PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The elusive word is out there and Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley searched as he spoke on Monday afternoon. He is talking about his rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, and there is something he is looking for to describe the player he took in the first round of the draft.
Something you can't describe in spiraling passes shooting down the field.
"He has that it factor," Whaley said.
So much of finding a quarterback comes from feel. The men who do this for a living can watch a prospect throw 100 passes precisely into a receiver's hands, showing the most delicate of touch, but know none of that matters if the player can't lead. Can he step into a huddle and stare down the 10 men before him? Can players believe in him?
Football people have an easy test. They watch the quarterback walk into a room and they wait to see what happens. Does the mood change? Do people notice? Does the player have a presence? The best ones, they say, usually do.
And when Whaley met Manuel he felt the presence. He felt the "it."
"You can tell the situation isn't too big for him," Whaley said.
The Bills are giving Manuel the opportunity to win the starting quarterback job now, just months after leaving Florida State. They have placed him in a competition with Kevin Kolb, who was the future in Philadelphia and Arizona, and they are waiting to see if Manuel can handle the pressure of blitzes that will increase as the preseason goes on. For the next six weeks, Manuel's every throw, every read, every decision will be scrutinized by a panel of Bills coaches, and players, writers and fans who will debate his play and decide if he is ready for the challenge of starting in the NFL.
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Robert Griffin III didn't have to do this. Neither did Andrew Luck or Cam Newton. They were all handed their starting jobs upon the start of training camp. But they were also the first or second picks of the draft. Manuel – as the 16th choice – will have to fight for his job. And in many ways that has more pressure than anything RG3 or Luck had to face all last year.
And so the quarterback with "it" was asked in a media conference on Monday if he felt the strain of the competition. He stared at his questioner and responded instantly.
"No, sir," he said.
Later, standing outside of the gymnasium at St. John Fisher College he smiled slightly about the bluntness of his words.
"It's a simple answer," he said. "No, sir."
There is a confidence to Manuel you do not find in many young quarterbacks. It's as if he expects to win this competition with Kolb, even after a day and a half of camp. You can see it in the way he throws, rocketing perfect passes across an afternoon practice. You can see it too in the way he looks at a media conference or even when he is alone, talking about the future.
Buffalo is quietly building an offense that can rattle the rest of the AFC. Slowly the foundation of a game built on speed is growing. The Bills drafted receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in the second and third round to go with running back C.J. Spiller and presumably Manuel.
"We can kind of build something here for the future," Manuel said. "I know we have the tools to do it."
Manuel has already gone through the intense scrutiny of being a quarterback at a high-profile college like Florida State. He's already had every throw assessed and each interception used as an argument to have him throw less or even to be replaced. Maybe his fight with Kolb is bigger because it's for an NFL job, but it isn't any more intimidating. It's a part of this job he has chosen for his life's work.
"It's just the way people grade you," he said.
On Monday, in his second training camp practice, he looked spectacular. His passes shot downfield like accurate lasers into the hands of speeding receivers. It was, of course, just a practice and one very early in camp but the glimpse gave an idea of just how fast this offense can be when he becomes the quarterback of the future.
He wasn't as good in Sunday night's opening practice but he took his mistakes and corrected them. This is how he measures progress: by making sure he doesn't repeat the errors of the previous day. If he keeps doing that day after day, week after week, he figures he will get better quickly, which is what the Bills want to see.
"We knew we were bringing in a quarterback that we could have for a long time," Whaley said. "That can be a lot of pressure for a young kid."
But the kid with "it" only shrugged on Monday.
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