ALAMEDA – EJ Manuel joined the Buffalo Bills during a downturn. They dwelled in the AFC East five years running, which generally prompts a team to draft a quarterback high.
EJ Manuel was their man, taken No. 16 overall in the 2013 NFL draft. He started 10 games as a rookie and four more his second season before losing the top job. He never got it back during a tumultuous time dealing with two head coaches and competitions with three different quarterbacks. The Bills declined his fifth-year option and let him walk to Oakland as a free agent.
Raiders tight end Lee Smith was in Buffalo during Manuel’s first two NFL seasons. He knew Manuel then and now. He sees a difference, and a far better chance to work with talented weapons.
“EJ didn’t come into the greatest situation years ago in Buffalo,” Smith said. “We were in a building process up there, and we didn’t have Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and Jared Cook. Not to say we were terrible back then, but he didn’t have what he has now.
“He was a 22-year old man with great expectations as a first-round draft pick. It wasn’t the best situation for him, but he always handled things like a pro. He’s a good quarterback and he’s a good man. I’d let him babysit my kids.”
Manuel is, by all accounts, a stand up guy. He also has first-round size and arm talent, with serious heat on the fastball. He signed for the veteran minimum for the chance to reunite with Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing – he was Bills quarterbacks coach in 2014 – and rejuvenate his career.
He was brought in for moments like this. Starting quarterback Derek Carr will miss a game or more after suffering a transverse process fracture in his back Sunday at Denver.
The Raiders learned last year that inexperience kills in those situations. Matt McGloin struggled mightily after Carr broke his fibula and then got hurt, leaving rookie Connor Cook to start and struggle in a playoff game.
Manuel earned the backup job, and the Raiders are glad he’s here. He filled in well Sunday even in a losing effort and, more important than the original result, Manuel didn’t wilt under a heat lamp.
“I don’t think the moment was too big for him,” Del Rio said. “I thought he was accurate, he made good decisions with the exception of putting that one up late on second down (it was intercepted to kill a comeback attempt), just check it down there and keep moving the chains. But overall, I liked the demeanor he played with. I liked the certainty he played with. I liked his accuracy.”
Manuel’s performance and poise inspired confidence as the Raiders start a three-game home stand that starts with Baltimore and the L.A. Chargers. The Raiders are good enough to win those games with a backup – they close that stretch versus Kansas City, a different animal altogether – and Manuel must deliver. He’ll have a week to get used to the first team and must be ready Sunday against the Ravens.
He won’t, however, have to fill Carr’s role as team leader. The Raiders are well equipped to handle that.
“The front office has done a great job of putting a veteran leader in every position group,” Smith said. "All of us have to manage our own rooms and do our jobs. Farm your own land. There’s no need to fix the world as far as football’s concerned.
“Everybody needs to do their job, and we’ll be just fine. Nobody needs to try and be a hero now that Derek’s down. The guy didn’t retire. He’s still here. He’ll still be here to lead us. His presence will still be felt. If he’s not on the field this week, next week, however long he’s gone, we’ll be fine if we do our jobs.”