Ever heard of the three-act play? A concept used in screenwriting, a story is divided into three separate parts or "acts," played one after the other for the audience. Act one is the act of exposition. We discover our characters and their histories, their motivations. As the protagonist (the main character of the story) goes through his journey, he faces several challenges, eventually coming across a character-defining challenge. This is his call to action, the question that must be answered before the story has ended. With that question known, the first act ends.
In act two, adversity builds for the protagonist. He attempts to solve the problem he was challenged with in act one, but things just aren't working out. Often it's because he simply doesn't have the ability to defeat his antagonist (the villain or opposing force in the story). By the end of act two, the protagonist has reached his lowest point. He's far away from reaching the answer he seeks, and it seems like all hope is lost.
That's what leads the audience into act three. It resolves the story and the other side plots. The protagonist returns for one more go at answering his challenge, and as the story reaches its climax, the question posed in act one gets answered. The story often ends with a denouement, an "untying" of the knots that were assembled by all of the characters woven into the plot.
This is the drama of EJ Manuel and the Buffalo Bills. Is it a tragedy? Will it be an epic? The truth is, we're only in act two, and the resolution is still anyone's guess.
When Buffalo finished a third underwhelming season under Chan Gailey, it was clear change was in the air. Ralph Wilson was feeling older and didn't think he could keep up with the daily happenings of the franchise. He named Russ Brandon president and CEO of the corporation. That same day, Erik Rodriguez Manuel led the Florida State Seminoles to a 31-10 drubbing of the NIU Huskies to finish a 12-2 senior season. It was a strong but unspectacular game for him, going 26 of 38 for 291 yards and a touchdown in the air along with 6 rushing attempts for 28 yards and a touchdown. This was the capstone, and he was ready to move on to his life's goal - the NFL.
Brandon moved quickly, announcing the hiring of Doug Marrone as the new head coach 5 days after becoming team president. From the start it was clear Marrone had an identity he wanted on the field - fast, athletic, and flexible, across the board. It wasn't clear how exactly the offense and defense would run, but Buddy Nix had built a core of athletes over the years, and Marrone had the vision to convert it into usable pieces.
Manuel's pre-draft season was a tough one for draftniks. He would ultimately enter the NFL in what was considered a down year for quarterbacks. There were many questioning whether anyone could be a viable first round choice in the NFL, and Manuel was hardly ever included in that discussion. The reasons were many, according to the draftniks, scouts and "anonymous officials." Despite his prototypical size, rare athleticism, and impressive arm talent, Manuel never emerged as a game-changing force the way Cam Newton had two seasons prior. The word was that Manuel had difficulty reading the full field - he struggled to anticipate a receiver coming open, his movements were robotic and he didn't like to run the ball by himself. Here was a guy with huge size, great escapability in the pocket, and the ability to keep his eyes downfield and extend a play like Ben Roethlisberger - but there were a lot of weaknesses too. Some scouts said "project." Some said "backup." A few, up in Buffalo, said "franchise."
The EJ Manuel pick was met with uncertainty. Here at Buffalo Rumblings, only 52 percent of readers approved of the pick, with 26 percent outright disapproving. Yours truly was one of those 26 percent, and you can see my name right at the top of the comments section. The buzz following the pick generally followed the same storyline: Manuel is the highest drafted QB for Buffalo since Jim Kelly. He's not the guy people expected, but he's incredibly athletic, and if everything comes together you're looking at a top tier player. Of course, there were those who weren't sure if he would ever get there. This piece from our sister site, Tomahawk Nation, reads awfully prophetic.
Nonetheless, the stage was set and Act One was in full stride: the drama, Manuel's quest to prove his worth as a franchise quarterback, was beginning. You know what came next. The wet mat, the preseason injury, the encouraging start to the season, a disappointing rest of the season that mixed good performances, awful performances, and missed games from injury. As the 2013 season came to a close, so too did the first act - we knew the question (Is our hero a franchise quarterback? Can he lead us to the playoffs?), we knew the characters, and now we had to see how Manuel would mature in his second season.
The second act, like the first act, begins immediately following the season. The team isn't sure if Manuel is their guy, but they know that it's important to give him everything he needs to play at a high level. The side characters in the front office stay busy scouting out new upgrades. Free agency brings a new starting lineman to replace the disaster at left guard, and several improvements on defense. Shrewd trades pick up a talented receiver and a running back to groom for the future. Of course, the star of act two is the new face, the centerpiece of the 2014 draft: Sammy Watkins.
While they both played in the same conference for a few years, and both are incredible athletes, Watkins is the type of player Manuel was not in college. Watkins came in as a true freshman and immediately wowed the country with incredible feats. It seemed every week he was making impressive plays that no one else could accomplish. He showed an amazing combination of athleticism and polish, and just seemed to "get it" on the field. If there was ever a player who could make a quarterback look good, it had to be this man.
Buffalo's scouts agreed, and with a trade up that used Buffalo's 2015 first round pick, the situation was clear - they were doubling down on Manuel as the franchise quarterback, and it was time for him to hold up his end of the bargain and lead them to the playoffs.
Of course, the stakes were raised even more. The passing of the franchise's patriarch meant that there would be new owners coming onboard. Suddenly, every job faced a little more scrutiny. The offense struggled all throughout the preseason, and it resulted in the backup quarterbacks completely being replaced. The pressure continued to mount up until the beginning of the season. Manuel started the season as well as everyone could have hoped, with two solid performances in two good wins. Two ugly games later, in which the offense was across-the-board bad, and even Watkins was struggling to connect with his QB, and Manuel finds himself on the bench for the first time in a long while.
Is this the low point in Manuel's career? Maybe. It could be worse. If you think of this as a football movie, even a benching for the main character is rarely the worst to happen to him. There's still room for Manuel to return to the action, and there's still room for him to fall even further. We'll see how resilient he is when he gets another shot (and, barring a complete housecleaning by the new owners, he will likely see another one). Remember that the word on Manuel back when he was drafted was "project." Maybe this was the key all along. Maybe Manuel needed some extra time off the field. To watch film, to practice his fundamentals, to work one-on-one with a QB coach without being overwhelmed with the game plan, until he could improve his accuracy and speed up his progressions. Maybe he comes back onto the field in a month with the playoffs at stake, and shows everyone that he won't let anything stand in the way of him leading this team to the Super Bowl. Or maybe this is only the beginning of the end, and we'll watch him drift away, traded for a 5th round pick in a year to a team that will let him languish on the bench for 4 seasons as a cheap but useful backup, until he finally decides to hang up the cleats. The story is still being written.