He knows the expectations. If he had his way he’d master everything there is to playing quarterback all at once.
No matter what sport EJ Manuel was participating in during his formative years in Virginia Beach, there was an innate self-motivation to be more than just effective. Whatever it was he wanted to master it.
“Early on I would say as soon as he started playing ball at five or six-years old he was driven,” said his father Erik Manuel Sr. “The first sport he played was soccer and that was what he wanted to do, and he did it all hours of the day because he wanted to score a goal in a game. He accomplished that.
“In middle school he focused on being a pitcher in baseball and he was throwing no hitters. Now he was physically gifted, but he was always working at it.”
“In the classroom he had that same approach. He always wanted to get the ‘A’ in the class,” said Manuel Sr. “He didn’t want to settle for mediocrity and that’s always been a part of who he is.”
Born to a pair of working parents, including a father who served in the Air Force, discipline was expected more than it had to be enforced.
“I always had his attention,” said Manuel Sr. “He was never a disrespectful kid. I don’t know if it was the military background that had a bearing on it or if he just emulated the way I did things. I was strict as far as who he hung out with and what he would do with his spare time. I guess he just figured those are the rules and I need to abide by them.”
By high school Manuel’s mother or father would have to call him in from the driveway at night where EJ would be pumping out countless push-ups or running sprints up and down his block after dark.
“We’d call him in and when he went up to his room he’d be doing more push-ups,” said his father. “When he was in his bed you could hear him tossing the football up at the ceiling all night. You’d just hear that football hitting his hand ‘pop, pop, pop’ all night long.”
Manuel was so talented physically that he often played with kids a year and a half to two years older than him. Facing similarly gifted athletes, who were more mature physically, often leveled the playing field, but Manuel wasn’t settling for being part of the pack.
“Always playing above his age group he had to work hard,” said Manuel Sr. “He wanted to be one of the top guys. He was a little quieter than some of the louder players, but he was known by the work he put in.”
Not resting on physical gifts
The result was a senior season that included a completion percentage of 68 percent, yards per attempt of 8.8 and 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
“The thing is he’s such a perfectionist,” said Calhoun. “We could be scheduled to work for about an hour and a half together and it’ll end up being two hours because he wants to really focus on a getting a particular thing we’re working on correct. So we’ll spend an extra half an hour on just that.”
Even now with the Bills with Manuel working day in and day out, after practice he’ll shoot his own video of his drop backs, throwing motion or footwork to get extra input.
“He’ll send me video of himself all the time going through some the things that we had been specifically working on in the spring and summer to get him to that next level,” said Calhoun. “He’ll set up his I-phone and shoot video of himself and send it to me and ask me, ‘How does this look? How does my balance look? How does my left arm look?’ That just tells me how determined and how focused he is on being the best player he can be.”
Manuel still spent a couple of weeks in the spring with Calhoun prior to OTAs and then another week with him between the close of minicamp and the opening of training camp.
“What I’ve done is create a drill for every possible movement he can make in a game,” said Calhoun. “He’ll tell me about certain plays they’re doing and I’ll ask him if he remembers a specific drill we worked on and how it applies to a certain play he might be trying to execute. So we’re in constant communication. It’s a week by week thing.”
Committed to the job
Whatever the limits are for offseason classroom time and on the field time with Buffalo’s coaching staff under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, Manuel went right up to it. Coming off a rookie season interrupted more than once by injury the Bills quarterback was committed to every demand the job required.
“EJ showed great dedication to his game and his teammates this spring,” said Bills quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. “He spent a lot of time here. He is still only 10 games old in the NFL. There were a lot of experiences he didn’t get to go through last year. He knew that meant he would need to maximize his time this off-season to grow as much as he could.
Manuel studied film not only of his rookie season, but of other successful quarterbacks as well. He spent five weeks in the offseason working out with perennial postseason quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“EJ came in and worked hard every single day,” said Kaepernick. “He was very good in the throwing sessions not just physically and but also mentally.”
The mental side of the game was where Downing saw Manuel’s most ardent dedication.
“I think EJ learned what it is like to study your craft,” Downing said. “He became a diligent note taker. We got into the whys of the playbook and really understanding what we are trying to accomplish. When you are a rookie you tend to find yourself just trying to keep your head above water. Add in his injuries and it was a recipe for some stressful times. He has done a great job of becoming more comfortable with our system. Then, as we transitioned to the field work, he was able to lay a foundation physically. The goal is make everything so consistent for him physically that it slows things down mentally.”
The prevailing opinion outside of the walls of One Bills Drive was that Manuel’s training camp had its pluses and minuses. Downing saw something very different.
“EJ has become more comfortable in what is required of him physically,” he said. “He has taken a step forward in something every day. Becoming a solid QB in the league does not happen just because you are nine months older. His dedication to repeating things until he gets it, throwing throws until they are comfortable, and watching countless hours of tape has been outstanding.”
Downing is often the recipient of text messages from Manuel long after the work day is done. It’s become so frequent that it’s a running joke in the Downing household.
“My wife just chuckles when my phone goes off in the night,” said Downing. “She usually says ‘What cut-up is EJ watching?’ He is a football junkie. He loves this game. So it is not rare for him to be watching tape or looking at his playbook late at night and have a question or two.”
Manuel wants to master everything there is to being a successful quarterback as quickly as possible. It’s what is driving him every day to improve. At the same time he’s coming to the realization that all the elements to being successful on a consistent basis do not all come at once.
“EJ is an eager player,” said Downing. “He wants to show everyone he is better than his 2013 tape, but patience and understanding the process of development is an important thing. You can’t figure out everything at one time. It just doesn’t work that way. That’s what I have tried to tell him when his pre-season hit a bump or two in the road.
“He is going to be a good QB in this league. He has all of the physical gifts, and is growing every single day in his knowledge of the game. But you can’t go zero to 60 without passing one through 59. It just doesn’t work that way for QBs.”
Hard work will pay off
“He’s smart. He’s really the guy that will be the first one here and the last one to leave,” said
“I think he’s progressed from his first year,” said
“EJ is starting figure out that when he just goes out and plays with confidence he can be really good,” said Downing. “He is beginning to see that if he doesn’t over-think things or get ahead of himself, he can rely on the hard work he has done and it will carry him.”
“He’s always wanted to be at the top of the list,” said Erik Manuel Sr. “That’s what happened up to this point. I believe when it’s all said and done we’ll see EJ sitting there at the top again with the Buffalo Bills. That’s his thought process and his work ethic will get him there. I truly believe that.”