ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills’ monthlong shuffle at quarterback is coming to an end after rookie starter EJ Manuel returned to practice Wednesday.
Manuel’s presence on the field, and the expectation that he’ll be ready to step in immediately and start against the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6) on Sunday, has provided the Bills a much-needed lift.
“Yeah, we’re excited to get EJ back,” center Eric Wood said. “Hopefully, it gives us a boost, offensively.”
And don’t underestimate the importance of Manuel re-establishing stability at a position that was mostly unsettled in the four weeks since the first-round draft pick out of Florida State sprained his right knee.
“He’s the guy that we wanted to be back there, and we’ve got him back there now,” running back Fred Jackson said.
“To get some stability there, a guy that’s going to be there for the remainder of the season hopefully is something that can help this offense move in the right direction.”
The Bills (3-6) were going nowhere in losing three of four without Manuel, who was hurt in a 37-24 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 3.
The injury prompted a scramble by the team to find a capable replacement at a position where Buffalo lacked experienced depth.
Journeyman Thad Lewis was promoted from the practice squad to take over as interim starter after undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel struggled filling in for Manuel against the Browns.
Lewis went 1-2 before he was sidelined by bruised ribs, which led to Tuel making his first career start in a 23-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend.
Tuel’s inexperience was once again evident against the Chiefs. He threw two interceptions, the second one returned 100 yards for a touchdown in a game where Buffalo squandered a 10-3 halftime lead and outgained Kansas City 470-210.
Manuel was cleared to play earlier this week after spending most of last week working out individually.
On Wednesday, Manuel showed no signs of a limp while dropping back to pass, and he completed several throws into gusty winds during a 20-minute portion of practice open to the media.
“Yeah, very confident. Pushing off it fine. Running around and making plays,” Manuel said. “It’s still up to coach as far as what we want to do as a team, but I definitely feel confident going into Sunday.”
Coach Doug Marrone liked what he saw, and acknowledged that Manuel is expected to start barring any setbacks.
“From a standpoint of being healthy, he’s fine,” Marrone said. “Now it’s just to the point of really trying to get him back.”
Plan B would be starting Lewis, who also returned to practice Wednesday.
Manuel might not have all that much more experience than Lewis or Tuel. But he has had the most time in learning Marrone’s offense, and showed a capability of running it in going 2-2 before he was hurt.
In four-plus games, Manuel went 85 of 150 for 985 yards passing with five touchdowns with three interceptions and a lost fumble.
Lewis and Tuel combined to produce similar numbers in going 88 of 162 for 961 yards and four touchdowns.
They struggled in protecting the ball by committing eight giveaways: five interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns; and three lost fumbles.
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Manuel has a strong arm and provides an element of mobility to the Bills’ up-tempo attack.
The only issue with him is avoiding hits, as happened against Cleveland when he elected to keep running rather than get out of bounds before being struck in the right knee by safety Tashaun Gipson. Manuel also missed the final two preseason games with a left knee injury.
Manuel is defensive when it comes to answering questions about his running style. He went so far as to describe his latest injury as “a freak accident.”
“If I lifted my knee up a half-inch more it wouldn’t have been a problem,” he said.
Manuel added it hasn’t been yet determined whether he’ll play with a protective brace.