By now, you've heard that the Buffalo Bills will start Thad Lewis at quarterback in the team's regular season finale in New England, meaning that the rookie season for EJ Manuel is likely over. Said rookie season included ten starts - the Bills were 4-6 in those games - 1,972 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions, two rushing scores, and a quarterback rating of 77.7.
Manuel became the first quarterback the Bills had ever taken with their top first-round pick in franchise history this past April, then emerged as the team's opening-day starter despite missing the final two games of the preseason with a knee injury. That was a theme all year for Manuel, who missed a four-game stretch between Weeks 6-9 with another knee injury, then the final two weeks of the season with a knee sprain. Surely, his injury concerns will headline most off-season discussions about the quarterback, with his draft status soon to follow.
But let's forget about the politics of being a first-round pick and the issues that several injuries caused for a little while. We all know that the Bills aren't very likely (read: not at all likely) to abandon their project quarterback after one season. What should matter most of all is how Manuel played when he was in the lineup - what his strengths were, where his weaknesses held him back, and what he needs to work on most as he begins preparing to lead this team into the 2014 season (and if we're lucky, well beyond).
What you see below is the result of many hours of tedious study of Manuel's game via the NFL Game Rewind service, which offers All-22 and end zone angles to more thoroughly analyze the game. It's worth pointing out that, even with harder evidence about players, schemes and teams sitting there in front of us through this valuable tool, it's still possible that two (or more) intelligent people can watch the same tape and see things completely differently. As such, treat this study of Manuel as an opinion piece, because that's what it is - one fan's opinion on where Manuel stands after one year in the league.
Below, Manuel's game is broken down into four categories - pocket ability, accuracy, reads and throws of note - with several themes identified within those areas. Each theme corresponds to a set of slides in the category's photo gallery, four of which are embedded in this post, but are also viewable by clicking on the section header. Each All-22 still is captioned with a breakdown of that specific play; simply hover your mouse over the photo to see it. If you're reading this on a mobile device, you'll have better luck viewing the galleries in landscape mode, but your best experience will be to read this post on a bigger screen.
1-6: Escapability. It's important to start with Manuel's athletic ability, because it's the basis for everything we see on film. Manuel really is an excellent athlete, capable of doing things many other quarterbacks aren't. These are examples of his ability to maneuver out of tight spots to avoid negative plays.
7-16: The spin move. Even the most casual of observers has likely noticed by now that Manuel favors a spin move to his left to avoid blind-side pressure. He's used it a lot this year - including on the play that cost him four games with a knee injury - and teams are starting to cotton on to the fact that he routinely uses it.
17-31: Early exits. A byproduct of Manuel's athletic ability, there are many examples of him leaving the pocket too early and either missing receivers downfield or not letting plays develop long enough. This section of the gallery covers those plays; you may notice Manuel dropping his hips to run, and the ball dropping below waist level, in many of these stills. That's a habit that coaching should be able to break, but it cost Manuel several throwing opportunities this season.
32-33: Ball security. It's easy to see that the Bills coached Manuel up to be conservative with the football as a rookie, but there were still a couple of examples of Manuel being far too cavalier with the football in his hands. These two plays in particular stood out; we can all agree, however, that two plays out of several hundred is hardly a big issue.
34-42: Poor footwork. Again, building off of Manuel's athleticism and escapability, there are many cases in which he relies too much on his natural ability. These stills focus on his feet, and how often he does not set them when he's moved off his initial spot. Too often, Manuel will throw on the run or off of one foot when he has time to gather himself and throw a more accurate ball. Again, this is something that can be coached to a certain extent.
43-44: Resets. On occasion, Manuel did find the time to gather his feet under him after initial pressure and make a good throw downfield. That typically happened when an outlet receiver was right in front of him.
In summary: Manuel senses initial pressure well - even from the blind side - and has more than enough athletic ability to avoid it. Where he seems to struggle is feeling things out after he's moved off his spot, and re-composing himself to make throws downfield. The latter can be coached, and should be a major point of emphasis for the coaches this off-season - they need to slow Manuel down just a hair when he goes into improvise mode. The former - his intuition when the play breaks down - is a slightly bigger cause for concern, as that seems like something a player either has or doesn't. Manuel needs to work on staying alive in the pocket before freelancing, and being cognizant of resetting his feet to make throws downfield. If he can pull those simple adjustments off, he'll be a significantly better pocket passer in 2014.
1-6: Screen placements. On shorter throws, Manuel struggled with placement in particular on throws to the flat out of the backfield, but occasionally on traditional screens, as well. He often threw high or too far upfield on these patterns, resulting in several risky throws and ugly incompletions.
7-13: Slant placements. These throws are a staple in nearly every NFL offense, and to his credit Manuel hit a lot of them in his rookie season, as he was expected to. When he missed, he was typically behind receivers, throwing high, or a combination of both.
14-23: Horizontal placement. Many of Manuel's best throws in his rookie season came up the seam, either on in-breaking or out-breaking routes, where horizontal placement is at a premium. It was on those throws that Manuel was at his deadliest, and the passing offense looked most in rhythm. Here, however, you can see that Manuel left many more similar opportunities on the field with spotty ball placement.
24-35: Vertical placement. By the time his season was over, Manuel's inaccuracy on fade patterns, in particular, had become something of a running joke among Bills fans. In truth, Manuel cleaned up his accuracy fairly considerably on deeper throws as the season went on, but this is a run-through of how and where he was missing these throws, anyway.
In summary: Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told The Buffalo News during the season that they needed to work on raising Manuel's completion percentage. That would be a good start, as would cleaning up Manuel's bad pocket habits, which would increase the number of accurate throws he's making by a sound margin. For every perfectly-spotted pass he throws, however, there are another three, at least, that are off target by just enough to miss an opportunity, or by a significant margin. His completion percentage can (and likely will) rise, but Manuel probably won't ever be considered one of the league's most accurate passers.
1-7: Check-downs. Remember the early exits portion of our look at Manuel in the pocket? Those aren't the only early exits he committed; he also checked down too quickly on multiple occasions throughout the season, leaving opportunities for bigger and more significant plays on the field. This is something that most young quarterbacks do, and if Manuel has the good fortune of staying in the same offense with the same coaches for a good chunk of time, these will likely fade away.
8-13: Read transitions. Any rookie quarterback will also miss reads. That's a given - particularly with how defenses like to toss new wrinkles at young guns to try to confuse them into mistakes. Buffalo countered with a lot of simplified, half-field reads for Manuel throughout the season, and his style of play was fairly conservative, as well. These stills focus on fairly simple reads that Manuel missed, with an emphasis on those where he struggled to move to his next read with enough time to do so.
14-16: Hesitancy. Another byproduct of playing a young quarterback: instances in which the player doesn't pull the trigger quickly enough on something he's seeing. These, too, are plays that should become less frequent as he gains playing experience.
17-24: Misreads, bad decisions. A missed read is not always a bad thing - for example, there's a still in here where Manuel throws deep to a speed receiver that's technically double-covered, but who has a shot at a big play. That incompletion is a play that's easily forgiven. Many of these are not - especially the bad decisions (which, mercifully, he kept to a minimum this season).
In summary: Quite often, the Bills kept things simple for Manuel by either rolling him out (that's a designed half-field read that any quarterback in the NFL can run) or flooding half of the field with receiving targets at multiple levels to make Manuel's progressions happen faster. When they took the training wheels off, Manuel saw the whole field well, but there were times when he did not make it very far through his progressions because of his aforementioned antsy tendencies in the pocket (or just flat-out bad protection). Near the end of the season, head coach Doug Marrone was telling reporters that after several weeks of giving him more of the offense, they'd be scaling things back again for Manuel. Playing experience, a better rapport with his receivers and more time in the offense will speed up his progressions, and misreads and bad decisions can become less frequent, as well. For now, this looks like the area of Manuel's game that will take the most time to progress, because it didn't progress much in his first ten starts.
1-8: Anticipation. The best quarterbacks in the business are those that can throw a receiver open, either by leading them to an open area of the field or delivering the football on time, before they're out of their break, to make a defender as much of a non-factor as possible. Manuel did not do this often - he'd more often throw to an open receiver after his head was turned, or wait until a receiver had cleared a zone defender and turned his head before throwing - but when he did, it was often a thing of beauty. These slides are some of Manuel's best rookie season work.
9-12: Timing. Here, you'll see four examples of open throws where Manuel did not pull the trigger as quickly as he could have. The more he plays, and the more experience he accrues with his favorite receivers, the less frequently this will happen, in an ideal world.
13-16: Spots. For all of the inaccurate throws we covered earlier, Manuel made several beautiful throws this season - including these four gems, which exhibited pinpoint accuracy on difficult throws or against tricky coverages.
17-18: Pocket play. Sometimes, great balls come on routine plays. In the first still here, Manuel makes a great pocket play and throws an excellent deep ball, only for his receiver to come up short. In the second, he stands in the face of pressure and throws an open out pattern perfectly for a key third-down conversion. These are simple, fundamental plays that, if Manuel can start to make more of them, will more than make up for his various flaws.
In summary: These stills here are your best source of optimism for Manuel. It didn't happen often, but he was able to put it all together - pocket play, accuracy, and reads - on several occasions in 2013, and the results were almost always excellent.
Many of Manuel's flaws are coachable, most particularly his flaws in the pocket. That's where his progress will start; improvements there will lead to a higher count of accurate throws and faster progressions in his reads. Playing experience in the offense and with his group of receivers will help in other areas - the timing of throws and the reading of defenses, especially.
Other areas of his game may or may not get better. His feel for the game and improvisation skills as a passer once a play breaks down, his overall ability to consistently exhibit good ball placement, and his ability to scan the entire field quickly are things that can only be coached to a certain extent. If he can't make improvements in these areas that are more inherent than taught, then there's only so much more improvement that Manuel can make.
But there's very little doubt that the tools that the Bills invested in when they made Manuel a first-round pick are still present, and when wielded correctly are capable of producing high-level results. Whether or not Manuel ever reaches "franchise quarterback" standards shouldn't cloud the fact that, with a bit more time and a good off-season, Manuel has a chance to take a significant step forward in his second season simply by cleaning up some of the basics.