ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE
PITTSBURGH - The excitement surrounding the return of EJ Manuel was palpable all week, as if the Buffalo offense was going to suddenly experience some sort of resurrection with him back under center.
Almost from the moment Manuel said last Monday that he had been cleared to practice, there was this feeling in Bills Nation that all was going to be well and the misery of having to watch Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel was over.
I didn't get it, and still don't after watching Manuel stumble and bumble during Buffalo's desultory 23-10 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers at less-than-energized Heinz Field.
Not that I prefer watching Lewis or Tuel, or hoped that Doug Marrone would have started either of them instead of Manuel, because I don't. But at no point in the week did I ever believe that on this particular day Manuel was going to be the cure-all for the struggling offense, and I fully expected this to be a tough game for him.
Just not as tough as it was.
Manuel looked terrible. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 155 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Before the final garbage-time possession when the Steelers were sitting back and letting the Bills do whatever they wanted, Manuel was 11 for 25 for 79 yards. Not even Tuel last week was that bad. The Steelers exposed Manuel as the rookie that he is. No sin, they've done it to plenty others - and more than a few veterans, too.
This season is not about wins and losses for the Bills. At least not to me. I pegged them for six wins, and when the final gun sounds in New England Dec. 29, I'm willing to bet right now 6-10 is going to be this team's record. If it's 7-9, hey, good for the Bills, glad I was wrong.
No, this season is all about seeing whether Manuel is the long-awaited answer to Buffalo's prolific dearth in competent quarterbacking. The newly led braintrust believed he was the guy, so they used the 16th overall choice in the 2013 draft to bring him in. When you invest such a high pick on a quarterback, everything else is ornamental by comparison.
The performance of the new coaching staff, the development of the young receivers, the badly-needed overhaul of the defensive scheme, it all pales in comparison to finding out if the Bills got it right with Manuel.
Five and a half games is far too few to make a qualified judgment, but we can safely say that if the next six games are anything similar, Bills fans should be worried.
Quite frankly, Manuel has been a disappointment. Yes, he hurt his knee in the preseason and lost some valuable practice and practice-game playing time. And yes, he hurt his other knee against Cleveland and lost four full regular-season games.
But in every game he has played, he was medically cleared to play, and both he and Marrone went to great lengths to assure everyone that he would not be limited. So, with that in mind, it's not out of bounds to say that he was mediocre before Cleveland, and he wasn't even that against the Steelers. Disappointing, especially in an era when the standards for rookie quarterbacks has been elevated.
I'm glad he's back. He needs to play because he truly is the best the Bills have. And let's just hope that the confluence of knocking the rust off, of playing an angry Steeler defense, and playing in gusty winds that he's not used to, all conspired to sabotage his day, and that better days are ahead for him.
Here are some other thoughts I have regarding the game:
• Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, last year's first-round pick, is playing far below the level he played at last season. Gilmore missed the first five games with a wrist injury, and it's still bothering him. However, while that's an excuse for not being able to press receivers at the line or tackling properly, it's not an excuse for losing coverage as often as he has. By the middle of 2012, opposing quarterbacks pretty much stopped throwing his way. This year, they're actually going after him and he's not responding.
• It's good to see that Jerry Hughes is starting to figure it out. A first-round bust in Indianapolis, he came to the Bills looking for a fresh start, and he's gotten one. He had two sacks, giving him six for the season. He's been a nice addition.
• Bad day for Brian Moorman. This was the kind of game that got him cut last year. It was a tough day for punting, yes, but wind has usually never been an issue for him.
• I despised the call Doug Marrone made to punt on fourth-and-5 at the Steelers 36 early in the fourth quarter. He said he was playing the field position game. Why? The Bills were down 14 points, and they hadn't been that deep in Pittsburgh territory since their very first possession of the game. That's exactly the kind of decision I thought we were done with in Buffalo. Guess not.
• Good to see Jairus Byrd make a big play. It's been a while. Too bad it only resulted in a field goal.
• And by the way, the reason that opening possession after the Byrd pick ended in a field goal was this: Manuel audibled to that silly fade route that was intended for Stevie Johnson. Nathaniel Hackett called for a run on third-and-goal from the 2, but Manuel saw Johnson one-on-one and changed the play.