Bills, Jets square off with rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith
The franchises rest on the shoulders of two 20-somethings.
Change has come to both Florham Park, N.J., and Orchard Park, N.Y., where rookies Geno Smith and EJ Manuel have, at least for now, been entrusted with the future of their organizations. And the spotlight will shine brightly on the pair Sunday at MetLife Stadium as they try to lead their teams to victory and 2-1 records in the AFC East.
Smith -- a former star at West Virginia -- was touted as the top quarterback in the 2013 class as the draft approached in April. But the Bills' decision to trade down to claim Manuel at No. 16, while Smith slid into the second round before eventually being selected 39th overall by the Jets, raised some eyebrows. And it also has linked the trajectory of their careers.
Whether warranted or not, the comparisons between Manuel and Smith -- the only two quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds -- inevitably will be drawn, starting Sunday.
Just a few months ago, the likelihood of these two rookies squaring off in Week 3 seemed slim to some. Both the Jets and Bills opened minicamp with viable veteran options, but a series of unexpected injuries to Kevin Kolb and Mark Sanchez -- as well as the surprising announcement of David Garrard's retirement -- opened the door for Smith and Manuel to prove they're ready for the NFL stage.
During the past two weeks, the two rookies -- both of whom had preseason injuries -- have led their teams on late game-winning drives and also lost to the Patriots by three or fewer points. And on Sunday, they will put their friendship aside in favor of a "W."
But while the Bills have expressed a long-term commitment to Manuel, the Jets publicly are taking a week-to-week approach with Smith. To make the job long-term, he'll have to show steady improvement, especially when it comes to getting rid of the ball quicker.
"He either has to make his first or second read and take off and run and make something happen, or go somewhere with the football and not take the sacks that he's taking," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said of Smith, who has completed 53.4 percent of his passes and has one touchdown pass and four interceptions. He has been sacked nine times.
The Bills have made it clear that they're trying to build something special between their first-year coach, Doug Marrone, and their first-time NFL quarterback. That's why former Syracuse coach Marrone, who defeated Smith and the Mountaineers in last year's Pinstripe Bowl, believed it was imperative to name a starter before Week 1 of the regular season.
"My philosophy has always been that the players know I was looking at one of the quarterbacks to separate themselves where the players can rally around and say he's our quarterback. . . . And I think he earned that job. That's why he's our starting quarterback," he said of Manuel, who has completed 68.2 percent of his passes and has thrown for three touchdowns. He's been intercepted once and sacked once.
The Jets, meanwhile, promoted Smith as their week-to-week starter after Sanchez suffered a shoulder injury in Week 3 of the preseason. Sanchez, who recently told NFL Network he had won the starting gig -- although Rex Ryan didn't necessarily buy into that -- was placed on short-term injured reserve last week. But while Smith hasn't been tabbed the starter for the entire season, Ryan's stance on the inexperienced Matt Simms ("We see Geno as our starting quarterback now") and Brady Quinn's consistent inactive status on game day proves the organization has no other option at quarterback right now other than Smith.
In time, the Jets might decide to shorten the leash on the rookie. But until then, Smith has a chance to prove he should have been the first-rounder that experts had predicted he would be. Even if that isn't his main focus.
"I'm not going out there worrying about what happened at the draft because that's come and gone and those feelings are far behind me," Smith said. "I'm just focusing on leading this offense, leading this team and then going out there on Sunday and playing well."
Though Moon said he'd like to see Manuel throw the ball downfield more, he added: "I really love his decision-making. They're giving him a lot of responsibility early.
"They're running a hurry-up offense. Most young quarterbacks, you don't see them being able to run that type of offense. But he definitely has the maturity and the intelligence to do it," he said of the former Florida State star. "He's big and strong and he can use his legs as well. I really like the start he's off to."