logical destination for him appears to be the Bills. By signing a deal for the rest of the season with the Bills, he could have an opportunity to start in Manuel’s absence and re-establish his diminished value. The Bills’ chances of winning more than one or two of their next four games may already be bleak given how much their offense has struggled this season, but Freeman’s big arm and downfield passing ability would at least give the Bills potential to get their offense back on track, even without Manuel.
Shawn Powell Released
Aside from Manuel’s injury, the biggest nightmare of Thursday’s game for the Bills was Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin. While poor angles in punt coverage may be most to blame for Benjamin’s 179 punt return yards, including a 79-yard touchdown and a 57-yard return, it was also in part due to low, weak punts from Shawn Powell.
Powell has been disappointingly inconsistent all season, and the Bills decided they had enough after Thursday’s debacle. The Bills officially released Powell on Friday.
The Bills do not have another punter on their roster, but will look for a replacement who can do a better job consistently downing punts in deep territory and at getting better hangtime on his punts. All but one of Powell’s eight punts were fielded and returned Thursday, and the punts put the coverage unit in front of him in bad spots.
There are a number of potential options available on the open market. The best option may be Chris Kluwe, who does not have as strong of a leg as Powell but is a more consistent punter who can be an upgrade directionally and with consistent hangtime. Former Bills punter Brian Moorman, who was cut early last season in favor of Powell, could also be an option as could preseason cut Brian Stahovich.
Better News on the Injury Front
Of all the tweets I received from Bills fans during Thursday night’s game, the most common responses were gripes about the abundance of injuries the Bills have had to deal with this season. If it felt like it was raining injuries before Thursday, injuries to Manuel, Stevie Johnson and T.J. Graham (who later returned to the game) turned that effect into a thunderstorm.
But while Manuel’s injury is significant and rightfully gets the headlines, the rest of Friday’s news was actually positive on the injury front.
Johnson has battled injuries in each of his past two games, and did not return to the game after leaving in the first half on Thursday night. Marrone said Friday that Johnson suffered a lumbar strain in his back, but is not expected to miss any time. With complete uncertainty at the quarterback position, the health of the Bills’ No. 1 wide receiver is vital to the team’s offensive success.
Friday also brought good news for the Bills secondary, where Buffalo has been absolutely decimated by injuries this season. The Bills’ two best defensive backs, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and free safety Jairus Byrd, have not played yet this season. Marrone said Friday, however, that both could be back in the lineup in the Bills’ next game on Sunday, Oct. 13 versus the Bengals. Ron Brooks, who was slated as the team’s starting slot cornerback to begin the season, is also expected to return.
These returns to health will be very welcome for the Bills’ secondary, which has, as expected, had its share of struggles in those players’ absences.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin has been solid when in the lineup, but he had his own injury issues, missing Sunday’s game versus the Baltimore Ravens with a hamstring injury.(he returned to the field Thursday). Aaron Williams has been promising for the most part at strong safety and cornerback, but he was repeatedly picked on while starting at cornerback in place of Gilmore on Thursday. Da’Norris Searcy and Jim Leonhard have both solid at safety, but neither offers the playmaking ability of Byrd. Cornerback Justin Rogers has been an outright liability in pass coverage when he has had to move into the starting lineup.
Quarterback is the most important on the field, so Manuel’s injury on its own truly could have a greater effect on the Bills’ ability to win upcoming games than all of the other injuries combined. That said, if Buffalo can add Freeman or another capable starting option to their roster, the returns of other players from injury could be the shot in the arm the 2-3 Bills need to at least stay competitive in their upcoming games.