It goes without saying at this point that a lot of attention is being paid to the Buffalo Bills' quarterback position. While none of the quarterbacks on the roster have really taken the reins so far, there have been some positive signs from each of the contenders for the top spot, including presumptive castoff EJ Manuel.
There have been several factors working against Manuel up to this point in his career. First, he hasn't had very strong offensive line play in front of him, leading to hurried throws and forced errors. Second, he spent the first two years of his career working with an inexperienced coaching staff that seemed to be frequently overwhelmed with the speed and strategy of the NFL game. Finally, he's playing in an era where rookie quarterbacks are much stronger performers than they have been in years past, and a lot more is expected much sooner than it would have been even just a few years ago.
That's not to say Manuel has been a victim of circumstance; even when the table has been set for him, he's struggled with his accuracy and downfield reads. More often than not, he seems like he doesn't belong on top of an NFL depth chart at the most important position in the game.
Of course, he's not alone in that regard. Many quarterbacks have struggled out of the gate, before the Luck/Wilson/Newton era of quarterbacks who start off at the top of their games. Some of those guys end up working things out and becoming bona-fide starters, if not more. Others continue to putt around, sticking around as backups for a decade or so before washing out. The rest just fade into mediocrity, remembered only for their failures and the distress they caused their teams.
Manuel could conceivably fall into any of those groups. Let's fit him into those groups, historically, and talk about where he might go from here.
There are plenty of qualifiers when comparing Manuel to each of these quarterbacks. Bradshaw and Fouts played in a different era, where quarterbacks in general weren't nearly as good as they are today. Smith was the victim of constant shuffling on the coaching staff, playing for five different coordinators in his first five seasons.
There are also plenty of positive considerations to look at, as well. Bradshaw's career took off when the talent around him was put in place, and he had as much to do with the Steelers dynasty of the '70s as anybody on that team. Fouts was an average quarterback to start his career, but when the right coaching staff was put into place, he became the most prolific quarterback of his era and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Smith needed more time to adjust to the NFL than most (especially for a No. 1 overall pick), but when he did, he learned to use his legs and his limited arm strength to efficiently supplement a run-first offense devised by Greg Roman. Perhaps the best hope for Manuel in 2015 would be to follow Smith's career arc.
These guys weren't bad; it's just that they weren't very good.
Haden was actually a pretty strong player coming into the NFL. Exceeding expectations as a seventh-round pick, his passer rating in his first two seasons is the fifth-highest among quarterbacks who started at least 16 games and weren't picked in the first round. Several factors, however, lead to his career ending after only six seasons. First, he was constantly battling for his job (in his six seasons, six other quarterbacks started for the Rams). Second, he lost a good portion of his career to injuries. Finally, he didn't have the desire to keep playing through those injuries, as he left the game to head to the broadcast booth after his final injury in 1981.
Majkowski, a Buffalo native, had numbers that would seem mediocre today, but were pretty good for a rookie quarterback in the late '80s. His 1989 season ranks among the best in Packers history, throwing for an NFL-high 4,318 yards and making the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, that would be the last time he started more than eight games in a season. Injuries and ineffectiveness cost him most of the next two seasons, and in 1992 another injury opened the door for Brett Favre, leaving the Majik Man to head off to Indianapolis and Detrot to finish off his career.
As for Orton, most of you are at least familiar with his career, and are intimately familiar with how his final season unfolded with the Bills a year ago.
These guys, for one reason or another, just flamed out spectacularly. While Manuel doesn't look to be headed down this path at present, the players themselves didn't necessarily seem that bad after two seasons, either. We can just hope that Manuel's name isn't mentioned in the same breath as these guys years from now.
Klingler, the former University of Houston standout, is still the poster child for avoiding quarterbacks who play in no-huddle spread offenses in school. He had the physical tools, but was overmatched by NFL defenses when he had to make reads and play under center. He started seven more games in 1994 (all losses), but lost time to a shoulder injury and only threw 46 more passes in the NFL.
Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner, had injury problems of his own. He ended up on injured reserve twice due to a fractured collarbone, which halted any momentum he could have hoped to build. He also had to compete with a resurgent Kurt Warner early on, although even on his own merits he wasn't very good. You may also remember his brief stint with the Bills; it looked like this. He hasn't been seen in the NFL since.
Finally, there's Russell. After two seasons, you wouldn't have thought he'd be contending with Ryan Leaf for the title of "Biggest draft bust of all-time," but here we are. His numbers look distressingly similar to Manuel's, and they share a glaring inability to hit a receiver in stride. Fortunately, Manuel doesn't have the same psychological shortcomings as Russell, nor does he have the burden of being a No. 1 overall pick.
In the Super Bowl era, 66 quarterbacks aside from Manuel have started at least 14 games over their first two seasons, throwing for fewer than 4,000 yards and completing less than 60 percent of their passes along the way. There are a few Super Bowl winners on the list I didn't mention (Jim McMahon, Steve Young), as well as a few more high-profile flameouts (Tim Tebow, Blaine Gabbert). The point here is: even though Manuel hasn't started off very strong, there's still a lot of time for his career to make a sharp turn, in any direction.