BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The game was tied at 17-17, and the Buffalo Bills had all the momentum in the game in the midst of their second consecutive touchdown drive against the Cleveland Browns defense Thursday.
The end of a 14-yard scramble by quarterback EJ Manuel changed everything.
Manuel was making a play, having run all the way around from the right side of the pocket to up the left sideline, outrunning a defender with speed before running toward the left sideline. He converted a 3rd-and-8 to pick up the Bills’ third first down of the drive in the process, but the play came with a price. As he was about to go out of bounds, he took a big shot from Browns free safety Tashaun Gipson directly on his knee, causing him to pirouette down to the ground and clutch his knee in pain.
Manuel left the game and did not return.
Fellow rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel took Manuel’s place under center. Tuel and the Bills offense finished off the final 13 yards of that drive for a touchdown, but did not score again for the remainder of the game.
Tuel was responsible for the game’s final touchdown, a pass intercepted by Browns safety T.J. Ward and returned 44 yards to the end zone to extend the Cleveland lead to 37-24 with less than two minutes to play.
The Bills’ loss may have been largely due to Tuel’s struggles with the game on the line, but quite frankly, it was ridiculous to expect the undrafted rookie quarterback to come off the bench cold and lead Buffalo to a victory. Even though the Bills scored a touchdown four plays after Manuel’s injury, their chances of winning the game had already become slim once Manuel went down.
Thursday’s game may be a tough loss for the Bills to swallow, but they can bounce back from their 2-3 record. The more significant loss Thursday was Manuel to injury.
Losing Manuel for a significant period of time would likely cripple the Bills’ season.
Manuel has a sprained knee, Bills coach Doug Marrone said following Thursday’s game. That’s a better diagnosis to hear than torn ACL, but it’s not a solid indicator of how much time Manuel will miss.
Manuel will most likely undergo an MRI on Friday or over the weekend, which should make the timetable more clear — specifically, Manuel’s recovery time will be dependent upon grade of knee sprain and whether ligament damage occurred, according to Bleacher Report medical expert Dave Siebert.
The good news for the Bills is that it does not appear Manuel’s injury will be season-ending, unless an MRI reveals more damage than expected. The bad news is that it is highly unlikely Manuel will be back for the Bills’ next game versus the Cincinnati Bengals, even with a 10-day window between games thanks to Thursday Night Football.
That leaves the Bills with a problematic quarterback situation. Forget about Tuel’s impressive performance versus Indianapolis Colts backups in the preseason opener, as it has become pretty clear since then that Tuel is not close to ready to lead an NFL offense in meaningful games.
He completed just eight of 20 passing attempts for 80 yards with no touchdowns and one interception after relieving Manuel on Thursday. Four of those completions came on the Bills’ final drive, a “garbage time” possession after Ward’s pick-six all but clinched victory for the Browns.
Tuel did not make any impressive throws, and his interception was exactly what you would expect from an undrafted rookie quarterback. He stared down his intended target and Ward read his throw all the way, catching the pass before it even came close to a receiver and catching with nothing but green field in front of him,
Don’t expect Tuel to follow in the footsteps of Brian Hoyer, who also suffered a knee injury Thursday night but had led the Browns to back-to-back wins the previous two weeks after taking over the starting job from Brandon Weeden.
The Bills will be lucky to win any games with Tuel under center.
Whether they have any better options while Manuel is sidelined, however, is uncertain. If Manuel is set to miss any time, the Bills will almost certainly promote Thad Lewis from the practice squad, but it is unlikely that they would move him ahead of Tuel.
A name that is already being linked to the Bills, and will continue to be unless he signs with another team or the Bills make a statement that they will not sign him, is Josh Freeman.
Freeman was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, the expected end of a messy situation that started with Freeman being benched after completing just 43 of 94 passing attempts in the first three weeks of a season.
Although the Buccaneers’ eventual release of Freeman certainly seemed to be about much more than just his play on the field, it would be a stretch to say he is still worthy of being an NFL starting quarterback. That said, there is little doubt that he would be a better temporary option than Tuel or Lewis, and he stands out as the best available option on the market, so it is an avenue the Bills should at least consider, especially if they expect Manuel to miss multiple games.
Manuel could at least be out for the Bills’ next four games versus the Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs, four teams with a combined record of 13-3 through their first four games. Buffalo’s chances of winning any of those games with Tuel are very slim.
If the Bills are interested in Freeman, it would make sense for him to have reciprocal interest. He is no longer going to be a top-32 quarterback on next year’s market unless he has a chance to start for another team this season and play much better than he had to start the year in Tampa Bay. At least as far as the next game or two is concerned, there may no better opportunity for Freeman to come in and start immediately than he would have in Buffalo.
Freeman or no Freeman, the Bills’ season is looking far more bleak with Manuel sidelined. The Bills are as injury-plagued as any team in the NFL, but given the importance of the quarterback position — and the struggles the Bills already had on offense with a healthy Manuel — losing Manuel for any period of time will be the toughest injury situation for the Bills to overcome.
Making matters worse, Bills No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson also left Thursday’s game early with a back injury. The Bills already had one of the NFL’s weakest passing offenses, but without Manuel and Johnson, they could easily be the league’s worst passing offense.
The Bills did not play greatly in any capacity Thursday, but the outcome of the game certainly could have gone in their favor if Manuel had not been injured. While the offense was not great prior to his injury, they became stagnant without him on the field, managing just two first downs and 38 yards on their final five meaningful drives (not including the Bills’ last offensive possession when they were already by two scores with less than two minutes to play).
The Bills defense was not spectacular but still solid Thursday. While the Browns scored 37 points, they only scored two offensive touchdowns, with their other touchdowns coming from Ward and on a 79-yard Travis Benjamin punt return. The Bills defense failed to come up with any takeaways, but they only allowed two drives of more than 40 yards (both ended in touchdowns).
One player who does deserve to take blame for Thursday’s loss is Aaron Williams. Regularly the Bills’ starting strong safety, Williams started at cornerback for the second consecutive week, lining up opposite Leodis McKelvin for most of the night. He gave up many big plays, including a 37-yard touchdown reception to Josh Gordon, and was out of position on downfield passes throughout the contest.
The Bills’ punting unit will also be going back to the drawing board after Thursday’s loss. Benjamin fielded and returned seven of Shawn Powell’s eight punts, breaking a team record with a whopping 179 return yards in the process, including the 79-yard touchdown and a 57-yard return.
The Bills’ continued secondary struggles and special teams miscues should concern Buffalo going into their next game Oct. 13 versus the Bengals, but their top concern will almost certainly be Manuel’s health and the quarterback situation without him.