ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.- At this time last year, the Buffalo Bills were still installing their offense with a new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback. Now, Doug Marrone, Nathaniel Hackett and EJ Manuel are all returning for a second season. That alone makes the unit one step ahead of where they were last year.
"I think we're all used to each other now," Manuel said after the team's first mandatory minicamp practice. "Obviously, we are an order together. It's good to have the same offensive coordinator and the same head coach and not have a bunch of different changes. I think everyone having rapport with each other makes it easier to hold each other accountable. If somebody is not doing the right thing, then they aren't going to take it the wrong way if you point it out.
Manuel took his fair share of lumps during organized team activities – as did the entire offense – but much of that has been credited to learning the adjustments to this year's playbook. Now that the offense has learned everything, the unit should look sharper.
"I like the fact that (Marrone's) putting more on us, especially because we've got young guys in skill positions," Manuel said. "It's really put more of the onus on us to get stuff down and that's made this week easier because we pretty much know all the plays already. We've run them all a bunch of times, so there's not going to be any new stuff to learn."
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has had Manuel checking in and out of plays during the offseason practices. The quarterback expects to continue to get more freedom from the coaching staff.
"I think coach Hackett is going to put everything on my plate that we need to win," Manuel said. "I don't think we will be limited at all in terms of play calling, but at the end of the day it's all about execution. You can go out there with 20 plays, if you execute those plays well you're going to win the game. Football's not that hard, you just got to execute and make plays."
Manuel has also had more input with his coaches. Hackett has removed certain plays from the playbook that Manuel didn't like. The offensive formations will also be less vanilla, he said.
This season, Hackett won't be wearing two hats as both the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The team hired Todd Downing so Manuel and the rest of the quarterbacks could have another set of eyes. Manuel worked with Downing during the 2013 Senior Bowl. "He's a great guy," Manuel said. "I spend a lot of time with him up in the film rooms and after hours. I'm really excited he's our quarterback coach."
Downing comes to the Bills after holding the same job in Detroit under current Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
"He's very positive," the Bills quarterback added. "Coach TD doesn't really sit or dwell on any negatives. I think whenever you have a coach like that it's easier to let a mistake or a mishap roll right off your shoulders. I think that's contagious and it goes right into all of us. If a play doesn't go how we want it to go, you have to keep moving. We have 40 other plays left to practice. I love that attitude."
Downing has had the quarterbacks spend plenty of time working on their footwork. It is one of the most important mechanics, after all. "I think everything for us, as quarterbacks comes down to footwork," Manuel said. "If your feet aren't in line with what the receivers are doing with their routes, the ball isn't going to get to them at the right time. If you drop back and you hitch, you can't take another hitch because then the ball's going to come out late, it's going to get knocked down, something like that."
"Obviously, that comes with some frustration, but it's something we have to get past and have to learn. It's better to make those mistakes out on the practice field than in a game on Sunday."
The intensity in practice has increased with the additions of defensive linemen Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. Dareus and Lawson didn't report to the voluntary OTAs.
During rookie minicamp, wide receiver Sammy Watkins came to the field house well before the start of practice and often stayed late. The Bills don't seem too worried about the fourth overall pick's progress thus far.
"Sammy has been learning and he's done a great job," Manuel said. "He's put in a lot of effort off the field after practice, asked questions and used the playbook a lot. He texts me asking questions about certain plays. Sammy is going to be great. I'm not worried about him."
Now in his second year, Manuel has been able to provide leadership to the offense. That is extremely important after the team added three offensive linemen and Watkins in this year's draft. "It's holding each other accountable," he said. "If you have a rough day, it's not that we're coming down on you. Obviously we're going to critique what we need to critique. If I have a rough day with my receivers I'll say, "Hey, you should have done this." I think it's just us holding each other accountable and that just comes from having a relationship with each other."
"I just want to have an identity. I know we often want to have our identity set in these three days. Obviously we had nine practices for OTAs, but in these next three days and the next three or four weeks we want to set our identity for training camp and pick up where we leave off and fall right into the season strong."
The only veterans not in attendance were Scott Chandler and Cordy Glenn. Rookie Seantrel Henderson also wasn't on hand. All three were excused by Marrone.
The next minicamp practice is scheduled for Wednesday at 3:15 p.m.