When a team brings in a new head coach and a rookie quarterback, it's usually because that team has not won a lot of games in recent years.
In that respect alone, it would be hard for head coach Doug Marrone and quarterback E.J. Manuel to be much worse than their respective predecessors, Chan Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick, but you don't get a lot of credit just for being better than the last guy. Changing a losing culture and taking a team to the playoffs are the best ways to validate the moves.
But what are reasonable expectations for the new duo?
What Does History Tell Us?
Expectations are usually kept fairly low for first-year combos as teams earn the inauspicious label of "rebuilding," but labels come in all shapes, sizes, colors and font styles. Truth be told, "rebuilding" has been printed in bright colors with smiley faces and pictures of players scoring touchdowns all over it.
Teams that are looking for that new combination have found relative success, at least out of the gate, if not longer.
In the past five years, four of 10 teams that have made the switch at both spots have gone on to the playoffs the next year. Six of them have gone on to post winning records within two years of the changes.
After going 4-12 in 2007, with head coach Bobby Petrino walking out on the team midseason, the Falcons picked up Mike Smith for his first head-coaching gig and drafted quarterback Matt Ryan third overall.
The moves proved to be franchise-altering. They went 11-5 in 2008 and ended a three-year playoff drought in Atlanta. The Falcons had never posted back-to-back winning seasons since the franchise was founded in 1966. Under Smith and Ryan, they have gone on to post five consecutive winning seasons.
Let's not be mistaken, though: The rewards haven't always been immediate. The rewards haven't always come at all. Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in their second year under head coach Raheem Morris, they never made it to the playoffs, and he was ultimately fired after three years on the job.
Early success has not always led to sustained success, either. The New York Jets started off hot with quarterback Mark Sanchez and head coach Rex Ryan, going 20-12 in the regular season their first two years together and going 4-2 in the playoffs with two trips to the AFC Championship Game, but they have been stymied since then with no trips to the playoffs and no winning records the past two seasons.
Some early success would buy them the time they need to get the franchise headed in the right direction for the foreseeable future.
Where the Team Stands
The Bills entered 2012 with high expectations after signing two pass-rushing defensive ends in Mark Anderson and Mario Williams and after re-signing several offensive players including wide receiver Stevie Johnson and running back Fred Jackson.
They fell short of expectations across the board, largely because quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn't throw the ball deeper than 20 yards; head coach Chan Gailey made a truckload of bad decisions; and their defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, was incredibly vanilla in his play calls and overall scheme.
They have many of the same players, but they will be a much different team than we've seen in recent years.
On offense, the Bills are looking at changes at quarterback, left guard and wide receiver. Eight of 11 starters return on that side of the ball. On defense, they're making changes at linebacker, cornerback and strong safety, with seven of 11 starters returning from 2012.
That's not a great deal of turnover, but where uncertainty kicks in is with the new schemes the players will have to learn.
Will the defense be a 3-4, a 4-3, a hybrid, a nickel-based defense or—what seems more likely—a mix of the above based on each opponent?
With a highly talented wide receiver, a borderline-elite running back and an underrated offensive line, the Bills have at least some of the tools to take some of the burden off Manuel.
In fact, if last year is any indication, the Bills might be better off not relying too heavily on the quarterback but instead allowing Spiller to do his magic. He was actually just as effective when he got a lion's share of the workload as he was when he was kept in a limited role.
What Needs to Happen in Year 1 and Beyond
Oftentimes, these first-year-combo situations work out best when the coach makes life easier for the quarterback. The coach can accomplish this by tailoring the offense to the player's strengths and what the player did well at the collegiate level.
Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are often regarded as West Coast-style offensive minds, but they didn't shy away from using read-option elements in their offense at Syracuse. In fact, the Orange led the Big East in rushing attempts per game in 2012, with Ryan Nassib ranking third on the team (84 attempts, 142 yards, two touchdowns).
E.J. Manuel is considered a very athletic quarterback with a big arm, but Florida State did not run much of a read-option element in its offense. Manuel had some explosive runs for the Seminoles but averaged just 3.01 yards per carry in his career. Much of Manuel's keep on the ground was earned by scrambling or on designed bootlegs.
The Bills should try to blend elements together for the best of both worlds.
With the dynamic threat of C.J. Spiller in the backfield, the Bills could use play action and the read-option to a distinct advantage if they're able to draw it into the game plan.
Much of Florida State's offense was run out of the shotgun, but it wasn't a read-option attack. Manuel has, however, been called a one-read quarterback because he often didn't have to go through his progressions; he would simply throw to the first read, who was almost always open.
Manuel himself will have to learn how to go through progressions, but behind a Bills offensive line that gave up sacks on just 3.8 percent of pass plays in 2011 (second in the NFL) and on 5.5 percent of pass plays in 2012 (11th), he should have plenty of time in the pocket to make those reads.
At this point, Manuel feels he is learning the offense and that it's easier than the one he ran at Florida State. He told SiriusXM NFL Radio the following (via ESPN):
The funny thing is it's easier to learn than the offense I had at Florida State. It's a true West Coast-type progression offense. That's really what I wanted when I was coming through the pre-draft process. I wanted something that I could just go in and say 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, check it down and run it. That's it. It's that simple. I love it.
But he can't stay content if he wants to lead the Bills to success.
The quarterback position has been the weak link for this team for years, and unless Manuel puts forth a good rookie effort, the perception will be that their woes have not yet been fully put to rest.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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