About an hour before Buffalo Bills Head Coach Doug Marrone was scheduled to appear at his usual Monday afternoon press conference, the Bills world was already abuzz over rumors that EJ Manuel would be benched in favor of Kyle Orton just four games into the 2014 season. Marrone confirmed these rumors during his presser and the Bills will have a new quarterback leading them into a very tough game in Detroit. The reasons for the switch have already been analyzed quite a bit. Bills Mafia writer Anthony Bialy did a nice job of that earlier this week.
Now that the move to Kyle Orton has been made and we’ve had a few days to digest the merit of it all related to the play of Manuel, it’s time to move on and examine how making the switch to a 10-year veteran like Orton will affect the rest of the team. These are two very different quarterbacks in terms of both playing style and experience. Orton has played in 75 regular season games throughout his career, so there is a pretty lengthy sample size to draw some conclusions from.
The following are some things that may look different with the Buffalo Bills under the direction of Kyle Orton…
Let me start with a disclaimer: This section isn’t included to suggest that Manuel is a poor leader. Not in the least. This is much more a reflection on Kyle Orton and the experience he brings to the team than it is an indictment on a very young quarterback like Manuel. The fact of the matter is that the Bills are going from a guy with 14 career starts to someone who has started meaningful games for four different teams over ten seasons in the NFL. Throughout those 75 starts, you tend to see and learn a lot. I believe that this leadership will rub off on a young group of wide receivers and some green offensive linemen that are going to be working with him. This is important. Looking at quotes from some of the offensive guys after the first practice with Orton as starter, particularly Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, you can already tell that they respect him as a veteran leader. Does it mean they didn’t respect Manuel? Not at all, but Orton has a wealth of experience in this league and that commands respect.
A quarterback also needs to be the leader of the offense at the line of scrimmage. Orton should have a firm grasp of Nate Hackett’s offense now that he has been in the fold for a month. This will enable him to have some freedom at the line of scrimmage to use his experience with reading NFL defenses to his advantage; getting the offense into the correct looks more often than not. This has been an issue at times this year with Manuel. He has failed to recognize where pressure is coming from pre-snap and kept the Bills in looks that play into the hands of defenses. It happened twice last week in Houston – one play resulted in a busted draw which should’ve been checked out of and the other a mis-read to the other side of the field that ended up with J.J. Watt dancing in the opposite end zone. I think it’s safe to assume that Orton has been around long enough to recognize what a defense is trying to do on a more consistent basis. This will ensure the offensive line has the correct blocking assignments and that the correct reads are made if/when pressure is diagnosed pre-snap.
The most obvious difference I believe we will see between Manuel and Kyle Orton is the ability to lead a team on multiple levels. I think you will see it in the way teammates react to him and you will see it in the mental part of the game between the lines. Manuel should be able to learn a lot from Orton in both regards.
Vertical Passing Game
One aspect of Manuel’s game that has been often criticized over the past couple of seasons is his apparent reluctance to make much of an attempt to establish a vertical passing game within the offense. The numbers reflect this. In 14 games between 2013-14, Manuel has averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt. That’s very near the bottom of the league. To put that number in perspective, the top-3 QBs so far this season are Andy Dalton at 8.6, Phillip Rivers at 8.4 and Matt Ryan at 8.3. Middle of the pack is about 7.4. Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning are a couple of the names in that range. Those guys any good? Thought so.
Throughout his past five seasons and 42 starts, Kyle Orton has averaged an impressive 7.6 yards per attempt. This number would be good enough to put him at 14th overall in the NFL this season. This reflects a quarterback who is willing to stretch the field vertically; something that has clearly been missing from this offense the past couple of seasons. The Bills certainly have deep threats at their disposal to utilize in the vertical passing game. Watkins, Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Mike Williams have all proven to be capable of taking the top off of a defense; particularly Watkins and Goodwin. They now have a quarterback who is more willing to take those kinds of chances than Manuel seems to be at this stage of his career. I also think the Bills coaching staff will be more willing to let Orton do so.
The vertical passing game could never be confused for a strength of the Bills offense the past two seasons under Manuel. Kyle Orton has proven to be a threat to throw the ball down field with success, particularly as his career has gone on. This will add another important element to an offense that seems to be dying for just that ingredient.
The Run Game, Defense and 3rd Down
I’m putting three different subjects into one section here. Why, you ask? Because the first two are directly related to the third one in many ways. The Bills are currently converting 35.1%(!!!!) of 3rd down plays on offense this year. I had to make sure that number stood out to you, because it’s pathetic. This is similar to last season’s percentage. Last year was actually 34%, but that baby step isn’t going to get you anywhere. More perspective with numbers: Their opponent Sunday, Detroit, is at 52.4% and the Saints lead the NFL at 57.1%. That is 22% higher than the Bills. The only two teams that are worse so far are the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans; two teams that many consider the worst in football at the moment along with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
So what does this atrocious third down conversion rate mean? It means the Bills offensive drives are stalling, making it more difficult to establish the running game. It also means the defense is on the field more often and quicker than you would like it to be. This can change with Kyle Orton. If he provides more consistent quarterback play, especially with short to intermediate accuracy on the 3rd and 5-type plays, this number could rise rather rapidly. It needs to be around the 40% mark. It should be around the 40% mark. The Bills have too many playmakers on offense for it not to be. Orton should do a better job getting them into the correct protections and sets; then delivering an accurate throw on time to allow these skill players to maximize their considerable YAC abilities.
Improving the 3rd down conversion rate will result in more time on the field for the offense, which will allow them to do what they love to do: run the football. It will also give the defense a longer rest between series and less time on the field in general. All defenses are more effective when that is the case. I believe the switch to Orton will have a significantly positive impact on the 3rd down conversion numbers and will allow the Bills to run the ball with greater volume and depend less on a defense that has been nothing short of great so far in 2014.
I am firmly in the camp that believes Doug Marrone and the Bills made the correct decision in benching Manuel for Orton. There is too much talent on this team to waste much time. I think you’ll see some differences with Orton under center almost immediately; including the ones I mentioned in this article. What are some of the things you expect to be different with Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback? Are they mostly positive or do you have some concerns as well? Let us know, and as always, go Bills!