The list of injuries at the skill positions on offense leading into the preseason game against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night was staggering. All of the running backs on the roster two weeks ago were unavailable for the game, as well as several of the Bills top wide receivers.
After losing defensive depth with Ty Powell and Jarius Wynn out for the season with ACL injuries requiring surgery, the offense was suddenly hit with its own share of the injury bug. If you’re inclined to look for opportunity in adversity, this certainly presented the coaches with a situation where they could evaluate their quarterbacks without the advantage of the elite skilled players that can mask a bad throw or call.
How would each QB fare in such a situation? Apparently the coaches believe they already know what they’ve got with Matt Cassel. Therefore, the Bills wisely elected to focus specifically on Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel and sit Cassel for the meaningless game against the Browns. Good decision from my point of view.
There were two issues that stood out to me as we watched the Bills edge out the Browns in a predictably weird score, 11-10. First, when veterans talk about how Rex Ryan “takes care of them at camp”, they aren’t kidding. Even during the Club Jauron or Levy days of training camp you didn’t see veterans held out of practice or preseason games the way Rex does now.
The obvious plus side of this is that Rex recognizes the importance of keeping players rested. This isn’t the 1960s when players showed up at training camp completely out of shape, having done little or no physical activity during the off season. Athletes today are in peak condition year round, so that part of the equation is already in place.
Furthermore, if you listen to the veterans talk about going through training camp with Rex Ryan, they almost all talk about how much they appreciate how Rex takes care of them. That goes a long way in creating an environment where players feel appreciated and supported.
Who could forget all of Bruce Smith’s antics to get out training camp practices? It’s a time honored tradition, and when you’re elite, you earn the privilege of determining what is the proper level of training intensity. Rex knows how important it is to massage the egos of his stud players.
It also makes good sense. The risks of over training are significant, and the football season is long. So just how bad is LeSean McCoy’s hamstring anyway? Frankly, I don’t care if he felt a tiny, itty bitty twinge and was put on the shelf for the remainder of the preseason. There may be a couple of reasons why Rex would choose to shelve a lot of his best players.
First and foremost, look no further than the nightmare of ACL tears have happened already during this preseason. I have no idea if the incidence is any higher than normal, but it sure seems to be striking a disturbing pattern this year throughout the league. Rex has stated he is superstitious, so I’m not surprised that he is giving skilled players a lot time off.
Also, it makes sense that the offensive line and defense as a whole needs time to form a cohesive unit, so the more playing time for them the better. However, that isn’t necessarily the case with wide receivers and running backs. Should we be surprised that Rex is holding back putting too many reps on those players? Heck no, I think it’s prudent to do so.
There’s also another reason Rex may be encouraging players to rest their aches and pains in a manner he would not do during the regular season. He gave a hint of his thinking in this regard when he mentioned to the media this week that he’s decided not to announce who the starting QB will be for the first regular season game until he is forced to do so the week of the regular season opener against Indianapolis.
Rex chuckled about that idea, and further elaborated that it made sense to force opponents to have to game plan differently for all three QBs. Take that a step further with preseason games. It would also make sense for Rex to shelve as many skilled players as he can from the preseason so that opposing teams will have no idea how these players will work together.
Regardless of whether or not there is/was strategy involved with the shelving of players during the preseason, it’s undeniable that Rex loves the element of surprise. That is evidenced by the type of defense he self-describes as “organized chaos”.
While this is fine for the development of certain players, it definitely presents some challenges when it comes to identifying the best starting QB for the Bills this season. Aside from trying to equalize reps in practice with the first string, there is also the issue of trying to balance getting enough reps for each QB to be able to function at their best.
Furthermore, if you shelve skill players, the down side is that it becomes less certain how each running back or wide receiver will respond when things get real in the regular season. It shouldn’t take much time for them to adapt, but they do need some time to get their rhythm down.
Also, when you have two of three QBs that haven’t played an entire regular season between the two of them, and with seven years of NFL experience, it becomes more of a challenge to evaluate their potential during preseason games when their running backs and wide receivers are mostly on the roster bubble.
This has been particularly true for EJ Manuel, who spent a majority of his time during training camp with the second and third string. However, he did make the most of that experience having developed some really good chemistry with Deonte Thompson and Andre Davis. That may have proved helpful to him during the last drive of the game against the Browns.
Manuel has interestingly developed into quite a lightning rod for Bills fans. Line up a group of Bills fans and you are apt to get passionate responses on both sides of the question when asked what they think of his chances to develop into a starting NFL quarterback at this point in his career. People either seem to love him or hate him and not a lot in between.
I’ve never quite understood why football fans choose to have such a love/hate relationship with some players. Isn’t it a good thing if EJ turns develops into a good starting quarterback? It’s understandable why fans would revolt against a player like Donte Whitner who trolls Bills fans on Twitter to get his jollies.
However, Manuel is a decent young man that gets far too much criticism because he hasn’t performed as hoped to date. Why should we expect the Bills scouting staff to be any more adept (or lucky) than their peers at being able to assess QB talent?
The roadside is littered with QBs that have washed out before they were given time to develop into elite QBs like Aaron Rodgers. How many QBs have the Browns, Raiders, Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota, Tennessee and others gone through trying to find their next franchise guy? The Bills are far from alone in that regard.
The bottom line is that professional football cannot count on the college game to send them quarterbacks ready to play in the NFL. It’s worse in that respect than it was 20 years ago with spread offenses and read option quarterbacks.
That’s just one of the reasons it may prove wise to keep all three QBs (and even put Sims on the practice squad) instead of cutting one loose at the end of the preseason. There’s little to lose by keeping EJ Manuel on the roster.
It’s been mentioned and rightfully so that when you have a QB that can run like Tyrod Taylor, the chances of getting injured make it prudent to keep the stable of QBs full. If Manuel continues to show development, it would be foolish to let him go before the season starts.
Not only would he fit in a “Tyrod type scheme” better than Cassel, there is value in having depth at the position with respect to how intricate and complicated Greg Roman’s offensive scheme is to operate.
So instead of arguing about whether or not EJ Manuel should be on the regular season roster, maybe a more prudent view would be to let him play out his contract and serve as an insurance policy at the same time. If he gets to play and shows promise, his trade value would greatly increase, assuming either Tyrod or Matt Cassel show that they can be “the guy”.
This QB situation doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. In fact, I would propose that it’s reasonable to consider that three average performers might cover the position better than one good QB with no depth at the position.