When Todd Downing, among a fleet of other coaches, was fired in Detroit last January, the 33-year-old quarterback guru took a trip to Mobile, Ala. where NFL talent evaluators congregate annually to scout the incoming crop of talent at the Senior Bowl.
Downing, who spent the previous Senior Bowl coaching quarterbacks, was dealing with the harsh reality of the NFL and looking for employment. After coaching Matthew Stafford in Detroit for the past four seasons, he had experience and proof in knowing how to develop players at the position.
It was in Mobile where he would find his future. Just like in any industry, it’s who you know. Downing had reached out to newly-minted Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman, who previously held the same position in Detroit. Crossman introduced Downing to Bills head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
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“[Coach Hackett] and I sat up in the stands for about an hour-and-a-half just talking ball,” Downing told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “As practice ended, he asked me when I’ll be available for a formal interview. I said, ‘Give me time to change into a suit and I’ll meet you wherever you want.’”
That night, Downing and the high-ranking members of the Bills coaching staff met for nearly four hours, discussing different philosophies. It didn’t hurt that Downing mentioned he had worked with franchise quarterback EJ Manuel.
Downing had developed a relationship with Manuel during the draft process in 2013, which began at the Senior Bowl. The two kept in touch during the process, occasionally swapping text messages and Downing offering words of encouragement.
“You get to know somebody for a little bit and then you start rooting for the kid,” Downing said. “I know he had went through some tough stuff with his family and mother’s medical issues. I just wanted him to know that while he went through a crazy process, there was someone that was rooting for him and I would answer any questions he had.”
Days after meeting with Marrone and Hackett, Downing was named the Bills quarterbacks coach. New task: Maximize Manuel’s potential and create depth at the most important position on the field.
The first few months on the job have been spent playing catch-up and understanding what is expected of the quarterback position in Buffalo. Now, that he has familiarized himself with Hackett’s offense by watching every snap of last season “as many times as possible,” Downing has noticed some parallels between his current and previous jobs.
“Matthew started as a rookie. EJ started as a rookie. They both dealt with injury issues. They both came back the second season knowing that there was more required of them,” Downing said. “Certainly, it being my second time around the block in that regard, I know some of the hurdles that need to be crossed and which areas I don’t need to waste energy.”
Comparing rookie seasons
Matthew Stafford (2009)
EJ Manuel (2013)
Manuel, who has been making the most of his time away from the facility, has an appetite for knowledge of the system he’s running, according to Downing. During the days they spent together at the Senior Bowl, Downing vividly remembers Manuel asking for a copy of the coach’s handwritten notes in the film room to gain another perspective of Scott Linehan’s offense. Parallels have been drawn between Manuel and Stafford, including their competitive natures and toughness.
“The great thing about them is when the light goes on, they accelerate at such a fast rate,” Downing said. “Being around the block with that situation once before lets me know what I need to focus on with EJ and certainly going through the highs and the lows in Detroit allows me to be more even keel as a coach.”
Being a young coach in the NFL is filled with uncertainty. It’s a high-stakes job and every season is a make-or-break year. For Downing, his success in the coaching ranks in 2014 will largely depend on how well Manuel ascends in his sophomore season. The young duo will go only as far as the other pushes them. It all begins with mastering the offense to gain some comfort in the pocket on Sundays.
“I’m a big believer that knowledge is power and confidence,” Downing said. “EJ is going to have to learn this system inside and out. He needs to know it better than I know it. Then when he gets out on the field he can operate as a confident player and that will trickle down to the rest of the team.”
Naturally, Manuel will benefit from an offseason of rehabbing a knee injury, which lingered during his rookie season. His professional approach and help from his position coach will help him get to where he’s going quicker. Downing is acutely aware of the result-driven business and will do everything he can to make sure next offseason isn’t filled with uncertainties.
“You go from the playoffs in 2011 to fired after two seasons of [coaching someone who has] 5,000 yards passing,” Downing said. “It can kind of give you a shock to the system. I’m just appreciative of the opportunity to work with a guy like EJ.”