It's been close to impossible to evaluate the Buffalo Bills' season because of all the key injuries, but it looks like we may finally get an idea of what this team is truly capable of.
The Bills' Twitter account announced on Monday that quarterback EJ Manuel has been cleared to return after missing the past four games with a knee injury.
#Bills QB EJ Manuel has been cleared to return.— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) November 4, 2013
Manuel could be exactly the boost the Bills need to start stringing some wins together, but the damage that was done to the team's season hopes during his four weeks off the field may unfortunately prove too much to repair.
This is the second knee injury in his young career, with the first resulting in over two weeks of missed time in the preseason. The first injury was not considered serious—he had to have a "minor procedure" to have some fluid drained.
He sprained his knee this time around and was back on the field in four weeks.
However, in the time he missed, the Bills let go of a 21-17 lead over the Cleveland Browns to lose that game and went 1-3 overall in the four contests Manuel missed.
The difference hasn't been too great in terms of throwing the football, but when it comes to running, the difference is clear—Manuel gives the team a spark.
Manuel has averaged 3.6 yards per carry on his 25 runs, while Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel have averaged 3.1 per carry on their 17 runs. The rookie is more productive and capable in that role than the Bills' other options.
Barring six kneels, Manuel has been brought down for a loss on only one of his runs. Only four of his 19 real runs have been stopped short of three yards.
He has already shown how dangerous he can be when he gets that 6'5", 240-pound frame moving forward, but running is a dangerous task. That was proven on this 14-yard dash against the Browns, which resulted in his knee injury.
The play itself served as an example of both the highs and lows of a mobile quarterback.
On one hand, he can deliver a momentum-shifting play. On the other hand, that play also ended up shifting the momentum of the Bills season. They ended up scoring on that possession, but not again for the remainder of the game on their way to a 34-24 loss.
They lost in dramatic fashion to the Cincinnati Bengals after coming back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, but won an equally crazy game against the Miami Dolphins during which they gave up a 14-point, first-quarter lead. They trailed 21-17 in the third quarter, but put together enough clutch plays to scrape out the win.
They even had the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes in Week 9, but a 10-3 halftime lead gave way to a 23-13 loss.
Who knows what the Bills' record would be if Manuel had been in the lineup?
Nevertheless, the backups have been doing admirably in his place. As mentioned above, the Bills have been keeping it close even without their starting quarterback.
There are no moral victories in football, but if Manuel brings any kind of boost to the team, those close calls could turn into close games, which could become real victories with their starting quarterback back at the helm of the offense.
The remaining schedule is also very kind to the Bills.
|10||at Pittsburgh Steelers||2-6|
|11||vs. New York Jets||5-4|
|13||vs. Atlanta Falcons||2-6|
|14||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-8|
|15||at Jacksonville Jaguars||0-8|
|16||vs. Miami Dolphins||4-4|
|17||at New England Patriots||7-2|
This has been a tough season to predict, but the Bills' remaining slate is not exactly a gauntlet of the toughest opponents the NFL hast to offer.
Consider the following:
- The combined record of the Bills' remaining opponents is 20-38.
- The Bills' next three road opponents have a combined record of 2-22.
- The toughest upcoming opponents are the 5-4 Jets and the 7-2 Patriots, but the Bills could even feel confident about those games. They lost the previous matchups against them by seven or fewer points.
- Manuel wouldn't even be the first rookie quarterback in the past 12 months to lead a 3-6 team to seven straight wins and a trip to the playoffs—just ask the Washington Redskins and quarterback Robert Griffin III.
- The next five opponents rank in the bottom half of the league in defensive passer rating.
The season is not over, but the next loss could be the final nail in the coffin.
We also must remember that Manuel doesn't play defense. His return won't help a group that yields 26.2 points per game (24th in the NFL) and has allowed three or more passing touchdowns in three of its nine games this year.
No one expects Manuel to be perfect as a rookie, but he—and the Bills as a whole—will have to be close to perfect if they want to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
As of right now, however, there are too many self-inflicted wounds to overcome. The Bills are the ninth-most penalized team in the NFL, getting a flag on 7.1 plays per game.
The eventual return to health of running back C.J. Spiller could also be a boost for the offense. He was listed as doubtful against the Saints and ended up being inactive. He practiced this week and was listed as probable headed into Sunday's game against the Chiefs, but was productive (155 yards on 14 touches) despite playing on a high ankle sprain.
How many wins will the Bills finish with this season?
We don't know what Manuel will look like after another long layover from hist last NFL action. We also don't even know if we can expect Manuel to be around for the remainder of the season.
That being said, Bills fans are already becoming familiar with the risks and rewards of a mobile quarterback. Luckily, they've gotten theirs back in time to make a push for the postseason. Unluckily, it looks like that won't be enough to get them into the postseason.
The margin for error is simply too slim.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.