He was in charge of three draft-worthy quarterbacks for the week at the Senior Bowl in 2013. Landry Jones,
“As I was walking down to morning meetings he was already in there watching film from practice the day before,” Downing recalled. “He was also staying late watching film. He’s kind of a film junkie. I think that’s going to be what propels EJ to the next level. He wants to do all those things. Now you’ve got to give him a little direction and tell him what to look for and teach him to watch tape, but EJ has that in him to want to be great. Him doing all those extra things was the first alert to me that you’ve got something special here.”
Through the course of Senior Bowl week a year ago, Downing saw Manuel make steady progress in what was a new offensive system for every player on the roster.
“He was a good learner in the classroom in all different ways,” Downing said. “Some guys learn different ways. EJ wasn’t a guy who you had to spend extra time with because he only got it one way or the other. So that was another thing that indicated to me that he has a bright future because he’s a smart kid and is willing to accept any form of teaching, whether it was hard coaching or encouragement.
“Then just seeing him on the field, seeing him take command of the huddle from day one, elected captain by his teammates. Those were all very positive things.”
By the end of the week Manuel earned Senior Bowl MVP honors in the South team’s 21-16 victory. Even though Downing was coaching Matthew Stafford in Detroit at the time, he was sold on Manuel as an NFL quarterback.
“My time with EJ at the Senior Bowl made me want to work with him again at some point in my career regardless of where it was,” said Downing. “Now I didn’t know it would be a calendar year later, but I’m excited about it because he’s so hungry to be great. He wants to do the little things well. He wants to prepare better than any quarterback in the league.”
“I saw something special in EJ and a dedicated kid who was competitive and wanted to win, but he also made personal connections,” said Downing. “I think as a coach if you’re going to invest in somebody and you want them to invest in you and what you’re trying to teach him, I think there’s a natural relationship that goes beyond just instructor and pupil. I wanted to see EJ through that whole process, not knowing I was ever going to coach him again, but because he was a good kid who worked hard for me at the Senior Bowl who deserved the support that I could give him knowing the process that he was going to be going through.”
“He kept in touch with me throughout the whole thing beyond the Senior Bowl,” said Manuel. “He checked in with me when I was going through the pre-draft process. I’m excited he’s on our staff.”
In Manuel’s rookie season the plan was to have veteran
Buffalo’s starting quarterback believes Downing will now be the person he can lean on in that role.
“I didn’t have a veteran guy to really watch and learn from last year so coach Downing will be that guy for me,” Manuel said. “He’ll be an extension of coach Hackett. Having coach Downing on the staff is going to help me out a lot. I think he has a ton of talent and a lot of new edge to him as a coach. He’s a young guy as well, so I’m looking forward to working with him.”
And Manuel and Downing will be able to attack the playbook and film review as soon as the quarterback returns for the offseason conditioning program and spring workouts due to their prior working history.
“To work with a kid who I have established a connection with and some trust with and he knows that I’m in it to make him a better quarterback, not for any other reason than to get him to play up to his potential… that really helps get things rolling quickly rather than establish trust first and do some teaching later,” said Downing.
“He really has that drive and motivation to be great. I think that separates him from some quarterbacks that are just okay and get bored with success. They just want to go through the motions once they’ve hit a certain level.
“Watching the film that we’ve been watching of the Bills cut-ups from last year it just reinforces to me that he wants to be great because you can see him frustrated with himself if he makes a mistake. You see him make a mistake and then come back and not repeat it and execute the play properly. Those things all tell me that EJ is on the path that he needs to be on and we’re just going to accentuate all the good things to get him going.”