PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Twice on Monday at Bills camp, E.J. Manuel dropped back and launched deep, soft throws high in the air. Twice they nestled easily into receivers’ hands, including a 53-yard strike to fellow rookie Da’Rick Rogers.
Beautiful throws. Just the right touch, and Manuel threw both balls only when his man had a step on the cornerback. That’s the essence of a good lofted deep ball: You throw it deep enough where only your guy can get it, and high enough so the receiver can adjust his speed to the flight path of the ball.
It’s impossible when you watch one practice, or two, max—the way I do on these trips to training camps—to make any definitive conclusions on players. And I’d never seen Manuel up close and personal until I watched him for two hours on the field at St. John Fisher College Monday. So I’m not qualified to say he’s leading Kevin Kolb in the battle to be opening-day starter (though common sense says if it’s close, with both in their first months with this offense, Manuel will be the choice) for Buffalo. But Manuel looked comfortable, confident, strong-armed and accurate Monday. The Bills invested a first-round pick in him, and it would be surprising if Kolb can hold him off for very long—if he holds him off at all.
Two hours after practice, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett comes bounding out of the locker room, wearing a Bills helmet with no facemask. “I needed a hat, and this was all I could find!’’ he said, laughing.
You get the feeling around the Bills that whatever they do on offense—and no one knows yet, because they’ve been doing a bit of everything at practice—it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be fast. Coach Doug Marrone brought a hybrid system, and Hackett, with him from Syracuse. Before the 2012 season, Marrone and Hackett studied fast-twitch offenses (Oregon, Missouri, Toledo) and another very interesting one: the Jim Kelly Bills of a generation ago. “We wanted more explosive plays, and we looked wherever we could to find them,’’ Marrone told me. “We would have watched the Bengals, with Boomer Esiason at quarterback, because they did a lot of innovative things, but we couldn’t find that film. What we did was keep the playbook but changed the tempo to go faster.’’
“In our offense,’’ said Hackett, “it was exciting, and a lot of guys wanted to touch the ball. How do you do that? You have to increase the number of plays, and that’s what we did.”
“We wanted teams to have to defend everyone,’’ said Marrone. “You hear defenses all the time talking about getting an edge and having an extra man for the offense to worry about. If you have to defend everyone, that eliminates the extra man [on defense].’’ What this means: If all five offensive skill players are threats to touch the ball on any play, and Hackett calls each man’s number consistently, defenses won’t be able to, say, have an extra man consistently concentrating on C.J. Spiller.
Those are your clues for this team. Look for a lot of shotgun, but this shotgun will look like a pistol. “I have to correct you on something,’’ Manuel said when I told him I noticed him using the pPistol. “Coach doesn’t run the pistol. It’s a shotgun.” As Hackett explained, the back in this formation will never be behind the quarterback, but rather offset as a sidecar to the quarterback.
Talking to both men, it’s clear they’re going to subscribe to the Bill Belichick gameplan philosophy. Every gameplan’s a snowflake; no two exactly alike. Greg Roman has done the same thing with the San Francisco offense, throwing weekly changeups at defenses. One week the Bills are likely to be Spiller- and Fred Jackson-heavy, another week pass-happy. “We want to attack, and that’ll be how we operate,’’ said Hackett.
“One thing I liked about coach [Marrone] when we first interviewed him,’’ said new GM Doug Whaley. “I asked for his offensive philosophy, and he said, ‘I believe you throw to score and run to win.’ ‘’
When the Bills went to Florida State to scout Manuel, Whaley and president Russ Brandon went for a jog before they were scheduled to meet with the young quarterback. Brandon’s a big baseball fan, and when they passed by the baseball stadium, they saw FSU playing Georgia Tech, and they stopped to watch a couple of innings. “We meet a security guard,’’ said Brandon, “and he asked what we’re doing there, and he asked if we were there to see E.J. I said we were. He said, ‘I’ve been here 37 years, and he’s the best kid we’ve ever had.”
Manuel’s been good in all regards so far a week into camp. That’s too early to draw any conclusions on anything, except this: You get a good feel that the future of the offense, and the quarterback, is in good hands here.
The MMQB crew has hit the road for training camps. Check out all our coverage.