How a Rookie Head Coach Derailed a Rookie Quarterback, then Vanished with $4 Million

In 2013, after enduring eight straight losing seasons, the last four of which saw records of either 4-12 or 6-10, the Buffalo Bills drafted what they believed was the number one quarterback in the 2013 draft. They selected EJ Manuel with pick 16 of the first round. He was the highest drafted quarterback by the Bills since they drafted Jim Kelly 14th overall in 1983.

Despite EJ Manuel posting the 4th best passer rating ever in NFL history for a rookie playing 3 games in weeks 1-3, and despite EJ Manuel excelling on 1st down unlike most rookie quarterbacks the NFL has seen, another rookie stepped in to break up the party.  Rookie head coach Doug Marrone stripped Manuel of his ability to pass on the early downs after 3 games.  And just like that, after 3 weeks, Marrone seemed to direct an offense which would ultimately render impotent Manuel’s best chance for NFL success.

Marrone went from calling in 45% pass plays on 1st down in Manuel’s first 3 starts to 20% in his next 2 starts, having EJ Manuel hand off 80% of the time. Through the rest of his rookie season, Marrone had Manuel hand off over 70% of the time on first down in one score games.

It was by far the most handoffs and fewest passes of any team in the NFL.  And it continued into 2014, but only when EJ Manuel started.  When the reins were handed to Kyle Orton, the blinders were taken off.  Marrone switched from calling pass plays far below the NFL average for EJ Manuel to well above the NFL average for Kyle Orton, particularly on the early downs.  It was clear that despite showing he could handle it, for some reason Marrone appeared to be determined to prevent Manuel from passing on first down as much as possible.  While it’s fun to jump right into the stats to show how bizarre this played out, it’s important to note the context of how rare and important a move it was for the Bills to draft a quarterback as high as EJ Manuel.  And it makes the way Marrone decided to call plays for him that much more strange.

The History

The Bills last drafted a QB in the top 6 rounds back in 2007, when they took Trent Edwards in the 3rd round.  After back to back 7-9 seasons, the team acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 7th round selection from 2005 who bounced from the Rams to the Bengals.  It was clear the Bills needed to upgrade their quarterback position after Fitzpatrick led them to a 6-10 record his first year and a 4-12 record the following year.

But in 2011, they did not use the #3 overall pick on a quarterback, instead opting for Marcel Darius. Cam Newton was selected #1 overall, but after that, the following were available to the Bills:  Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder among others.

In 2012, they still refused to draft a quarterback, and at #10 overall they selected Stephon Gilmore.  Taken #1 and #2 in that draft were Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin.  Ryan Tannehill was taken #8.  Available to the Bills would have been Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Brock Osweiler and Brandon Weeden among others.

All of those classes vastly exceeded the quarterback talent in 2013. The other QBs selected in the first 4 rounds included Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson and Landry Jones.  A terrible draft class.  But the Bills waited until 2013 and selected the top prospect in their opinion. 

The 2013 campaign started out tremendously for EJ Manuel, Doug Marrone and the Buffalo Bills. The task out of the gate in game 1 was to beat the New England Patriots, a 12-4 team from 2012 who defeated the Bills in both games that year, and who won the last 3 games vs the Bills by a combined score of 138-80.  However, the Bills led 21-17 in the 4th quarter, and 21-20 with seconds left.  But Tom Brady led the Patriots on a 12 play drive from his own 34 to the Bills 15, burning over 4 minutes off the clock, and New England kicked the game winning field goal with seconds left.

The second game of the season, the Bills defeated the Carolina Panthers (who went on to win 12 games) after EJ Manuel threw a TD strike to Stevie Johnson with 6 seconds left in the game.  The Bills won 24-23.  Week 3, the Bills went to visit the Jets.  The Jets defeated Buffalo by 1 TD, 27-20.  The game vs the Jets was tied in the 4th quarter, 20-20.  But immediately after the Bills scored to tie it at 20 (literally 2 plays later) Geno Smith threw a 69 yard TD bomb to Santonio Holmes and the Jets held on the final 9 minutes.  It was the 2nd defeat of the season for the rookie QB and head coach, both of which were by 1 score or less.

The Bills would redeem themselves the next week, beating the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and improving to 2-2.  But for EJ Manuel, a rookie QB whose resume included beating the 12-4 Panthers and defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens, while holding 4th quarter leads or ties vs the Patriots and Jets, it was too late.

The Honeymoon

In EJ Manuel’s first 3 starts of his professional career, rookie head coach Doug Marrone called 56% pass plays when the game was within 1 score (neither team leading by over 8 points).  The NFL average the last 2 years is 57% pass plays, so Marrone was on target with his rookie QB, asking him to do as much as an average QB.  And Manuel performed tremendously.

Overall Performance: In those 3 games, EJ Manuel completed 59% of 108 attempts, with 4 TDs and 1 interception, 6.4 ypa and an 87 rating.  He also ran 13 times for almost 6 ypc.

These numbers might not seem overly impressive when you think about the top passers in the NFL.  But when you put it into the context that it’s the first 3 starts made by a rookie QB in the first 3 games of the year, and you compare it to every quarterback in NFL history, it’s ridiculously impressive.

First and 10 Performance: Another key to anyone familiar with NFL success is seeing that success on first and 10.  On first and 10, 45% of the time Doug Marrone called for EJ Manuel to pass in one score games. That, also, was right in line with the NFL average of 46% passes on 1st and 10 play calls.

As far as Manuel’s performance on these plays, it was well above average.  On 1st and 10, EJ Manuel completed 23/37 passes (62%) for 8.3 ypa, 1 TD, 0 Ints and a 98 passer rating.  [The NFL average on 1st and 10 for all players in 2013 was an 84 passer rating.]  The only quarterbacks who started the 2013 season with a better rating on 1st and 10 passes were:  Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton.

So whether on 1st and 10 or on all plays across the board, EJ Manuel started his tenure as a rookie quarterback very strong.  And rookie head coach Doug Marrone gave him average leverage to pass the ball.

The Fallout

Following the 4th quarter loss to the Jets in week 3, something changed with Doug Marrone.  Despite EJ Manuel overachieving as a rookie in his first 3 starts, Marrone began to call the game differently in his starts.  Marrone stopped letting EJ Manuel pass like an average quarterback and started calling passing plays much less frequently, particularly in early downs.

In his press conferences after the game vs the Jets in week 3, Marrone insisted the trouble with the Bills was 3rd down performance.   He wasn’t wrong — the Bills were terrible on 3rd down.  But they were primarily terrible on 3rd and 7+ yds, where they converted just 6% into 1st downs so far that season.  On 3rd and 1-6 yds, the Bills converted 50% into 3rd down in 2013 to date, which was essentially the NFL average.  The key for the Bills was to keep 3rd down manageable.  Therefore, they needed to produce on 1st down.  So what happened on first downs for the Bills in 2013?

As mentioned, EJ Manuel was at his best on 1st down passes.  His 98 passer rating in weeks 1-3 on first and 10 ranked him behind (primarily) future hall of fame quarterbacks.  Manuel was out-dueling most of the league on 1st down.  And he was passing on 45% of these 1st down plays (NFL average was 46%).

But in weeks 4 and 5, Marrone called 9 passes and 36 runs on 1st downs. That’s 20% passes and 80% runs!

Despite the lack of use, Manuel went 5/8 (63%) for 84 yds (10.5 ypa), 1 TD, 0 Int and 1 sack, computing to a passer rating of 137.5 on 1st and 10 passes in 1 score games.  But Marrone apparently didn’t care about getting Manuel into the flow of the game by passing on downs when the offense could dictate to the defense.  He preferred to run on these downs and pass when the defense could more predictably expect a pass.

Remember, the key for the 2013 Bills was to produce on 1st down to stay out of 3rd and long.  Weeks 4 and 5, on 1st down passes in one score games, Manuel picked up 10.5 ypa.  On 1st down runs, the Bills picked up 5 yards per play fewer that when passing.  Yet Marrone called 80% runs.

Starting in week 4 thru the end of his rookie season (Manuel missed 4 weeks due to injury), in one score games, Marrone had Manuel call 35 pass plays on 1st and 10 and called 91 run plays.  28% of these first down play calls were passes.  It’s a massive contrast from his first 3 weeks, when Marrone called 45% passes for Manuel on 1st and 10 (essentially the NFL average of 46%) and saw EJ post one of the best passer ratings in NFL history. To be more specific:

    Weeks 1-3 of his rookie year, in one score games, on 1st and 10 Marrone had EJ Manual pass 33 times and called run 41 times (45%)

    Weeks 4-5, Marrone called 9 passes and 36 runs (20%)

    Weeks 10-15 (he missed wks 6-9), Marrone called 26 passes and 55 runs (32%)

Marrone’s decision to not allow EJ Manuel to pass on first down had widespread effects.

First, it backfired because EJ Manuel was at his best on 1st and 10.  I already shared numbers for how great Manuel was in weeks 1-3. But in weeks 4 onward, on 1st and 10 passes in one score games, EJ Manuel was 17/28 (61%) for 222 yds (7.9 ypa), with 2 TDs and 0 Ints.  That equates to a 110 passer rating!  Yet Marrone preferred to let the Bills run it 72% of the time on these downs starting in week 4, and saved EJ Manuel’s arm for the later downs, which takes us to a second effect.

By not passing early (both in the game and in the drive), EJ Manuel never could get into much of a rhythm in these games.  These first quarter numbers are mindboggling:

    From week 4 onward in the games Manuel played, on 1st down plays in the first quarter, Marrone called for 12 passes and 40 rushes.

    Manuel actually got off 9 attempts (was sacked 3 times).

    He went 6-9 (67%) for 53 yds (5.9 ypa), 0 TD and 0 Int for a 82 rtg.

    The Bills gained only 3.2 ypc on their 40 rushes.

The fact that EJ Manuel went 7 starts from week 4 onward and attempted a TOTAL of just NINE 1st quarter, 1st down passes is ridiculous.  As such, with the run game not producing (3.2 ypc) on these continual first down runs, it put EJ Manuel in a bad predicament:  3rd and long and not in any type of rhythm.  Those are two things that should be avoided at all costs for rookie quarterbacks, but seemingly, Doug Marrone welcomed them.

For the record, in all first quarters the last 2 years, league-wide on 1st down, 44% of the plays are passes and 56% are runs.  However, Marrone favored a totally unbalanced 23% passes and 77% runs.

If, for some reason, EJ Manuel was terrible passing on 1st down and was a rookie freak who somehow excelled on the late downs, Marrone’s plan may have made sense.  If, for some reason, the Bills 1st down run offense was ripping off 6 yard runs with regularity and could not be stopped, Marrone’s plan may have made sense.

But EJ Manuel was busy posting 110 passer ratings on 1st and 10 passes and (like many rookies) was struggling on 3rd and long.  And, the Bills running attack featured Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller and their 3.4 ypc average on 1st and 10 rushes in the 1st quarter.

The Savior

The Bills acquired Kyle Orton in 2014 as a backup plan to EJ Manuel.  They let EJ Manuel start the season to try to give him one more shot under Marrone.  Perhaps, the thinking was, EJ Manuel would have learned in the offseason and been better prepared.  As it turns out, the one who didn’t study and learn from 2013 was now 2nd year head coach Doug Marrone.  Marrone, apparently more content with keeping Manuel as a back up plan, picked back up with his same “handling” of Manuel from 2013. In 2014:

    On 1st and 10, Marrone called 33% pass plays, well below the 46% NFL average.

    On first quarter, first down plays, Marrone called 33% pass plays, well below the 44% NFL average.

    All of this despite the fact that in 2014, EJ Manuel went 31/46 (67%) for 321 yds (7.0 ypa), with 4 TDs and 1 Int on 1st down pass plays. That equates to a 107.2 passer rating.

    When EJ Manuel passed on 1st and 10, the Bills 1st down vs punt ratio on a given set of downs was 73% first down, 27% punt (excludes turnovers & FGs). This was a better rate of getting 1st down on a set of downs than when they would run on 1st and 10.

EJ Manuel led the Bills to a 23-20 win over the Bears in week 1 and a 29-10 pasting of the Dolphins in week 2.  But, he lost 22-10 to the Chargers (who finished 9-7) and 23-17 to the Texans (who also finished 9-7).  At that point, the team decided to bench EJ Manuel and see if Kyle Orton could save their season.

As it turns out, Kyle Orton was not very good on 1st down passes.  His passer rating was nearly 30 points worse than the 107 rating that EJ Manuel posted.  So logic dictates that a coach would be more inclined to run on 1st down with Orton and pass on first down with Manuel.  But as we know, Marrone didn’t want EJ Manuel to pass on first down. Would Marrone be even less inclined to let Orton pass?

The Mystery

As soon as Kyle Orton took over the Bills offense, Marrone began to call plays like he would call for a normal quarterback and then some, calling even more passes than the NFL average. The very first game was against the Lions.  On first down, Marrone called 21 pass plays and only 9 run plays despite the fact that on 1st down pass plays, Orton’s 79 passer rating (62%, 6.8 ypa, 1 TD, 1 Int) and all other metrics on this down were worse than EJ Manuel’s stats in weeks 1-4 of 2014.

This tendency to let Orton pass early and often continued the rest of Orton’s tenure as starting quarterback.  As mentioned earlier, the NFL average is 46% pass on 1st & 10 passes in one-score games.  Marrone had Orton passing 49% of the time.

That is in stark contrast to when EJ Manuel was at the helm, and Marrone called 33% passes in 2014. And since week 4 of the 2013 season, in the 11 games that Manuel started, Marrone called 30% pass plays on 1st & 10 in one score games.

If, for some reason, Kyle Orton was tremendous on 1st down passes and EJ Manuel was terrible, Marrone’s plan may have made sense.  But in 2014 on 1st down passes:

    Kyle Orton was 99/157 (63%), 827 yds (5.3 ypa), 6 TD, 4 Int, 12 sacks & 78.7 rtg

    EJ Manuel was 31/46 (67%), 321 yds (7.0 ypa), 4 TD, 1 Int , 1 sack & 107.2 rtg

The trend for Marrone to allow Orton to pass while restricting Manuel became even more severe on the late downs.  However, it at least made some sense as, with far more veteran presence, Orton’s 3rd down rating was better than Manuel’s.

But on all play calls in one score games, Marrone called 334 passes and only 209 rushes for Kyle Orton.  The 62% pass plays Marrone called for Orton was a complete reversal of what he called for Manuel. 

The questions abound:

    Why did Marrone allow EJ Manuel to pass on 56% of plays in one-score games his first 3 starts, but significantly less than that in every other start?

    Why did Marrone want Orton passing on 62% of all his plays in one-score games when he clearly prevented Manuel from playing anything close to similar?

    How could it conceivably make sense for Orton to pass on 49% of first down play calls with a 79 rating on these plays but restrict Manuel to pass on only 30% of these plays despite his 107 rating and it being his single best performing passing down?

    Why would it makes sense to put a team in bad down/distance situations by so senselessly refusing a higher efficiency play on 1st and 10:  Manuel averaged 7.7 ypa on all 1st down passes as a member of the Buffalo Bills, while every 1st down rush since 2013 gained 4.1 ypc (a 3.6 yard decrease PER PLAY.)

EJ Manuel’s 7.7 ypa on 1st down passes was over 2 ypa better than Kyle Orton.  Since 2002, no Bills quarterback came close to passing for 7.7 ypa on 1st down passes other than EJ Manuel.

The Judgment

The Bills made plenty of mistakes over the years with their quarterbacks.  They should have drafted one before 2013. They chose the worst draft in the last several years to try to find their franchise player. And Doug Marrone could have done a far better job managing Manuel.

This is not to say that EJ Manuel deserves to be the Buffalo Bills starting quarterback.  There are certainly plenty of flaws in his game.  His 68% accuracy rating stayed far too consistent from 2013 to 2014 as one of the worst in the league.  He needs to work on his performance under pressure, which seemed to regress in 2014.  He feels far too comfortable finding check downs and his air yardage/reliance in YAC grew substantially worse in 2014.  I certainly won’t stand in a line supporting EJ Manuel as a NFL starting quarterback based on some of his flaws.

But EJ Manuel is still a young quarterback capable of being molded.  He has only played in 15 games.  And after seeing how Doug Marrone so poorly misused Manuel in the passing game, I have no doubt that many of his poor rankings were the result of being artificially placed in poor down/distance situations due to play calling.  The manner in which the plays were called for EJ Manuel starting in his 4th game of his rookie year did not play to his strengths: strong decision making and accuracy on 1st down passes.

The fact that the Bills were 3.6 yds per play BETTER when EJ Manuel passed on 1st down, yet Marrone ran 70% of these plays is simply asking for trouble for your young quarterback.

The happiest person last December 31st was likely none other than EJ Manuel.  Because that was the date that Doug Marrone exercised his sneaky “out clause” to resign as Bills head coach, which activated only because the Pegulas bought the team.  He did it in order to STILL get paid his $4 million full 2015 salary from the Bills without coaching in 2015 for Buffalo.  Instead of telling the team himself that he was leaving, he sent a mass text to his players only after news of his opt-out was broken.  After that move, Marrone’s former assistant head coach at Syracuse University said that Marrone was a “self-centered, selfish, greedy, egomaniac”.

Doug Marrone and his bag of tricks will move to the Jacksonville Jaguars to coach the offensive line in 2015.  That’s correct — an NFL head coach, still under contract and likely not about to be fired, left his team and voluntarily became the offensive line coach of the worst team in the NFL. Look long and hard at Doug Marrone, because you won’t soon see another NFL head coach voluntarily flee his team in the middle of the night to take up coaching offensive line on the worst team in the NFL.  And it sounds like the Bills are now more than fine with the move, as “sources” said Marrone is all about “power and control. That’s why he is a very dangerous person to have inside the building.”

Besides, the Bills replaced Marrone with the smack-talking and ever-loquacious Rex Ryan. Rex and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman are calling the shots now.  Whether Ryan and Roman believe Manuel can win games for them will be determined soon enough.  If they do, perhaps they will call the game more to Manuel’s strengths, which will help the Bills immensely.  In training camp, Manuel will have a fresh chance to prove that he should be their 2015 starting quarterback. And perhaps if he plays every down like it’s first and 10, he will.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.