AFC East: Nate Hackett

EJ Manuel steady as Geno Smith struggles

November, 17, 2013
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This one was a no-contest.

In the second battle of the season between the first two quarterbacks chosen in April's draft -- Buffalo's EJ Manuel and the Jets' Geno Smith -- Manuel won in resounding fashion.

Completing 20 of 28 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-14 win, the Bills' rookie quarterback had statistically his best game of the season, finishing with a 121.9 passer rating and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeBuffalo's EJ Manuel
AP Photo/Heather AinsworthEJ Manuel completed 20 of 28 passes for 245 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Jets.
"He played with a lot of poise. The pressure was coming [and he] really made some good throws," coach Doug Marrone said. "Really handled things well. Wasn't really rattled at all during the whole game."

It was a sharp turnaround from Manuel's last outing in Pittsburgh, his first game back from a knee injury, when he couldn't crack 100 yards passing until the fourth quarter.

"We had to make a good decision. It was a tough choice that I had to make whether we started him on the road or waited and started him at home," Marrone said. "We made the decision that he was ready to go medically and we were going to start him back on the road."

The road loss to the Steelers proved to be a tune-up game for Manuel, but also prompted a change in how offensive coordinator Nate Hackett communicated with his quarterback.

After spending the first 10 games in the coaches' booth, Hackett moved to the sidelines for Sunday's game. It's a switch that will become permanent for the Bills this season.

"We thought it would be better for the quarterback to have Nate down there," Marrone said. "With a young quarterback ... just to be down there it's a different sense. Those guys talk to each other all during the week, they talk to each other all during practice, [but] there's a little bit of separation when he's [upstairs]."

Manuel gave a thumbs-up to the move after the game.

"Just being able to look him in the eye," Manuel said. "I haven't had face-to-face communication, instead of being on a mic or a telephone or things like that. It was really good having him down there."

So good, in fact, that Manuel never wants Hackett back in the coaches' booth.

"He's not going back up," Manuel said. "He'll be down there for the rest of my career."

As Manuel and Hackett clicked on one sideline Sunday, Smith and the Jets were left dazed on the other. In addition to being sacked four times, Manuel's rookie counterpart threw three interceptions and was eventually pulled from the game in favor of Matt Simms.

Smith's performance was a far cry from his first tilt wit the Jets in Week 3, when he completed four passes of 40 yards or more. Instead, it was Manuel who drove the ball downfield Sunday, connecting with T.J. Graham on a 34-yard touchdown and later Marquise Goodwin for 43 yards and six more points.

Given that Manuel was without his two top receivers -- Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods -- on Sunday, it had to make his third NFL win that more satisfying.

"Just playing more confident," Manuel said of his day. "Knowing where I'm going with the ball and just letting it rip. That's it."
Some quick thoughts and observations on the Jets as we head into Week 3:

1. Arms race: The perception that Geno Smith was the Jets' slam-dunk quarterback preference going into the 2013 draft isn't accurate. Smith and EJ Manuel, whom they face Sunday at MetLife Stadium, were "very close" on the Jets' draft board, according to former scout Joe Bommarito. "We had both guys up there high," he said.

Bommarito declined to divulge anything more specific than that, except to say both quarterbacks were grouped together on the same line on their board, meaning they probably had similar grades. If Smith hadn't been available in the second round, Bommarito said, they would've happily picked Manuel at No. 39 overall. Manuel took a pre-draft visit to the Jets' facility and felt the coaches liked him enough to take him.

As it turned out, the Jets passed twice on both quarterbacks (with the ninth and 13th picks). By the time they got to 39, Manuel was long gone, picked 16th by the Bills.

Bommarito's take on the two rookies: Smith has the stronger arm, Manuel gets the edge in accuracy. So far, you'd have to give the early lead to Manuel, who has made fewer mistakes than Smith. But we'll learn more about Manuel by the way he handles his first road game.

[+] EnlargeStephen Hill
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsA former Jets scout said that the team considers WR Stephen Hill, a 2012 second-round draft choice, a "four-year project."
2. The Hill Project: Bommarito, whose contract wasn't renewed after the draft, spent a dozen years as a Jets scout. One draft pick that caused a considerable amount of angst among fans (and some in the organization) was WR Stephen Hill, whose inconsistency is maddening. Bommarito is a Hill fan, but he acknowledged, "One minute, you're excited about the guy. Other times, you're like, 'Oh, really?' He's a four-year project. You have to be patient with him." He was alluding to Hill's limited background in the passing game. But four years? That's a lot of waiting in the NFL, especially for a second-round draft pick in 2012.

For more Jets-related insights from Bommarito, check him out on Twitter. His handle is @AskTheScout.

3. Rex's coaching tree: Both Rex Ryan and Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine insist everything is cool between them, and that there was no falling out at the end of last season. Ryan told me he wants Pettine to succeed in his new gig. Another former Ryan assistant, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, is off to a great start. Before Thursday night, the Jets and Chiefs were ranked first and second in total defense, respectively, among AFC teams.

"I'm proud of Bob Sutton, too," Ryan said. "Somehow, maybe I helped a little bit. I'm proud to have a little bit of a coaching tree."

4. Nate (Can) Hackett: Speaking of coaching trees, what's better than a father-son deal? Bills offensive coordinator Nate Hackett is the son of former Jets OC Paul Hackett, who served under Herm Edwards from 2001-04. Hackett, a Bill Walsh disciple, was a lightning rod for criticism. He got beat up pretty badly in this town, so much so that he resigned under pressure after the Jets' playoff run in Jan. 2005. The tabloids cranked out plenty of "Paul Can't Hack-it" headlines.

His son, 33, the second-youngest coordinator in the NFL, is a rising star in the business. Bills coach Doug Marrone, the offensive line coach on that same Edwards staff, hired Nate at Syracuse. That's where they developed the up-tempo offense they're using in Buffalo, and it happened almost by accident. About two weeks before the 2012 opener, the Syracuse offense was getting dominated by the defense in practice. They needed to shake it up, so Marrone and Hackett junked their old offensive system and developed a hurry-up attack on the fly. That's what you call a true hurry-up.

5. The big trade: Jets OT Ben Ijalana, a former second-round pick of the Colts, was "excited," but not surprised his old team made the blockbuster trade for RB Trent Richardson. Ijalana said, "This is now for the Colts. There's no later. They have Lombardi aspirations. It's no secret. They talk about it all the time."

It's great to have an aggressive organization, but I think this was a panic move by the Colts, who surrendered a first-round pick to the Browns. Richardson gives them a legitimate running back to help QB Andrew Luck, but he won't be a game changer behind that offensive line. Luck is only a second-year player, so the window of opportunity will be open for many years. Like I said, they panicked.

6. Impact on the Jets: The Colts/Browns trade could affect the Jets in 2014. Clearly, the Browns are in the market for a franchise quarterback, and now they have two first-round picks to wheel and deal their way to the top passer in the '14 draft, presumably Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville. The Browns own five picks in the first three rounds, plenty of ammunition to make trades. If the Jets don't like what they see from Geno Smith and want to draft another quarterback, it'll be really hard to move ahead of the Browns.

Then again, after trading their best player, the Browns could up with the No. 1 pick without having to trade up.

7. Rex and Marty Show: Mark my words, you'll be hearing the phrase "run-pass ratio" a lot throughout the season. The chatter already has started. Ryan is saying all the right things, claiming he's all-in with Marty Mornhinweg's pass-heavy approach, but this bears watching. Ryan is a defensive-minded coach and defensive-minded coaches have "ball control" in their DNA, especially when there's a rookie quarterback involved. Under Mornhinweg, they're running the ball in only 37 percent of the plays. In 2009, Mark Sanchez's rookie year, they ran 59 percent of the time.

8. Class of '13: GM John Idzik is getting a lot of bang out of his first draft, at least in terms of playing time. Smith and FB Tommy Bohanon have played in 100 percent and 43 percent of the offensive snaps, respectively. For DT Sheldon Richardson and CB Dee Milliner, it's 90 percent and 78 percent of the defensive snaps, respectively. Milliner, benched at halftime last week, will be part of a rotation against the Bills.

9. The Iron Man: LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson has started every game in his career (114) and has missed only one play. There have been 7,330 offensive plays since his rookie year, 2006, according to

10. Keeping up with Mr. T: Former GM Mike Tannenbaum is off to a fast start in the agent business, having signed at least 20 new clients from the coaching and media ranks. Sports Business Journal catches up with Tannenbaum to see how he's enjoying his new gig.