ORCHARD PARK, N. Y. -- The Buffalo Bills have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about their backup quarterbacks the past couple weeks, and there still is plenty to gripe about now that the regular season is about to begin in Chicago.
The Bills released Jordan Palmer on Friday, leaving the backup job in the hands of Jeff Tuel.
But as the Bills try to put behind them a miserable preseason where they went 1-4 and were anemic on offense, they also have to be concerned with the play of their starting quarterback, EJ Manuel. If they're not, they should be.
Manuel and the first-string offense was on the field for 23 possessions in the preseason; they produced two touchdowns, and those came in the fourth game against Tampa Bay. That day, the first-string was blanked in the first half by the Bucs starters, and the offense managed just 82 yards which created a 24-0 deficit before teeing off on Tampa Bay's reserves to score a pair of third-quarter touchdowns. Only then did coach Doug Marrone sit his starters down for the remainder of the game.
In a perfect world, Manuel and his mates wouldn't have played at all in Thursday's 23-0 loss to Detroit, but Marrone felt they still needed work. So he played them for three series, and the results were strikingly similar. Going against mostly backups -- Detroit played only a handful of first-string players -- the Bills made a mere three first downs, and one of those came on a pass interference penalty. Manuel was three of seven for 56 yards, and he was sacked twice.
There was nobody in half-full Ralph Wilson Stadium who could have possibly considered it a good job, but Manuel did. And that has been his modus operandi throughout the dismal preseason, constantly telling the media that he thinks things are fine.
"Pretty good," Manuel termed his performance. "I got a couple drops on third downs, but as far as going to the right place with the ball, I thought I did a pretty good job. Coming off the field talking to coach (Nathaniel) Hackett (the offensive coordinator and (quarterbacks) coach (Todd) Downing, they told me I did a good job, so I'm psyched for that."
Manuel has said repeatedly that he's been going to the "right place with the ball." That may be true, but he hasn't done it with much accuracy, and too often the "right place" is to a back on a safe, check down play. He finished the five exhibitions 50 of 82 (61 percent) for 517 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Sixty-one percent seems OK, but when you consider that probably 85-90 percent of his attempts traveled less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, it's not so impressive.
"Quarterbacks, especially young ones, are very streaky," said Marrone, who is trying his best to defend his second-year starter, and did so after the last game by saying two of the four incompletions Manuel threw were quasi drops. "I thought that we had some good pockets at times where he was back there. I thought the two throws ... are they catchable? I think they could have been. Could they have been better throws? I think it could've been both."
Going on the road to open the season at Soldier Field against the Bears will not be an easy task for the Bills. The offense is nowhere near ready to perform at peak efficiency, and while the Bears will be looking to bounce back from a difficult defensive season in 2013, they have a potential juggernaut offense with quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, and running back Matt Forte. They will score points, even against a Buffalo defense that has played well this summer, and it seems tough to imagine the Bills could keep pace.
If Manuel doesn't play well, the Bills won't have a chance, and Marrone said he has to keep his wits about him, and help other players around him make plays. "He can't press, and he's got to relax in the pocket and throw," said Marrone. "We can help him out too by making those plays. Fred (Jackson) made a nice play, a big first down (turning a short pass into a 16-yard gain that converted a third-and-14). We've got to make those catches and make those plays to help him."
What Buffalo will hope to do is establish its running game. The Bills led the NFL in rushing attempts last year by a wide margin over Seattle. In C.J. Spiller and Jackson, they have a top-notch duo, and they now can go four-deep at the position with Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Last season, the Bears were pathetic against the run, yielding 2,583 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, and 22 rushing touchdowns, so it would be wise for Hackett to play strength against the weakness. Still, Manuel will have to make some key throws, and the jury is still way out on determining whether he's capable of doing so.
Along with Jordan, the Bills released Friday two-time Pro Bowl punter Brian Moorman, linebacker Xavius Boyd, defensive tackle Landon Cohen, tight end Dominique Jones, cornerbacks Kamaal McIlwain and Sam Miller, fullback Evan Rodriguez, wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt and cetner Jared Wheeler.
Tight end Tony Moeaki was one of three players placed on the reserve/injured list.
NOTES: WR Sammy Watkins, the first round rookie, aggravated his tender rib injury on the only series he played against Detroit, and left the game. His condition is not known, but it seems as if rest might be the only way he'll get better, which could put him in jeopardy of missing the opener in Chicago. ... CB Stephon Gilmore, who has been recovering from hip surgery, suffered a groin injury in practice before the game and sat out. ... RB Anthony Dixon led the Bills in rushing with 46 yards against Detroit, and finished the preseason with 115. ... WR Robert Woods caught two EJ Manuel passes for 36 yards, and it appears he has moved back into the top three on the receiving depth chart over Chris Hogan. If Watkins can't play in Chicago, Woods and Mike Williams will probably start.