Return to Relevance – Quarterbacks

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Updated: August 15, 2013
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Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 – a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

If you’re a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than Bills Mafia can turn on James Walker: relevancy in the NFL is defined as postseason play. By that logic, the Buffalo Bills have not fielded a relevant squad since 1999. The purpose of this column is to compare the 1999 and 2012 squads unit-by-unit, apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster and determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevancy.

So far we’ve found that this year’s tight ends are the best Buffalo has seen since ’99, the wide receivers aren’t all too dissimilar from the 1999 unit, the linebackers have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle the way their predecessors did, the defensive backs will likely pale in comparison to the ’99 squad, the offensive line should provide the same slightly-above-average performance put forth in 1999, the 2013 crop of running backs, scheme permitted, should vastly outpace their predecessors, and that this year’s defensive line will be just fine even if they don’t live up to the ’99 crew. We’ve also established that the front office of the late 90’s possessed a keen eye for talent in the draft that has been disturbingly-absent from the franchise in more recent years.

The 13-year playoff drought has been a long, painful road (some may say the same for the Return to Relevance series), but no road has felt as long or painful as the one leading to the man under center. Ever since head coach Wade Phillips – or owner Ralph Wilson, depending on whose side of the story you believe – angered the quarterback gods by benching one of the great folk heroes of all time in favor of an unproven young gunslinger who looked like a poor man’s Spicoli, Buffalo has served as a home for wayward quarterbacks, cycling through busts, has-beens and never-was’ in search of a signal caller to take them to the Promised Land.

A lot of folks believe that search ended on Thursday, April 25, when general manager Doug Whaley made his move backward in the draft to deliver 237 pounds of hope straight from Tallahassee. Only time will tell if EJ is the man to end the misery. One thing we can say with certainty, however; it couldn’t hurt for him to eat his Flutie Flakes.

1999 starting quarterback:
QB – Doug Flutie (15 games played, 55.2% completion, 3,171 yds, 19 TD, 16 INT, 26 sacks, 88 rushing attempts, 476 yds, 1 TD, 6 fumble)

What jumps out about this unit:
There simply isn’t a way to properly convey the joy of watching Doug Flutie play football through words, sounds or pictures. You just had to be there. As insane and maddening and ludicrous as it seemed to bench Flutie for the playoffs in 1999, it somehow seems even more inconceivable 13 years later. Flutie set a Bills record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in ’99 (leading the NFL for the season) and set a career high in passing yards. His propensity to extend the play often ended in disaster with such a high sack total and low TD-INT ratio, but he was the straw that stirred the drink for the last relevant team Bills Backers have seen. With that, let’s all have a drink, shall we?

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 20 (16th)
Offensive yards per game: 333.3 (11th)
Passing ypg: 205.8 (19th)

Upon returning to the NFL after a nine-year hiatus, Flutie essentially played two and a half full seasons as a starter – 1999, 2001 in San Diego and just over 60 percent of 1998. His numbers in ’99, a year in which he went 10-5 as starter, were extremely similar to his output in ’01, when he posted a 5-11 record. The only advanced statistic in which his ’99 campaign outpaced his ’01 season by any substantial margin was his touchdown percentage, beating his 2001 total by 13 points but still sitting at a league-average rate. Where Flutie excelled in 1999 relative to the rest of his career was on his feet. His 5.4 yards/attempt were a career high among seasons with more than 16 carries, which is especially impressive when you consider that his 88 attempts in 1999 were 35 more than the second highest total of his career.

The best measure of Flutie’s contributions to the 1999 squad can be found in two games. In Week 8, after consecutive losses dropped the Bills to 4-3, the offense turned in a nightmarish performance in Baltimore, with Flutie throwing three interceptions en route to a 10-3 fourth quarter deficit. Facing fourth-and-15, Flutie scampered 17 yards for a first down and later hit Jonathan Linton for the game-winning touchdown on a rollout to his right, beginning a three-game win streak that would put the team firmly back in the playoff race. That race would lead to a happy finish line thanks to his performance down the stretch in another brutal game. On the road against a division rival in Week 16, Flutie would rip off 12 straight completions between the fourth quarter and overtime to steal a victory in New England which would turn out to be the team’s playoff-clinching win (which would of course lead to his benching the following week and subsequently in the playoff loss that continues to haunt my dreams in Kruger-esque fashion. Being a Bills fan is fun.).

Doug Flutie was the right man for the right team at the right time, weathering the storms of an up-and-down season where steady leadership was needed from the face of the offense and rising to the occasion even in the face of his lowest moments.

2012 starting quarterback:
QB – Ryan Fitzpatrick (16 GP, 60.6% completion, 3,400 yds, 24 TD, 16 INT, 30 sacks, 48 rush, 197 yds, 1 TD, 8 fumbles)

What jumps out about this unit:
Me, out the window, mostly. I find no joy in piling on Fitzy. He’s a good man who fought hard and earned his chance in this league. Sure, he completely and unequivocally blew that chance, but that wasn’t due to lack of heart, effort, passion or willingness to do anything it took to succeed. It was due to lack of any identifiable skill a quarterback requires to win football games.

Good ole’ Pickspatrick basically fell off a cliff after secretly cracking his ribs in a 2011 drubbing of Washington. He actually posted his lowest interception percentage during his three-year tenure as starter in 2012 and kept pace with his yards-per-attempt average, but his crippling inability to throw downfield clipped the wings of the entire offense. I think if Gailey could have coached at a Division I-AA level and the run defense hadn’t re-written the record books for ineptitude, I would probably remember Fitzpatrick as more of a villain, but really, the guy gave his all at a position where courage and dedication has been in question at times over the 13-year playoff drought. And hey, we’ll always have 9/25/11, right guys?

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 21.5 (21st)
Offensive yards per game: 342.9 (19th)
Passing ypg: 204.3 (25th)

Fitzy really outdid himself in a number of ways during the 2012 season. Among his years as the Bills’ signal caller, he posted his lowest totals in both value per play and overall value according to Football Outsiders. As we discussed in the wide receivers column, his 17 underthrown passes were nearly unparalleled by anyone in his range of attempts (Josh Freeman being the only contender vying for such dishonors). His completion percentage on throws of 20 yards or more was 12 points below the average among quarterbacks over the last five years. That figure was good enough to rank him at number 35 in the league, a sub-starter level according to Pro Football Focus.

On a team with a jaw-dropping running attack and talented skill players, Fitzpatrick was asked to operate a screen-heavy, short-throw, quick-release system. He was asked to move the chains with 31 dinks-and-dunks per week. With such a modest task in front of him, he…well…now he’s a Tennessee Titan.

The State of the Union:
The task of filling Fitzy’s gigantic helmet will fall upon one of two quarterbacks who offer distinctly different paths to relevance. Kevin Kolb is the veteran option with a track record of relatively high peaks and extremely low valleys. He led the Cardinals to a 4-0 start in 2012 that had the entire league buzzing before his nonexistent offensive line fed him to the lions against the Rams in Week 5 and eventually allowed him to be devoured by Buffalo of all teams in Week 6, sustaining a season-ending rib injury. Pro Football Focus ranked the Arizona offensive line dead last in both pass and run protection, as did Football Outsiders. His 2011 season, in which he appeared in a career high nine games, saw him his post a 9-8 TD-INT ratio, but did feature a pair of fourth quarter comebacks. His performance in training camp has been so up and down its enough to cause motion sickness, but the only thing he’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the NFL is an inability to stay healthy (this is a guy who injured himself walking on a padded mat this summer, after all). As impressive as he can be in flashes, there’s no reason to assume his health would allow to him start a 16 game slate, much less his talent.

That leads us to the conclusion that, be it Week 1, Week 6 or Week 17, we will see EJ Manuel under center for the Buffalo Bills in 2013. Manuel is the first quarterback selected in the first round by the Bills since JP Losman in 2004 and is a hard turn away from the low-risk low-reward mantra that has plagued the franchise for years.

Manuel had the good fortune of playing behind Christian “Unbreakable” Ponder in his first two seasons at Florida State, allowing him to see the field as a freshman and play significant time as a sophomore before taking the keys as the face of the program in his junior year. Over the course of his career, Manuel posted the second highest passing efficiency rating and yards per play among quarterbacks in the ACC since 1956 per sports-reference.com and led the ACC in completion percentage as a senior. As the second quarterback in FBS history to win four consecutive bowl games, he became battle-tested in postseason play from the very start. The Rookie Scouting Portfolio, a great resource for examining incoming NFL players, compared Manuel to 49ers signal caller Colin Kaepernick. This included a much later draft projection than his first round slot and also suggested he would benefit from the kind of tutelage on the bench that Kaepernick received, but writer Matt Waldman spoke to a pro-ready skill set numbers can’t properly quantify:

What I like most of all about Manuel is his pocket presence. His first instinct in the pocket isn’t to back away from pressure up the middle. He’ll climb the pocket and dip the shoulder, which is a big indication he’ll have the pocket presence you want from an NFL passer.

Pocket presence is a skill that I believe unlearning bad habits and learning new ones is almost too difficult to do. You need enough time under live fire to make that transition and young NFL quarterbacks don’t get that unless they are already deemed a first-year starter. Most first-year starters have this habit of climbing the pocket – or at least not backing away as the first reaction to pressure – ingrained.

Just when fan and media hype around Manuel’s training camp performance reached a fever pitch, he began to cool off. A few less-than-stellar days leading up to the first preseason game resulted in an encouraging, albeit spotty, performance against the Colts. I remain unconcerned by his affinity for check downs. Even Marrone was surprised that Hackett did not dial up more of a downfield game plan, but it was an important confidence-building moment for a rookie who needs to show himself and his teammates that he can command the field. As troubling as a few of his short incompletions were, he also connected on a pair of balls off-target that forced his receiver to halt his route, come back to the football and prevent him from running in stride. His field vision and progression speed, which were common knocks on his game in college, were on point, but the precision was lacking. As we often see in camp however, he heated up as the game went along, putting together a 92-yard two-minute drill capped by a touchdown on a rope between double coverage. These are the ebbs and flows that are to be expected with a rookie signal caller.

Projecting Manuel’s rookie performance greatly relies on projecting what will be asked of him within Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s system. Tracking Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib’s three-year progression, you can see that the coaching duo prefers to install, develop and expand their game plan slowly over time. However, it’s not as if the offense became more pass-heavy over the course of Nassib’s career. In fact, only in his junior year did the team throw more than run, and that was by a difference of four plays. They simply improved their efficiency year after year as they increased their tempo, rising from 89th in the country at 66.5 offensive snaps per game in 2010 all the way to 19th at 80.4 in 2012 (Clemson, the highest ranked school from a major conference, ran 85.3) per teamrankings.com. In Nassib’s first year under center, the Orange ran 23 percent more than they passed. With Hackett’s recent comments regarding CJ Spiller’s workload, you can expect a similar balance in 2012.

Manuel will be given as much work as he can handle. The more success he has, the more complex the playbook will become, but he will not be thrown to the wolves with a game plan beyond his reach if he is not ready for it. Watching Nassib grow over three years at the Carrier Dome, I truly believe Marrone and Hackett are the right pair to take a rookie quarterback into the NFL as a starter Week 1 and turn out a first-class professional. His skills will have to be proven on the field, and I can’t say I expect Manuel to set the world on fire this year, but for the first time in perhaps a decade, the Buffalo Bills won’t be held back by the man under center.

In 1999, Doug Flutie played within himself and squeezed just enough juice out of the offense to muster a below-average passing attack that pushed an otherwise-prolific team over the hump and into the playoffs. That type of performance sounds more like Manuel’s floor than his ceiling. The future is uncertain, but blindingly bright. Can the 2013 Buffalo Bills quarterbacks return the team to relevance? Hey, ya gotta Billieve, right?