This August was supposed to be the preseason of progression for second-year Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Instead, he led just two touchdown drives in five games—and both of those came against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive unit composed entirely of backups—and continued struggling to find any rhythm with the Bills’ first-team offense.
Despite his underwhelming rookie season and persistent lackluster performance this summer, it remained presumed throughout training camp and the preseason that Manuel was the Bills’ only option to start. Neither Thad Lewis nor Jeff Tuel, the two quarterbacks who had been with Buffalo since last season, gave any hope of being an upgrade under center. That perception has started to change, however, since the Bills signed veteran Kyle Orton on Saturday.
Wow. Per @RapSheet on Total Access, Orton’s deal with the Bills will pay him $5M in the first year. Suggests he will play at some point.
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) August 30, 2014
NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport later confirmed via his own Twitter that Orton’s contract is worth $11 million for two years. According to ESPN’s Mike Rodak, that makes Orton the league’s third-highest paid backup.
Does that indeed mean the Bills will consider a quarterback switch to Orton, and should they? BBD assistant editor Ryan Talbot believes it’s a real possibility, but BBD editor Dan Hope thinks the team must still plan to ride or die with Manuel in 2014.
Change is Possible
BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot
A two-year, $11 million deal is a lot of money for backup quarterback, but there’s a chance that Orton removes the word backup from his status and replaces it with “starting.”
In 2014, the Bills have a lot at stake. First, they’re trying to end a decade-plus of misery that has resulted in one winning season and zero playoff appearances. To change their fortunes, Buffalo needs strong play at quarterback.
Manuel deserves a chance to show he is the man. He only played 10 games in 2013 due to injuries and flashed his talent at times. However, Manuel was far from consistent in his rookie season. Entering his second season, expectations have risen. Buffalo’s starting quarterback is expected to manage the game and do enough to lead the Bills to victory. If Manuel doesn’t show that he can handle the pressure, he may be handling a clipboard.
The Bills also need to win now with a new owner on the horizon. Regardless of who wins the bid (the smart money is on Terry Pegula), the new owner is likely to look at Buffalo’s 2014 season when he makes personnel decisions. Doug Marrone and his coaching staff are coaching for their jobs in 2014. Team president Russ Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley are banking on the Bills to show a great deal of improvement, and some players (I’m looking at you, C.J. Spiller and Jerry Hughes) are hoping to impress and cash in on new contracts.
Another 6-10 season is likely to result in many people losing their jobs. That leads me to believe that Orton has a great chance of playing and starting a significant portion of the 2014 season.
You know what you’re going to get out of a quarterback like Orton. Based upon his career stats, you’re likely to get a guy who will complete close to 60 percent of his passes, pass for 200 yards or more and throw more touchdowns than interceptions. With a career record of 35-35, you know Orton is a guy who will keep you in many games. Orton certainly looks like a player who could come in and keep Buffalo in games on a weekly basis. With four strong running backs, an impressive wide receiver corps and an improved run defense, the Bills need someone who can manage a game but is also willing to take chances.
At times last season, EJ Manuel showed why the Bills drafted him in the first round. Against the New York Jets in Week 11, he threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-28 passing. In his final start of the season, against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15, he completed 17 of 24 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception).
If Manuel plays like he did in those two games, his job is safe for 2014 and Orton will simply be in Buffalo to push Manuel to improve and give the Bills a competent backup. However, if Manuel doesn’t play well early in the season, he’ll be on the bench before you know it.
A slow start could doom Manuel’s tenure in Buffalo. The Bills have a challenging 2014 schedule; starting the year against the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers will be a tall task for the current starting quarterback. If the Bills are 1-2 or 0-3 after these games, Buffalo should have no other choice than to give Orton a shot.
Doing so might shake Manuel’s confidence going forward, but there’s simply too many jobs on the line to worry about that.
Bills Must Keep Faith in Manuel for 2014
BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The Bills certainly had more confidence than most in EJ Manuel when they selected the quarterback out of Florida State with the No. 16 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
They evidently still had that confidence during this year’s draft, when they essentially took themselves out of the running for a top quarterback in the 2015 class by trading their first- and fourth-round pick in next year’s draft to move up and select a wide receiver, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who was brought in to give Manuel a bona fide No. 1 target.
If their confidence is now waning, they’re late to the party. Manuel already had a significant number of doubters when he came into the league, but the doubts of the masses have only intensified with his underwhelming play and multiple injuries since.
It’s too late, however, for the Bills to turn back now, at least for the 2014 season.
Manuel’s play hasn’t been great—it hasn’t even been good—but he still has franchise quarterback potential. If he’s going to make good on his promise, he must quickly become more a precise and confident passer, which didn’t appear to be the case this summer. But the big, strong-armed, athletic QB still brings upside to the table. The same shouldn’t be said for Orton.
As Ryan aptly noted, the Bills should know what they have in Orton. The problem is that what Orton is known to be is a mediocre quarterback.
It’s fair to knock Manuel for his 58.8 completion percentage and 6.4 yards per attempt last season, but Orton’s numbers, at 58.5 and 6.6, are no better.
In nine NFL seasons, Orton has never started all 16 games in a year and has never lasted a third season in any starting gig.
Orton lost his only to-date opportunity to play in a playoff game in 2005, his rookie season. He put the Bears in playoff position by winning 10 games in 15 starts, but he was benched in favor of Rex Grossman prior to the playoffs, and rightfully so after completing just 51.6 percent of his passes with 5.1 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The same reasons the Oakland Raiders benched Matt Schaub in favor of Derek Carr (and why the Jaguars should bench Chad Henne in favor of Blake Bortles) should apply to the Bills not benching Manuel for Orton. With Orton, the Bills know what they can get: a below-average starting quarterback with lackluster physical tools. Manuel’s floor might be lower, but his ceiling remains significantly higher.
It also shouldn’t even be assumed that Orton can play at the average level of his past. The Bills have brought Orton in cold turkey, not only into an offensive system he doesn’t know but also onto the football field for the first time since last season, as he did not participate in any NFL team’s training camp or preseason this summer. Is Orton in the prime physical condition necessary to hold up as an NFL quarterback? We can’t be sure.
Orton’s contract numbers could signify that the Bills are considering him as a starter, but they probably have more to do with the fact that the Bills had to coax him out of an intended retirement.
If the Bills truly believed Orton could make their offense better, would they have waited until after the preseason to sign him? That wouldn’t make much sense. It made sense for the Bills to hope Lewis and/or Tuel could establish themselves as solid backups, so that the Bills wouldn’t need to pay what arguably qualifies as starter money to have a quality No. 2 passer. But if the Bills legitimately thought Orton could beat out Manuel, they would have paid the price of signing him months ago.
Don’t be a pretender: Buffalo’s new backup quarterback isn’t going to be the hero that saves the Bills’ 2014 season. The Dave Grohl doppelganger gives the Bills a better fall-back option than Lewis or Tuel should they need a quarterback to step in if Manuel battles injury again. But if the Bills have any chance of ending their everlong postseason drought this fall, they’re going to have to learn to fly with Manuel.