EJ Manuel has had long stretches of poor play and has made many ugly, erroneous throws in his first season with the Buffalo Bills, but by and large, he has had a pretty good rookie season thus far. Not a great one, mind you - a 58.5 percent completion percentage isn't particularly encouraging, for starters - but a pretty good one. The Bills are 3-3 in games that he's finished (1-4 otherwise), and his 8-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio is nothing to sneeze at. These are not indicators of quality quarterback play, but they are positives, they matter, and they work in his favor.
There's also no doubt that Manuel has made several very good throws in his rookie season - throws that previous Bills quarterbacks were simply not talented enough to make, and throws that were difference-makers in the context of the game. Those plays are easy to recall, even if you're the pessimistic type that can't get past the many more ugly, inaccurate throws he's also made. For every strike he's thrown, he's thrown several more clunkers.
Manuel still has five more games (knock on wood - stay healthy, kid) with which to hone his craft this season. Rest assured that when his rookie year is complete, we'll take a far more complete and comprehensive look at Manuel's strengths and weaknesses. During this Bills bye week, however, I wanted to find reason to get excited about the first-round pick again.
The plan of attack: forget about the bad throws (we'll have plenty of time to go over those this off-season), eliminate the good throws that were easy reads or to wide open receivers (there are plenty of them - and there is nothing inherently wrong with them, by any means), and focus on throws that exhibit traits of elite quarterback play.
I found four such throws among Manuel's 217-plus dropbacks this season.
In the first eight stills above, you'll see two-slide breakdowns of my four favorite Manuel throws of the season. Two of them were completions, a third drew a pass interference, and a fourth was an incompletion on a diving attempt from Robert Woods. It's an inauspicious selection, but they're chosen for a reason: on all four throws, Manuel makes reads at an above-average pace, throws to spots with anticipation and accuracy, and takes some hits doing so. These are throws, in short, that elite quarterbacks make on a fairly routine basis; any talented quarterback can make good throws to open receivers or toss an accurate deep ball on a simple read, but the elite ones see things before they happen and throw guys open. These four throws exhibit those traits; four, however, is a pretty small number.
The last four slides cover two plays that Manuel needs to start making with regularity; they're just two examples among many that make Manuel a more frustrating evaluation than anticipated. They are plays in which Manuel is asked to make a half-field read - basically training wheels for rookie quarterbacks - and doesn't pull the trigger with anticipation on intermediate routes about to break open, instead choosing to check down for a minimal gain. These are the types of throws that, if Manuel starts to see them and hit them with regularity, will really start to open up the offense and build up his confidence.
As mentioned, we'll have plenty of time to dive further into Manuel's game and make broader judgments about his game this off-season. He still has time to put more good throws on tape, and there are enough of them at this point to reasonably believe that Manuel can develop into a good NFL quarterback. If you're looking for reason to believe that Manuel could eventually emerge as a great NFL quarterback - which, in spirit, was the point of this exercise - you're going to have to look very carefully.