Pompei: Bills' Youth Movement Already Paying Dividends for Struggling Franchise

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 3, 2013

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: E.J. Manuel #3 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates their victory at the conclusion of their NFL game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 29, 2013 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Editor's Note: Longtime NFL writer Dan Pompei, who has covered 26 Super Bowls, will be writing a weekly column for Bleacher Report examining the league. 

Green is not in the color scheme of the Buffalo Bills, but no color better defines this team. The Bills enter their game against the Browns tonight as the most rookie-dependent team in the NFL.

Their starting quarterback, backup quarterback, middle linebacker and big-play wide receiver are all rookies. Even their head coach, offensive coordinator and general manager are rookies, in a sense.

But given the Bills are a surprising 2-2, maybe this is the way to go.

Team management has not shied away from rolling with youth and dealing with the vulnerabilities that stem from inexperience. These Bills would rather swing for the fences and strike out than try to bloop the ball over an infielder’s head.

Their new general manager is a former stockbroker who knows about risk management.

“It goes back to what we want to be as a team,” Bills GM Doug Whaley told me. “Let’s be aggressive, innovative, unafraid. Let’s not play it safe. Have no qualms about playing someone who has the best chance of making the play. We’d rather have a guy who can make a play over a guy who you know will do what is asked and will play it safe but is less likely to make a play.”

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And though the Bills have taken some chances by going young, they believe they have taken smart chances.

In the case of quarterback E.J. Manuel, the team was not locked into having him start from day one. But the Bills were intent on giving him the chance to start, and according to Whaley, the preseason competition between Manuel and Kevin Kolb was close. The reality, however, is that he became the starter only because Kolb suffered a season-ending concussion.

The Bills chose Manuel with the 16th pick in the April draft, making him the first quarterback selected. The move surprised many observers, but Whaley said the Bills were drawn to Manuel because of his physical traits, his personality and the “it factor” that he believes Manuel has clearly demonstrated.

Manuel’s performances have been a little uneven, but he has accomplished some remarkable things through four games.

In the season opener, he had a 105.5 passer rating against Bill Belichick’s Patriots. In the second game, he became the fifth quarterback since 1960 to lead a fourth-quarter comeback win in either the first or second game of his rookie year. And last week, he because the first rookie starting quarterback in history to lead his team to victory over the defending Super Bowl champions.

In that 23-20 win over the Ravens, the Bills ran the ball 55 times and threw it 22. That's what you call risk management.

“Those are the types of game plans we want to go forward with,” said Whaley, who observed similar game management when he was with the Steelers in 2004 and Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie quarterback. “Have a strong running game and limit the number of times you have him throwing 40 passes a game. Give him a chance to build his confidence and grow. And that also coincides with the identity we want as a team—run the ball, control the clock, and then be able to speed things up when we need to.”

That isn’t to say the Bills won’t be going downfield now and again. Robert Woods, the team’s second-round pick, has the sixth best average per catch in the NFL at 18.3 yards.

Receivers can take time to develop, but Woods has looked like a natural. And it’s not a surprise to Whaley, given that Woods started each of his 38 games at USC and caught more passes than any Trojan in history.

Whaley thought Woods was the most polished receiver in the draft, even though four were chosen ahead of him. He cited his route-running savvy, awareness on the field, blocking, ability to play special teams, professionalism and approach to film study. 

The Bills admittedly were less certain about Kiko Alonso’s ability to produce quickly, but only because he is being asked to quarterback the defense at middle linebacker. The third-round pick has been nothing short of outstanding.

Alonso is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four, and joins Jack Lambert, Chuck Howley and John Anderson as the only linebackers in history to have four September interceptions. He also is leading the Bills and all NFL rookies with 32 tackles.

“It’s a credit to his commitment to be the best,” Whaley said. “He loves football and has instincts. That is what has carried him through the learning curve. His dedication to his craft makes it easy for him to pick things up. He studies his butt off.”

Youth, as it turns out, is not a handicap for everyone.

NFL Confidential

• Rumors about injured safety Jairus Byrd being traded apparently have not been coming from Buffalo. This is what Whaley told me about the situation: “We have not discussed trading him. And it isn’t anything we are pursuing. We would listen to any call on any player, but we’re looking forward to getting him back on the field.”

• One more Bills note: Last week, I talked about Joique Bell, the “other” running back on the Detroit Lions. As it turns out, Bell should have been the other running back on the Bills. Buffalo was one of four teams Bell played for prior to landing in Detroit, and the team that signed him as a UFA out of college. In 2010 training camp, Bell was part of what undoubtedly was one of the most talented backfields the NFL has seen in quite some time. Others in the running back meeting room were Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. And the back who stood out the most in the preseason was Bell. But given all of the talent at the position, there was no spot on the 53-man roster for Bell. It wasn’t long before the Eagles poached him off the Bills’ practice squad, and Bell was off on a journey that would eventually make a fortuitous stop in the Motor City.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 25: Eugene Monroe #75 of the Jacksonville Jaguars pass blocks against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The Panthers defeated the Jaguars 16-10.  (Photo by Brian
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images

• Front-office men around the league thought the Baltimore Ravens did very well to get offensive tackle Eugene Monroe from the Jaguars for fourth- and fifth-round picks. A couple said Monroe is worth considerably more than that.

• Some people are down on defensive end Shea McClellin, but the Chicago Bears are not wavering in their commitment to the 2012 first-round pick. McClellin hasn’t had much production in games, but he keeps doing things in practice that make the team believe the light will go on for him as a pass rusher at some point. The Bears just hope it goes on soon. On the plus side, McClellin has played the run fairly well.

• People from the Cleveland Browns organization are not surprised to see tight end Jordan Cameron starting to put it together. They thought he initially was a little laid back in his approach to the game, but the talent was always there. Word is that Cameron finally realized what it takes. At least some of the credit for that has to go to head coach Rob Chudzinski, the old tight-ends guru, and his staff.

• Great take on Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub from a general manager: “A lot of teams would like to have a quarterback like him. But if you have him, you’d like to have a little better quarterback.”

• A number of front-office men are starting to question if Sam Bradford is ever going to turn the corner. One absolved the St. Louis Rams quarterback for the entirety of his team’s offensive woes—pointing out that the team misses Steven Jackson and Bradford does not have a go-to receiving target—but he still said more is expected of him. Another, however, wasn’t as sympathetic, saying Bradford looks like a “system quarterback,” and his absence of leadership and swagger have hurt the Rams.

Remember the Name: Alterraun Verner

Here's what you know about Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner: He is the AFC defensive player of the week after getting his third and fourth interceptions of the season last week, and he leads the NFL in takeaways with six.

Here's what you may not know about him: He isn’t exactly the classic shutdown corner.

At 5'10'', with 4.52 speed, Verner was considered mostly a zone corner coming out of UCLA in 2010.

The Titans never have been completely comfortable with him as their starting cornerback, as they have had a parade of players compete with him. Even this year in camp, he had to split reps with bigger, faster Tommie Campbell. But even though Verner was also taking reps at safety, he beat out Campbell and began playing the best football of his life.

Part of the difference is that the Titans, no doubt with the influence of senior assistant Gregg Williams, have been playing a more aggressive style of defense. They are getting after the quarterback more and asking their corners to play more press-man. And somehow, Verner is thriving.

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 11:  Alterraun Verner #20 and teammates of the Tennessee Titans take the field prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 11, 2012 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

“We’ve played quite a bit of man, more press,” Titans secondary coach Brett Maxie explained. “That’s the difference. That’s helped Alterraun and all our guys. Normally you would think you could see the quarterback better when you are off. But the difference is you have to honor just about every move when you are off. The advantage of being close to the receiver is it takes away some of that trying to play every single move.”

One general manager who has studied Verner likens him to Ronde Barber. He said like Barber, Verner is smart and instinctive, and he uses good technique. It also may help that Verner is motivated—he is in his contract year.

“He does a great job of preparing every week physically and mentally, and it’s starting to pay off,” Maxie said. “He’s one of those players who feels like there isn’t a receiver in the league he can’t challenge. The matchup physically might be a little difficult, but he’s going to always have the will to compete.”

Front-Office Chess

The second quarter of the season is just beginning, and the vultures are already beginning to circle. NFL people who track coaching changes expect somewhere in the vicinity of eight new hires after the season.

A lot of season has yet to be played, but the teams most likely to consider change at this point, according to the scuttlebutt, are the New York Jets, Washington Redskins, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers  Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings. And three more not to completely dismiss, they say, are the Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans and New York Giants.

Some of the replacement candidates already are being researched.

From the college ranks, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M will draw interest, as will Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington’s Steve Sarkisian.

Aug 17, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Among the assistants whose names are being bandied about are Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Two up-and-comers who could also get some attention are Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. A couple others with a chance are New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Some of the most sought-after candidates this time around could be recycled head coaches, and that isn’t even taking into account the Jon Grudens and Bill Cowhers of the world. If Jack Del Rio doesn’t take the USC job (and I'm hearing USC has Shaw and Sumlin ranked 1A and 1B on their wist list), chances are he will be an NFL head coach again. Two others who are expected to be high on a lot of lists are Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt.

Hot Reads

• Lions owner Bill Ford referred to the Bears as a “bunch of thugs” after his team's win over Chicago at Ford Field. The Bears, meanwhile, were relieved to get out of Detroit without having their team bus overturned and looted.

• It’s been swell, Christian Ponder. Now, move aside for Matt Cassel. 

• New York Giants players who are questioning Tom Coughlin may be feeling threatened, given Justin Tuck’s comments. Opposing quarterbacks of the Giants, meanwhile, are feeling nowhere near as threatened.

Thank you, Peter King, for pointing out that Jimmy Johnson’s case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame needs to be heard. Johnson wasn’t in the NFL for long, but he left a big footprint. In fact, he changed the way teams look at trades and player acquisition. And he was the first to implement rotation on the defensive line.

• If you haven’t seen The Book of Manning from ESPN Films, you are missing a special story that is wonderfully told.

• The concept of less preseason and more playoffs is sheer genius—kind of like more ice cream, less spinach.

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