I am not certain of much when it comes to deciphering the motivations of NFL decision-makers, but I am certain of this: Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone has made much tougher decisions than the one he made Monday, benching second-year quarterback EJ Manuel in favor of veteran Kyle Orton.
Yes, it's a monumental decision in the grand scheme of things (and for this Bills regime in particular), and one worthy of criticism from nearly every conceivable angle. But critics of the move are merely continuing a dialogue 17 months in the making - one that started the day Marrone and GM Doug Whaley hand-picked Manuel as their franchise quarterback and made him the top signal-caller picked in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Quickly, so as not to derail the point, let's get one thing straight: Manuel was not a Buddy Nix pick. Even Whaley has admitted as much; there shall be no buck-passing where that particular topic is concerned. If you're criticizing a Bills GM for the Manuel pick, it had better be Whaley, and not his predecessor.
Criticism cuts both ways.
The Manuel experiment - and, despite his status as a first-round pick of historical franchise importance, it was an experiment from the word 'go' - is now on hiatus, perhaps permanently. Whaley and Marrone deserve criticism for the easy-to-spot failure of their hand-picked quarterback. They, as the masterminds of this Bills regime, were always going to be judged by whether or not Manuel panned out. Manuel has not panned out. 14 games is a comparatively small sample size compared to the runs of other high-talent, first-round projects, but it was certainly enough to spot, plain as day, that he simply was not progressing in his development.
Were they wrong on Manuel? That's looking very likely, and that sucks. But hey - they took their cut. They swung for the fences. Taking a shot and missing is a far more forgivable offense than staking reputations to mediocre veterans or mid-round picks, which far too many previous Bills regimes have been too willing to do from the moment they took over.
It took the Bills a full calendar year, between the end of Manuel's rookie training camp and his sophomore training camp, to put a veteran in place behind (or beside) him. After the Kevin Kolb experiment failed in completely foreseeable fashion, the Bills mired themselves in youth at the game's most important position, waiting for Manuel to develop amidst a slew of injuries and largely inefficient play, with absolutely no alternative in the event of failure. They deserve the criticism that has already been leveled at them (and will continue to be) for spending a full year without finding better options than Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel, and for only finally locking up a player like Orton one month ago.
Did they do enough to surround Manuel with veteran influences in the quarterback room? This looks like a classic case of too little, too late. The hirings of quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and senior offensive assistant Jim Hostler, the signing of an honest-to-goodness, NFL-caliber quarterback in Orton - they all happened too late into Manuel's development cycle. These were roles that should have been filled from the moment that the Manuel project began, which is to say from the moment that Whaley and Marrone decided to start their run with a first-round rookie quarterback.
Buffalo spent the spring months of 2014 doing everything conceivable and within their power - aside from getting that veteran quarterback in place early, which we'll get back to in a moment - to support Manuel. Chief among those, of course, was the other hallmark moment (so far) of the Whaley and Marrone tenure: the trade up for Sammy Watkins, sacrificing a 2015 first-round pick to accomplish it. The coaching hires, the attempts at fortifying the offensive line, the bolstering of the running back depth - these, too, were moves to put as solid a foundation around Manuel as possible.
Pulling the plug on Manuel after just four games within that foundation? Yes, it feels fast, despite the mounting evidence on the field that the foundation wasn't aiding the development. It's not unfair to criticize such a quick hook, but then, Whaley and Marrone have known for more than six months now that time is not on their side. The unfortunate passing of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., and the accelerated timeline that an ownership transition brings, is a circumstance that Whaley and Marrone could not control. They have been acting within a "win in 2014 at all costs" context ever since, and this is only the latest proof of it.
The Bills are Orton's fifth team in 10 NFL seasons. There are good reasons that Orton has been a pro quarterback for a decade, and there are good reasons that he has spent time with five teams. This player has never had the look of a franchise savior, and he certainly doesn't now. But then, Orton wasn't brought in to be the franchise savior; Manuel was.
Are the Bills trying to save face, and their jobs, by switching to Orton? Of course they are - but that's not an entirely bad thing. It's only viewed negatively because it's a conclusion that many fans can claim they saw coming. Regimes try to "save face" by trying to win - and trying to win is never a bad thing.
Criticize this Bills regime for the way they've handled the quarterback position since taking over in January 2013. They have earned every bit of it. Swallowing 17-plus months of conviction in a player? That's the hard part, and it's hard for everyone involved. But this decision today? It was an easy one to make. It was a simple admission that Orton, not Manuel, is the best quarterback on the roster right now.