The Buffalo Bills hierarchy may be coming to the realization - albeit a bit late - that they have a problem at backup quarterback. In truth, the way EJ Manuel has played in the preseason and in practice, the Bills should be worried about their starter, too. But he's being given a longer leash with the caveat that once the team starts game-planning and utilizing the playbook, they believe Manuel and the sputtering offense will be fine.
However, backups Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis have been ineffective, and coach Doug Marrone said following the 27-14 loss to Tampa Bay Saturday, "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm satisfied with the backup quarterbacks because I'm not."
Tuel and Lewis are a combined 46 of 78 for 404 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions in the four preseason games. That's a 59.9 passer rating. By comparison, Manuel hasn't been a whole lot better - 47 of 75 for 461 yards with one touchdown and two picks, a 73.3 rating, and he's coming off a terrible first-half performance against Tampa Bay's starters.
The Bills saw plenty of Tuel and Lewis last season as Manuel missed six-plus games with knee injuries, and neither was particularly impressive, which left many who follow and observe the team somewhat shocked that no move was made in the offseason to upgrade the most important position. They were clearly committed to Manuel as the starter, but to have thought that Tuel and Lewis - a pair of undrafted players - were reliable second- and third-stringers now looks like a poor decision.
Last year, the Bills signed veteran free agent Kevin Kolb before drafting Manuel 16th overall in the first round. Manuel was going to be given every opportunity to win the job in training camp, but if he didn't, the Bills were comfortable starting the year with Kolb under center, and letting Manuel ease into it. Of course, that plan blew up when Kolb suffered a season- and apparently career-ending concussion in the third preseason game. Manuel also missed time in the preseason, so the Bills signed Lewis who had been cut by Detroit, and Lewis played in the fourth preseason game. Manuel then started the first five regular-season games before a second injury forced the Bills to turn to Lewis. He was then hurt, and Tuel had to start one game. Manuel came back, got hurt again, and Lewis finished out the season.
Lewis went 2-3 as a starter in 2013, and Tuel was 0-1. That seemed to be more than enough evidence to suggest a veteran needed to be brought in, but it never happened, nor did the Bills draft a quarterback.
Marrone did not shoot down the idea of looking elsewhere for a backup quarterback. It is believed that Lewis is in danger of being cut when teams pare their rosters this week, and if he is, the Bills will have to replace him. Fourth-stringer Dennis Dixon has no chance to make the team.
"In talking with (general manager) Doug (Whaley), our conversations are always, if we can better our football team, do whatever we have to do, we will," said Marrone. "We wouldn't be doing right to ourselves, the team, and the fans if we felt we could upgrade ourselves from the outside and not doing it just because we're too comfortable."
Like most coaches, Marrone prefers quarterbacks who are schooled in the system, and he has three of them in Manuel, Tuel, and Lewis. But it has reached the point where knowing the system simply isn't good enough. Tuel and Lewis aren't proving to be NFL-caliber, and the Bills need to act.
--Alan Branch's days as a Bill ended Sunday when the team released him following his arrest the day before on a charge of driving under the influence. Branch blew a .14 and the New York State legal limit is .08. He did not come to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Bills' game against Tampa Bay Saturday, and in a meeting with coach Doug Marrone Sunday, he was waived.
Branch's year has been weird to say the least. He was considered a free-agent find in 2013 when he signed a one-year deal, then wound up starting 13 games on the defensive line after starter Alex Carrington was lost for the season. The Bills were pleased enough to give him a three-year extension, but almost from the moment he signed it, things changed. Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose 3-4 hybrid system Branch thrived in, left to become head coach in Cleveland. Jim Schwartz was hired, and news of a switch to a 4-3 front did not sit well with Branch.
He skipped all of the team's voluntary organized team activities and showed up only for the mandatory three-day mini-camp in mid-June. He then reported to training camp at St. John Fisher College out of shape and could not pass his conditioning test for nearly a week. Since then, he had not performed well and was running with the second- or third-string. It appeared likely that he was going to be released even before the arrest.
--The Bills' first-team offense was, in a word, pathetic in the loss to Tampa Bay. In the first half, the Bills gained 82 yards, made six first downs (two via penalty), were 2 of 7 on third down, committed three turnovers, and quarterback EJ Manuel was sacked twice. The offense also was penalized five times (Erik Pears for holding, Eric Wood for illegal block above the waist, Cordy Glenn for illegal use of hands, Manuel for an illegal forward pass, and Robert Woods for an illegal block).
"I told our coaches, offensively, we need to do a better job," said Marrone. "We've got to get guys to make plays. We can't not execute well. We're not getting beat physically, what we're doing is not executing well. We all have to do a good job around (Manuel). Everyone has to play better; execution is everything."
The first-team offense played most of the third quarter against Tampa Bay's backups, and Manuel directed back-to-back touchdown drives. With Manuel at quarterback, the Bills had gone 18 preseason possessions without getting into the end zone until Manuel hit Mike Williams with a 14-yard touchdown pass, and Fred Jackson scored on an eight-yard run.
--Jackson, the oldest position player on the team at 33 (punter Brian Moorman is 38) showed leadership midway through the second quarter after the Bills fell behind 17-0. He gathered the offense on the sideline shortly after Manuel was sacked and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
"It was just telling people to calm down," said Jackson. "We weren't on the same page, we had turnovers, penalties, things like that that aren't going to allow you to win football games."
Manuel said a few words, too, but it was Jackson's show. "It was about pride," said Manuel. "At that point, it wasn't going how we wanted it to go and it was about telling the guys you've got to have a chip on your shoulder. How are we going to get ourselves out of this situation?"
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Both guard positions, the combatants including Erik Pears, Doug Legursky, Kraig Urbik, Chris Williams, and rookie Cyril Richardson. Williams was signed as a free agent in the offseason to be the left guard, a weak position for the Bills last year. But he has missed the last two games with an ankle injury. Urbik was the holdover starter at right guard, having played 98 percent of the snaps there in 2013. But he is losing playing time and reps by the day. Williams and Urbik started in the first two preseason games, Urbik and Legursky got the call in game three, and then against Tampa Bay, it was Pears and Richardson. Pears is making a shift inside from tackle to right guard, and Richardson, a fifth-round pick, has had a pretty good camp and has earned the chance. There is no clear-cut winner at either position, but it looks as if Pears may be in the driver's seat at right guard, and Richardson will get the call for as long as Williams can't play. It's not out of the question that if Williams is ready for the opener, Richardson could start at right guard, alongside another rookie, seventh-rounder Seantrel Henderson, who seems primed to start at right tackle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Marquise Goodwin has a new ailment, this time a neck injury that forced him out of the Tampa Bay game in the first half. Goodwin had been battling a hamstring. He's done very little in camp.
--WR T.J. Graham, whose roster spot may be on the line, suffered a neck injury as well and could not finish the game.
--SS Da'Norris Searcy made a first-quarter interception, then suffered a neck stinger and did not return to play. Duke Williams, his primary competition for the starting job, benefited with more work.
--TE Lee Smith hurt a toe and could not finish the game, so that gave Chris Gragg additional reps.
--DT Corbin Bryant is close to locking up a backup role. He had a sack, another quarterback hit, and a forced fumble.
--LB Keith Rivers had his most productive game of the preseason as he led the Bills with six tackles.
--LB Brandon Spikes also had six tackles and a pass breakup, but he was also beaten by Tampa Bay's Doug Martin on a 21-yard pass reception over the middle that set up a touchdown.
--CB Leodis McKelvin saw his first action of the preseason as he started and was in on four tackles.
--RB C.J. Spiller had nine carries for 36 yards, but had an 18-yard run and a 12-yard pass reception wiped out by penalties. He also lost a fumble on a pass play that led to the Bucs' first touchdown.
--QB EJ Manuel was 19 of 28 for 198 yards with a TD and a pick, and he was sacked four times. In the third quarter, against the Tampa Bay reserves, he was 10-for-10 for 131 yards and produced two TD drives.
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- Thad Lewis
- Doug Marrone
- Jeff Tuel