Originally posted on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 11/15/13
He’s back, but his return didn’t exactly go as planned. On a cold and windy day, Manuel threw 39 passes. 34 of them were ten or fewer yards. 24 were thrown short of the first down marker. The offense as a whole was inept at best, gaining just 157 yards in the first three quarters. But there’s hope! Manuel has just six professional games under his belt and still could develop into the savior of the franchise. Through six games, Andy Dalton is the most similar rookie to EJ Manuel in terms of passing statistics. But the inclusion of the running aspect of Manuel’s game makes him most like Russell Wilson, David Carr, and Andrew Luck. The Carr similarity is a bit concerning, but the other three players have all taken their teams to the playoffs. Russell Wilson continues to hang around in this study. His similarity to Manuel through six games, thanks to their similarity in the rushing game, is currently 96.2%. With an even number of rush attempts apiece, Manuel has been more effective, if just by the slight margin of 0.6 yards per attempt. Manuel’s better average might be a result of his utilization, however, as Wilson ran on third or fourth down and less than three yards to go thirteen different times in his rookie season (he converted ten times).  Manuel’s number hasn’t been called on short yardage situations. Wilson was the more efficient passer as a rookie. Through six games, Wilson averaged 1.26 more yards per pass attempt than Manuel. That difference is largely due to more deep pass attempts from Wilson. Through his entire rookie season, 37% of Wilson’s pass attempts traveled more than ten yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed 49% of those throws and averaged 10.86 yards per attempt. Conversely, EJ Manuel has attempted passes deeper than ten yards past the line of scrimmage on just 28% of his throws. Just 38% of those deep attempts have been completed, leading to an 8.22 yards per attempt average. A common criticism of Manuel is the questionable accuracy and unwillingness to throw deep. Andy Dalton attempted deep throws just 31% of the time in his rookie season and completed just 44% of those throws. But Dalton was a bit more fortunate than Manuel currently is, since he had (and still has) an “open even when he’s covered” receiver in AJ Green. The young Bengal quarterback was also fortunate to face a relatively easy schedule in his first six games. His first six opponents ended the 2011 season with a combined 38-58 (0.396). Manuel’s first six opponents currently have a combined record of 29-25 (0.537), which isn’t incredibly good either, but still better than Dalton’s competition. Dalton’s first six games, like his first two seasons were average at best, despite the weak competition. He had a terrible performance against the 49ers in Week 3 where he threw two interceptions, was sacked once, and had an average of just 4.58 yards per pass play. He and the Bengals went on to win nine games and earn a berth into the playoffs, however, thanks largely to a defense that allowed the seventh-fewest yards and ninth-fewest points in 2011. Fast forward to his third year, and Dalton is still a frustrating quarterback to Bengal fans. The offense is loaded with talent, yet Dalton often limits their attack with his underthrows and late decisions. Manuel has the added dimension of mobility that Dalton doesn’t have, but one has to hope that his career progresses differently than Dalton’s even though the current similarities are too glaring to look past. I’m really, really afraid of the David Carr similarity. Carr was drafted first overall by the expansion Texans to be the face of the franchise. Carr lasted five losing seasons in Houston and then went on to be something of a journeyman backup. He was sacked an average of 6.5 times per game and completed less than 50% of his pass attempts in his first six NFL contests. He was a bad quarterback on a bad team and never got better. Please EJ, don’t turn out to be him. Recently, the lead journalist at BuffaloBills.com, Chris Brown, compared Manuel’s current rookie campaign to Cam Newton’s. That comparison is a bit of a stretch, given Newton was on his way to a record-breaking rookie season (which was then bested by Andrew Luck a year later). Newton, an 88.2% overall match to Manuel, had forty more attempts and 27 more completions than Buffalo’s rookie quarterback through six games. Newton averaged 2.03 more yards per attempt than Manuel currently does, thanks to 43% of his throws going more than ten yards past the line of scrimmage. Newton ran a little more than three more times per game than Manuel has, but their average gain per attempt is the similar through six games. Carolina used Newton much differently than Buffalo currently uses Manuel, though, as Newton acted the role of a short yardage back for the Panthers more than any other player on their roster. The first overall pick of 2011 had fourteen rush attempts when the Panthers had three or fewer yards to go, and converted a first down or touchdown on nine of those attempts. Manuel has only attempted a rush with three or fewer yards to go three times. Two of those attempts converted first downs, and the other led to a third and two incomplete pass to Scott Chandler in the first game of the season. Eleven of Manuel’s 27 rush attempts (41%) have come on first down, while Newton’s rush attempts were spread relatively even across the three downs. Mr. Brown does a great job on the Bills website, but the comparison to Newton was hopeful at best. That said, I continue to believe Manuel has the ability to become a solid quarterback in the mold of Russell Wilson for the Bills. The main difference at this point is he’s just not as polished as Seattle’s passer was coming into the league. His high similarity to successful players such as Wilson (96.2%), Andrew Luck (91.9%), and Matt Ryan (91.4%) point to the fact that the current similarity to Carr (95.8%) might just be an aberration through just six games. The overall similarity scores for the ten most similar players in the study are in the table below. If Manuel can continue to work on his footwork (yes, this past week was a regression from his performance prior to his knee injury) and work on keeping his eyes on his targets further downfield, the Bills will have a passer to build their offense around. With any luck, the rest of the team will be ready when he is. Until then, it’s one week at a time.
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