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EJ’s knee: Deep breathing, long-term vision

blog by Nick Mendola  • 

Standing in the cavernous tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium as rookie quarterback EJ Manuel left the field Friday night, it was impossible not to be struck by hope. Even in the dregs of sport that is preseason football, Buffalo had struck a blow for its embattled fans with Manuel leading another touchdown drive to propel the Bills to a 2-0 start.

The thousands who stuck around after Kids Day were arguably remaining for the fireworks, but they were also saluting the kid. In the dark—slightly-lit by Buffalo’s absurdly large scoreboard—the chants echoed down at the 23-year-old from Virginia Beach:

“E.J.! E.J.! E.J.!”

Within 24 hours, a pall was cast on that moment of wonder, of forecasting for the future, as Bills head coach Doug Marrone announced that Manuel woke up with swelling in his knee and would miss the rest of the preseason. There is no certain return date.

When it comes to being a Buffalo Bills fan, it just can’t be easy, can it?

While the facts remain that Manuel’s injury is minor and the surgery likely as routine as opening up a human’s leg can be, the tone of the early season was changed. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, this is likely just a minor bump in the road expressly elevated by the 24-7 lens of sports and social media.

Yet it also alters the entire story of the 2013 Bills. Perhaps it’s just this writer, but it’s a murky proposition to say that Manuel misses two weeks of preparation as rookie only to return off a week’s worth of practice to face the New England Patriots in Week One.

Perhaps there are regimes in which this would happen but Doug Marrone strikes me as a coach who badly wants to win a game of shuffleboard at the nearest tavern, let alone his first contest as head coach in the National Football League.

Heck, the bewilderment on Vikings coach Leslie Frazier after the Bills unveiled max effort in a meaningless preseason game shows the difference between Marrone and the NFL norm.

As bad as Kevin Kolb appeared for most of Friday, booed after every unsuccessful drive by a merciless group of children (Okay, okay, there were plenty of grown-ups at Kids Day), he’s not the end of the 2013 playoff run.

Kolb went into New England in Week 2 last season and beat the Pats with a score on the ground and another through the air. He also had eight touchdowns and just three picks with the 4-1 Cardinals when the Bills ended his season in 2012’s Week Six.

Taking a step back, the Manuel injury and surgery dampen the enthusiasm and cinematic qualities of projecting 2013, but it’s far from the end of the world. It gives Marrone the option of plugging in Kolb to start the season without infuriating the locker room (The kid’s outperformed Kolb but a knee’s quite literally and obviously a knee).

Even in a world where the Bills beat the Pats with Kolb, it’s far from a worst-case scenario. Either Manuel gets plugged as early as Week Two when fully healthy (the rationale being “you don’t lose a job to injury”) or Kolb plays on knowing one slip-up brings on the rook.

So yes, Bills fans have been removed from a week of glowing predictions of how perfect the Manuel story has been from his demeanor to touchdowns drives but the rookie still has plenty to learn. He’s made great decisions but his touch and speed still needs plenty of NFL seasoning.

There’s plenty positive to keep in mind as Manuel’s knee heals up for a return to the field. And if his injury, for some horrible reason and in true and recent Bills fashion, is the harbinger of long-term devastation with the EJ Manuel project, well, at least we’ll always have the “E.J.” chants.

Just kidding. It’s going to be fine. Really. It is. Trust me. Really. I think.

(Photos courtesy of the Buffalo Bills’ Facebook page—see their original copies here).

TAGGED: buffalo bills, doug marrone, ej manuel, football, nick mendola

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