A look inside the benching of EJ Manuel

BY Ross Jones • September 29, 2014

The Bills benched their franchise quarterback on Monday.

From the outside, the switch came as a surprise. It smelled of a decision made in desperation. Of course, what else were we to believe? The Bills' front office and coaching staff has said on several occasions that the team was building around 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel.

But from the inside -- and around the league -- it's believed that the switch had been anticipated well before the season even began.

A week after the Bills' horrifying fourth preseason game against the Bucs -- where the Orchard Park faithful booed the offense off the field -- the team lured quarterback Kyle Orton out of retirement and signed him to a lucrative two-year, $10 million deal. With the going rate of backup quarterback salaries hovering around nearly half that amount, it certainly raised some eyebrows. The signing was particularly peculiar because the team had signed veteran quarterback Jordan Palmer days before, upgrading their backup quarterback position over Thad Lewis.

Palmer, who spent this past offseason tutoring quarterback Blake Bortles leading up to the NFL Draft, would have been a more natural fit for Manuel's development as he's a player-coach on the field.

Instead, the Bills' front office decided against the wishes of head coach Doug Marrone, according to NFL on FOX insider Jay Glazer, and signed Orton, while also cutting ties with Palmer. The signing immediately tightened the leash on Manuel.

Orton, an experienced veteran, who has played in 75 games over a 10-year span, has since proven during practice to provide the Bills with the best chance to win, Marrone said Monday.

"He's a good quarterback and doesn't get the respect he deserves," one NFL scout told FOXSports.com. "He got a bad rap because of the whole Tebow thing. I think people don't like the way he looks -- maybe it's the neck beard or chubby cheeks -- so they don't think he can play. But he throws the ball accurately and is smart."

Some talent evaluators believe that Manuel never had first-round talent to begin with and the Bills may have jumped the gun, selecting him as the first quarterback taken in the draft.

When Manuel was selected, general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone were in their first season with the team. With a mediocre crop of incoming quarterbacks -- headlined by Manuel, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley -- they drafted Manuel to develop behind Kevin Kolb, who was acquired that offseason. Kolb, though, was placed on the injured reserve before the regular season ever began after sustaining a concussion. While Manuel was rehabbing a minor knee procedure during the preseason, undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel was penciled in to begin the season under center.  Manuel, though, would return in time. In 10 games last year, Manuel showed flashes of brilliance, but was far too inconsistent, throwing 11 touchdowns and turning the ball over 12 times.

With the team changing hands under new ownership, the time to win is now. New ownership typically isn't patient and willing to see how things will play out. The team needs to prove that it has a winning product on the field.

And winning they were. The Bills raced out to a 2-0 record -- though Manuel's play was not particularly sharp -- before stumbling in each of their last two games to fall back to 2-2. On Sunday, Manuel completed 47 percent of his passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-17 loss to the Texans. But he also threw two interceptions, including one late in the fourth quarter with Buffalo driving for a potential go-ahead score.

"We're all-in to win and I think that's what it comes down to at the end of the day," Marrone said Monday, via the team's transcript. "We've got to do the best thing for us to win."

Sitting at 2-2 and tied for first place in the AFC East, the Bills are better off to make a decision like this too early rather than too late.

And for a roster that's overflowing with talent, Marrone and other team decision-makers are likely betting their future on it.

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