Developing a young quarterback is, arguably, the most difficult job in the NFL. There is, however, a close second: building an entire offense, one you hope to win with, around a player that is a work in progress. The trickle-down effect of that decision is that your entire offense, regardless of the quality of talent elsewhere, is automatically a work in progress as a result.
The Buffalo Bills, therefore, very much have a work in progress offense heading into the 2014 season, chiefly because it's helmed by second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. It's with the Bills' 2013 first-round pick that we begin a week-long series of posts designed to shake off the offseason cobwebs and better understand how the Bills' offense should function heading into the new season.
Forget what you think you know about what the Bills' offense will look like this fall. Forget what you know you remember about last year's offense. For the purposes of this discussion, let's imagine that we're starting over from scratch, with Manuel's strengths and weaknesses serving as the foundation for the attack.
Nearly six months ago, I published over two weeks' worth of intense study of Manuel's rookie season in a scouting report detailing Manuel's pocket play, accuracy, ability to read the field, and his best throws. Within the past month, Michael Purinton has written two separate data studies on Manuel, first classifying incompletions, and then comparing him to fellow 2013 rookie starters Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. You're encouraged to read those articles in full, of course, but the boiled-down versions of those studies yield the following noteworthy items and areas of improvement:
- Feels and evades the initial rush, but doesn’t see the field well after he’s moved off his spot;
- Does not consistently reset his feet in the pocket;
- Too frequently leaves the pocket early as routes are developing;
- Inconsistent with ball placement, even on caught throws;
- 40 percent of deep (20-plus yards) throws were uncatchable;
- 41 percent of throws to the sideline were uncatchable;
- His receivers dropped a whopping 35 catchable balls (11.4 percent of all throws);
- 68.6 percent of his throws traveled 10 or fewer yards;
- Made many more half-field reads than full-field, whether via rollout or flood concepts;
- Antsy pocket behaviors lead to shortened read progressions on many occasions.
That seems like a lot to work on, and it is. But it's important to note that it is fairly easy for Manuel to progress in many of those areas, and that therefore progress should be expected. It's the areas where progress may be difficult to come by that the Bills need to plan around. Those areas where the Bills should not expect improvement (which is to say, they should hope it comes, but be prepared in the event that it doesn't) all stem from his flaws in the pocket: his ability to reset and deliver after evading the initial rush; his ability to see the whole field after the pocket breaks down; and his patience to stay in the pocket and read the entire field.
One of the major story lines with Manuel at the tail end of the 2013 season was the Bills continually giving Manuel larger game plans, and then scaling things back again when things broke down. That is a process that continues - not just because Manuel is still inexperienced, but because he is still adjusting to a bunch of new skill talent around him. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has already spoken at length about finding the things that the team does well offensively; that's a process that begins anew thanks to the personnel changes surrounding Manuel.
We'll talk more about the specifics of the personnel changes as the week moves forward, but think about it: two of Manuel's projected top three receivers are brand new to the team, there's a potential starting tight end who hasn't yet caught a live pass from Manuel either, and the offensive line will have at least two brand new starters, as well. That said, despite those changes, the Bills should already have a pretty good idea of what Manuel does best, and they can build from there with the new talent on hand.
There will be a period of time where these fluctuations - narrowing down a few bread-and-butter concepts, expanding the playbook to see what sticks, paring out what doesn't work, and repeating the process - will be noticeable. We'll see them as inconsistency not just with Manuel, but with this young offense as a whole. When your quarterback is bound to be inconsistent for an indeterminate length of time, it's wise to make the true foundation of your offense something other than the passing game.
The best way that the Bills can aid Manuel's development, from an offensive philosophy standpoint, is to continue to abide by the notion that they are a run-first offense. (We'll start talking about that element of the attack tomorrow.) Quarterbacks of every caliber are better with a complementary, quality rushing attack, but it's especially useful to have that fallback option when your quarterback - and by extension, your passing offense - is enduring growing pains.
As far as Manuel's progression is concerned, the Bills should be focusing on designing route combinations that stretch vertically up the middle of the field - where Manuel is more accurate with his deeper throws - and horizontally underneath, where Manuel is less likely to make crippling mistakes on inaccurate throws. Expect more flood concepts and half-field reads to ensure that Manuel processes quickly, and a continued emphasis on taking deep shots. If the Bills can get Manuel to a point where he's consistently seeing things quickly, his completion percentage climbs 4-6 percent, and he's throwing a slightly higher volume of catchable balls on a more consistent basis, the rest should take care of itself.
The Bills have more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a serious playoff push with a consistent level of quarterback play - even if that level is thoroughly average. That should be the floor-level expectation for the Bills to strive to achieve with Manuel in 2014. He has plenty of talent to exceed those expectations, but consistency is No. 1 on the priority list.