EJ Manuel's Buffalo Bills debut gives franchise reason for hope

INDIANAPOLIS -- In getting to know EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has found it easy to appreciate the rookie quarterback's ability to correct mistakes, his strong commitment and work ethic, his intense competitiveness.

(Who wouldn't?)

Hackett knows there is pressure. There always is for the first quarterback selected in the draft -- though perhaps Manuel is facing even more, given the success a year ago of rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.

(Who says you can't win with a first-year signal-caller?)

Yes, of course, Hackett heard the criticism after Buffalo took Manuel with the 16th overall pick in April. (A "controversial" move, a "mistake," skeptics howled.)

And Hackett has occasionally challenged -- or kidded -- Manuel by saying, "No one's talking about you."

(For the record, Hackett loves talking about Manuel: "I can't believe we got him, and I'm glad he's ours.")

But Hackett, a 33-year-old human can of Red Bull who accentuates the positive in his high-octane approach to coaching, mostly has decided that Manuel doesn't need such manufactured motivation. "EJ wants to be great," Hackett told NFL.com. "He wants to create his own identity."

Well, say this for the 23-year-old out of Florida State: He knows how to make an entrance.

In Sunday's preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts, Manuel made magic in the form of a blissful 96-second, 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive just before halftime. He was 9-for-9. He was patient and poised, using his checkdowns to move downfield, then firing a 17-yard dart to tight end Dorin Dickerson for the score -- all with a timeout to spare.

"The two-minute drill was impressive," first-year Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "Very impressive, no matter who you are."

Marrone, who has brought both a new staff and a new energy to the team, initially considered whether to try to run out the clock before intermission. "Let's go two-minute," he ultimately decided.

Manuel's thinking in the moment? "I was excited," he would say later. "That's really where quarterbacks are measured."

The drive ended Manuel's day -- he finished 16-of-21 for 107 yards and one touchdown, adding on three rushes for 28 yards -- with an exclamation point. In the locker room at halftime, he received plenty of congratulations from his teammates.

(He also had a nice postgame exchange with Luck, who told Manuel that he looked comfortable. "Obviously, I said the same to him," Manuel said. "Getting props from him was really nice.")

Hackett liked that Manuel was able to relax and find his stride, particularly in the second quarter, and that his footwork improved. Manuel said that between hugs, Hackett told him "that I did a good job not trying to force anything, taking what the defense gave me."

As Marrone noted, when Manuel and Co. embarked on the two-minute drill, the "whole football team (was) watching."

Translation: The whole football team was wondering, OK, what's the kid got?

The answer, on Sunday: plenty.

"It sets the bar high," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said.

And if you think this doesn't matter in Buffalo, because the 44-20 victory over the Colts was "just a preseason game," you are wrong. This is a group -- a franchise, a fan base, a city -- that has grown sick of losing in the eight seasons that have passed since the Bills' most recent winning campaign.

"For a team that hasn't won a whole lot in the last few years, coming out and playing like this in preseason is what we have to do," Bills center Eric Wood said. "That'll be good for our confidence."

Hope comes in several forms now for the Bills. There is Marrone, whose up-tempo style represents a welcome contrast from the team's recent history. And Mike Pettine, the former New York Jets defensive coordinator who's getting strong early reviews for his aggressive style in Buffalo.

There's a host of youngsters, including rookie receivers Marquise Goodwin, the Olympic track star with world-class speed who will make defenders look silly -- and slow -- in the open field, and Robert Woods, the USC product who was widely regarded as the most NFL-ready pass catcher in the draft.

And there is Manuel, who at 6-foot-4 and 237 pounds just might have the broad shoulders, figuratively and literally, to help bring Buffalo back.

A natural born leader was the Bills' read, pre-draft, on Manuel. Nothing has changed the organizational opinion since then.

"EJ has such great potential," said linebacker Bryan Scott, in his 11th season and a member of the Bills since 2007. "He's so poised, very mature for a young guy. That gets you excited as a (veteran), seeing him being able to take control of the huddle and the field and the situation (in the two-minute drill). I want to see more situations like that."

First, though, there is the matter of the quarterback competition in Buffalo. Veteran Kevin Kolb is still firmly in the mix, Bills people vow, and the battle is characterized as being wide open. Kolb hasn't fully practiced since Aug. 3, when he slipped and injured his knee, and he missed time last week after a death in the family. He is expected to return to the practice field this week.

We'll buy the idea that Manuel has to outduel Kolb before he starts Week 1 against the New England Patriots. But it's hard to imagine that Manuel hasn't taken the lead in the race. The rookie said Sunday's game represented "the real deal. It's the show."

It also might have represented a new beginning for the Bills. Those 96 seconds made for one heck of a first impression.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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