Two days after the Buffalo Bills finished the 2013 season with a 6-10 record, the decision-making trio of Russ Brandon, Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone were steadfastly throwing their support behind quarterback EJ Manuel. Two recent coaching hires seem to back that claim: quarterbacks coach Todd Downing was brought into the fold last week, and Jim Hostler was added as a senior offensive assistant on Monday.
The new faces in the meeting room double the number of coaches directly involved in the development, both physically and mentally, of the first quarterback that the Bills had ever taken with their top first-round pick in franchise history. That may not seem like a major change on the surface - Manuel is still running the same offense for the same coordinator, after all - but the player-to-coach dynamic should be quite different for Manuel in 2014.
Consider: in his first NFL training camp, Manuel was coached directly by offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who held the title of quarterbacks coach last season. On game days for most of his rookie season, Hackett called plays from the coaching booth, with only quality control coach Jason Vrable, the team's young backup quarterbacks and Marrone himself on the sidelines to relay plays and interact directly with Manuel between series. That changed later in the season, when Hackett began calling games from the sidelines, and the move coincided with some of Manuel's best games in 2013.
Now, the Bills are building on Manuel's existing relationships with Hackett and Marrone, entrusting the development of his physical skills to Downing, a young coach who had worked with Detroit's Matthew Stafford for the last three years. Hackett will clearly still be involved in that process, but the extra set of eyes on Manuel's mechanics can't hurt, given Hackett's other responsibilities.
We're still not exactly sure what Hostler's role will be as senior offensive assistant. In an appearance on The John Murphy Show on Monday evening, however, Baltimore Ravens play-by-play man Gerry Sandusky speculated on how Hostler's role would mesh with the existing roles of Marrone, Hackett and Downing.
"He will bring the ability to self-scout. He’ll be able to come in and help the coordinator, help Marrone look at your offense the way your opponents will look at it," Sandusky told Murphy. "Find the flaws, find the weaknesses, and find some of the ways to solidify the areas that are going to be most tested going forward. As a senior offensive assistant, you’ll find that most of Jim’s inputs are very subtle, and to avoid creating any staff tension, he won’t get any credit for them. That’s typically how I have found the senior assistant role plays out."
Sandusky also called Hostler "an exceptional evaluator of talent" and a "magnificent teacher of technique" in his interview with Murphy. Though Hostler served as the Ravens' wide receivers coach for the last six years - he's credited for the swift development of Torrey Smith - he also has experience coaching quarterbacks at the NFL level. An easy logical leap to make is that Hostler, whose title is generic, will also be directly involved in Manuel's development. Manuel seemed comfortable with Hackett on the sidelines; if that continues, Hostler could also give Hackett a more experienced set of eyes from the booth to relay information as he calls games.
A little less than a year ago, just a few weeks before he was named the GM, Whaley spoke at a team function about his team's recent pick of Manuel. His final quote on Manuel (which you can watch here), which poked fun at his future job status if Manuel doesn't pan out, was a memorable one.
"You can’t win in this league without a quarterback," Whaley said last year. "We had to find a quarterback. We think this guy will be our quarterback for the future for a long time. In three years, maybe he’s not. Then I’ll be sitting there, saying 'Hey, guys? Anybody got a job for me?'"
That same job insecurity extends beyond Whaley to Marrone and his coaching staff, as well. With some semblance of a foundation in the offense in place as Manuel enters his second season, Marrone and the Bills are now doubling down in the efforts to develop their quarterback. Things may not work out in the long run, but it's hard to fault them for doing whatever they can to expedite the development process.