The Buffalo Bills have benched starting QB EJ Manuel in favor of journeyman Kyle Orton in an attempt to stabilize a season that may have been slipping away. The decision was somewhat notable because Manuel was drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft and was expected to be the future of the organization. Such moves often spell the end of a player’s run with a team as a viable option as a starter.
The move again shows the importance of the new CBA in the role QB decision making,. Though Manuel would not have been very highly compensated under the old system there would have been more hoops to jump through to benching him and holding him as a potential trade piece. From 2011 through 2013 there were nine quarterbacks drafted in the first round. This season we are now down to just three starters from that group- Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill. Of the other players, Blaine Gabbert and Brandon Weeden were given up on by the organizations and moved, Robert Griffin III has battled excessive injuries and ineffective play, Christian Ponder was benched and Jake Locker has been consistently injured in his run with Tennessee. It is almost a given that five of the nine players will not make it to a fifth season with the team that drafted them. The jury is still out on Tannehill and Griffin getting that far.
The last time we had a movement rate this quick would have been the 2005-2007 draft classes, which saw the uncapped year help teams move on from their draft mistakes. In 2010 Jason Campbell, Jamarcus Russell, Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart were all cut or traded. The year before the Broncos traded away Jay Cutler. The only players to see a 5th year with their team in that timeframe were Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, and Vince Young.
The Bills are one of the more strangely constructed and managed teams in the NFL. At almost every turn they send mixed signals about where their team is. A few years ago they signed Mario Williams, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Stevie Johnson to big contracts. They parted ways with the latter two and seemed prepared to become a younger team. The Bills selected Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft and this year traded up to draft a receiver, a position that usually pays dividends two to three years down the line, not right away.
Their financial decisions resemble seat of your pants management. They paid Johnson a large roster bonus to turn around and change their minds and trade him for peanuts later. He is not the first player where they have paid the player offseason bonuses only to change course weeks later and release them. They put the franchise tag on Jairus Byrd but never made a real attempt to keep him in Buffalo. At the end of the day they received nothing for him.
The decision to bring in Orton when they did likely signaled another one of their changing courses of action. I have to believe that they sent feelers out to Orton when he was under contract to the Cowboys and it was clear they never would have pushed so hard for Orton if they believed in Manuel. There was nothing on the Bills season that really hinged on the health of Manuel. They were never going to win because of him that made it so imperative to have a quality backup. There is nothing in Orton’s game or history that would indicate he would be a good mentor to the young QB. This was about replacing the QB from day 1.
Their timeline was likely diverted when Manuel won the first two games of the year, but after back to back losses it was time to make the move. It’s not as if Manuel had shown anything of merit last season or in those first two games to make someone think they could win because of him. I’m not sure any team can win because of Orton, but the team will likely have more confidence in him which is important when you get down in the second half of a game.
I think this was a move made to try and help make one last push at the playoffs. The Bills have the longest playoff drought in the NFL and with the decline of the Patriots and general ineptitude of the Jets and Dolphins the division was wide open for the taking for the first time in a very long time. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Jackson, are not getting any younger. Mike Williams and CJ Spiller may be in their last seasons with the Bills as may Jerry Hughes. Their offensive line has its fair share of older veterans and two of their corners will make the turn past 30 next season. For half the team this is probably about it and an opportunity to make a push for the playoffs.
Dumping Manuel does not impact any of the other young players on the roster moving forward. If the organization has effectively thrown in the white flag and is likely going back to the draft to grab a QB in the future it’s a no lose situation. If Orton is passable they may be relevant for a season. If Orton is passable and they are not relevant then there are no excuses that it’s the QB and it’s an easier to task to blow up the team. If Orton fails the team still gets a strong draft pick in the future. EJ Manuel isn’t so damaged that the team cant trade him, which may have happened if he continued to start.
You can not wait until 0-4 to make this move. That is a backwards way to approach the situation and why the New York Jets at this point should not bench the young QB for a veteran. The reason to insert a veteran into a lineup is to avoid falling out of the playoff race. At 0-4 you are out of the playoff race and there is no reason to put a veteran out there. There is nothing for the veteran to salvage except some pride. At 2-2 Orton can still make a difference in the Bills season before it slips away.
It may not be the most popular approach in many circles but the timing was right to give this a chance. How it works out is anyone’s guess but in the future the Bills need to stabilize their business planning if they want to have a more consistent approach to roster management. Maybe then the franchise can get back to where they were in the Jim Kelly era.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.