At the outset of Buffalo's three-man quarterback competition most outside observers believed EJ Manuel would be on the outside looking in when Rex Ryan decided upon a starter. All Manuel did through the course of the preseason was prove that he was a gamer. His consistent production wasn't enough to win him the starting quarterback job for the Bills, but he convinced his head coach and offensive staff that he can be trusted as Tyrod Taylor's backup.
With the release of Matt Cassel Friday along with a host of other player cuts in advance of the league deadline to get the roster down to 53 players, Manuel was awarded the backup quarterback job.
Though Manuel's consistency in training camp practices wasn't quite as good as Taylor and Cassel, his performance in the preseason games was undeniable. Prior to Thursday's final slate of preseason games, Manuel was tied for the NFL lead with four touchdowns passes. He also ranked fifth in the league with a 146.9 passer rating. His gaudy 11.9 yards per attempt figure was also ranked in the top 10.
"I thought I had a pretty good preseason and played well in the games," said Manuel after the quarterback decision was made last Monday. "All I can do is continue to work hard be a good teammate for this team."
When asked last Monday if he was the backup or third string QB, Manuel said he was not informed of where he stood on the depth chart. The release of Cassel makes it clear that the front office was re-assessing their options in the wake of how well Manuel played.
Cassel became expendable because of Manuel's improvement as a passer. His accuracy was significantly better than it was last season, especially on deep passes. Evidence of that came in his touchdown throws of 51 and 37 yards to Deonte Thompson against Carolina and Tobais Palmer against Pittsburgh.
"I felt like I worked extremely hard as I always do, but definitely excited with the way I was progressing and still am," said Manuel. "I'm not going to allow not being selected as the starter to stop me from continuing to work and get better, so that's just my approach right now."
Manuel's improvement can be attributed to his work ethic first and foremost, but also to the new offensive assistants surrounding him in offensive coordinator Greg Roman, quarterbacks coach David Lee and senior offensive assistant Chris Palmer. All three have a proven track record of improving quarterback performance. On more than one occasion Ryan has praised his offensive coaches for raising the level of play of all the quarterbacks on their roster this offseason.
After being benched as the starter last season in Week 5, Manuel vowed that the next time he was on the field in any competitive situation he would "cut it loose," and not be hesitant or gun shy in his decision making. Making noticeable progress in getting back to the player Buffalo thought he could be when they made him a first-round draft choice is why Manuel now sits right behind Taylor on the depth chart.
"For me it was just a matter of me going out and playing," said Manuel. "That's all I wanted to do because that's all I could control. I felt like if I played well I would put myself in the best situation for myself personally and my career and I feel like I did that."