The most injured offense in the country was a big source of Manuel's problems in 2011, but there is plenty to his game that can improve.
This is the 46th in a series of articles counting down the most important players for Florida State in 2012. There are 11 days until FSU football, and that's how many are left on the list. That means no off days. Oh, and these are not in any specific order
Member of the Seminole Student Boosters and two-time member of the ACC All-Academic football team...rated the No. 2 quarterback in the country as a high school senior by multiple recruiting outlets...earned Parade All-American honors and was a member of the PrepStar Dream Team...participated in the Under Armour All-Star game...accounted for nearly 7,400 yards and 68 touchdowns in his high school career...earned All-Tidewater district honors and was a Group AAA second-team All-State selection...chose FSU over LSU, Oregon, Tennessee and Alabama, among others...born March 19, 1990.
Manuel came into 2011 with high expectations based on his prior performance as a backup to Christian Ponder. But a shoulder injury, mental struggles and an inconsistent offensive line conspired to prevent him from reaching his potential. Manuel went 203-311 (65%), 2,666 yards and an efficiency rating of 151. That's pretty good. To that, he added 150 rushing yards, which doesn't really tell us a lot since the NCAA foolishly adds sack yardage into rushing totals. He was also the highest rated passer in conference play.
He's been good. But he also hasn't lived up to his potential.
There are a lot of questions about Manuel heading into his final year at Florida State, but physical toughness isn't one of them. The injuries he's suffered have not been of the nature that tougher players would have played through them (separated shoulder, finger injury where the bone sticks out of the skin, etc.).
It's difficult (for everyone, coaches included) to determine the extent that his injuries affected his play. You can say it was his non-throwing shoulder, but it clearly had an effect on his throwing motion. I imagine the pain didn't help his decision making, either.
And certainly, Manuel did not get much help from the guys around him. Florida State had the most injured offense in the country. It's called bad luck. Offense is a team game. It requires continuity, anticipation, trust, etc. Defense is much more of a collection of individual tasks, because it doesn't involve a ball. With all the pieces rotating in and out of FSU's offense, Manuel had it rough. He was not able to develop the crucial trust with his fellow offensive players, because he didn't know who they were going to be from week to week.
And to Manuel's credit, he did a lot of things well and is a good quarterback.
One of the best things he did was avoiding interceptions, slicing his interception percentage in half compared to his first two seasons. He also continued to create big plays in the passing game. I happen to believe these are related, as deep passes in one-on-one coverage are not often intercepted, provided that the receiver plays defensive back on a really bad throw.
Oh, and Manuel continues to be excellent with play action fakes. If FSU had a better running game like the very efficient rushing attacks it had in 2008, 09 and 10, these would be more effective as opposed to just pretty.
Also, remember that FSU's offense was neither good nor terrible. Sure, compared the the excellent attacks in '09 (4th) and '10 (7th) it may have seemed terrible, but it really wasn't. There were stretches of very bad, and stretches of very good. All told, FSU finished with the 32nd best offensive season (adjusted for opponent quality, field position, defensive scoring, etc.). But it wasn't what a program like Florida State should expect, either, and it needs to get back up to the level of '09 and '10.
There are some of the issues he needs to fix to become a great college quarterback and go to the next level. Now let's get into what he and the staff need to work on. And remember, Manuel is already a good QB. These are things that must be done to bridge the gap to greatness.
EJ Manuel is a smart kid and a good student. But that does not always translate to football intelligence. As Alan recently explained:
Literally everyone I've spoken with who has had contact with EJ has said he's a very smart guy.
The kind of intelligence that goes into being a great QB doesn't necessarily correlate to more general intelligence, though. Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Brett Favre, etc are not bright shining intellects, by any stretch of the imagination but all were very good QBs. Better than plenty of guys who most everyone would agree were smarter men.
A big part of it is spatial awareness. Just seeing where the open spots on the field are and the kind of intelligence that will see how the play is developing and where the holes WILL be. Another part is the kind of intuitive intelligence that can jump to correct answers without consciously going through the logical "if, then" statements to arrive at it. It's like when you're doing a complicated math problem and you can see the answer multiple steps before you've actually done all the calculations.
When you watch the best QBs and the speed at which they make decisions, there's no way they're plodding through all the progressions the way the coach draws it up on the whiteboard. Things are happening WAY too fast for that.
EJ's difficulties with in the pre-snap stage also make things a lot harder on him. If you can identify the defenses, spot leverage advantages/disadvantages etc. before the snap, you can really cut down on how much you have to process during the play.
Ponder was an absolute master of this, and it's one of the things he's struggled with in the league. In college, he could identify defenses/matchups/leverage to the point that most of the time he knew before the snap who was going to be open and he didn't really have to do much progression reading. Often times it would appear that he was locking in on the primary read, but that guy may or may not have actually been the first guy in the progression, he just knew that against that defense that was the guy who was going to come open. In the NFL, they do a lot better job of disguising coverages and the coverages get a lot more exotic so you do have to be more disciplined about progression reading.
I wonder if the expansion of the offense was too much for Manuel to handle. Coach Fisher has said that Manuel had the entire playbook at his disposal when he filled in for Ponder in 2009-10. I disagree. I'm not sure that Manuel grasped the entire offense, and I'm not sure that he'll be able to this year, either.
And for a coach who just finished coaching one of the sharpest college QBs in a while, that had to be an adjustment. Given all of the other non-football things going on last spring, it's easy to see that adjustment did not go well.
I think Fisher and his offensive staff had to take a step back and try to make sure that Manuel both understands the play being called, and is comfortable with it and the adjustments that the play entails. Too many free, easy yards were left on the field because of missed checks by the quarterback. Too many plays (including runs) were doomed because of a poor pre-snap read or the lack of a simple pre-snap adjustment. Manuel's pre-snap mental errors made the game much harder on himself than it should have been. It made everything look worse, and it was really obvious after losing someone who was so adept at doing so.
So, yeah. Building blocks. Making sure the captain of the offense understands what is going on before adding more wrinkles. If the player cannot handle a lot, and a coach loads up his plate, then sometimes even the simplest of plays become difficult because he is thinking too much.
It's on the staff to determine what Manuel can and cannot do, fit the offense to their scouting report of his skills, and make it work. This includes realizing that some players may understand the offense well on the chalk board, ask the right questions, and even be OK during much of practice, but may struggle at full speed. Full speed is what counts. Getting it right in the game is what counts. Football IQ is no good if it doesn't translate when the bullets are live, so to speak.
Fisher has to do a better job of adapting his coaching style to fit his star QB. Some people say they want to play for a tough coach who demands perfection and rides them constantly. But sometimes a player says one thing without realizing the style of coaching that would be the best fit for him.
And really, what else could he say? "I want a coach who treats me like a friend and calmly explains to me what I did wrong, in private, etc." makes the kid sound like a gigantic you know what. Even if it is true, you don't want your quarterback to say it. Instead, you want your coach to realize it and subtly change his approach as to not publicly embarrass the QB.
I'm not alone in believing that to be the case here. If a player shuts down when a coach rides him, he's unlikely to absorb the detailed instruction that follows the verbal correction. And if that player is the best option, and the coach believes in the player, then it is up to the coach to change his style to get the most out of his player. Fisher gets paid millions to get the best out of his players and has been a very good QB coach for a long time. I'd bet on him getting it fixed. But it does need to change from what it was last season.
Healthy Offensive Line Would Help A Lot
I'd be remiss to not mention the offensive line as a major factor for Manuel's problems. It was.
Manuel needs to be able to have an expectation of protection. It's something he did not have last year. No quarterback can be extremely effective without it. This really is a big issue. The QB, especially one without a lot of football IQ like Manuel, needs to be able to watch the routes and not the rush.
A healthy offensive line will also equate to a better running game like FSU had in the three seasons previous to 2011. A better running game means Florida State can ask Manuel to do less.
Healthy Offensive Line Not A Cure All
On the other hand, I believe it gets far too much blame for the offensive underperformance in 2011, and Manuel too little. Those burying their heads in the sand and believing that a healthy, improved offensive line alone will fix Manuel are fooling themselves. Both were major issues.
But there are areas in which Manuel must improve independent of the offensive line.
Manuel's pocket awareness and presence were baffling at times. He took 33 sacks. And too many were his fault.
EJ Manuel was personally sacked 33 times in 2011. 25 of those came in the 1st half.— rob hodges (@ricobert1) August 18, 2012
That is a startling difference in sack rates. Hard to isolate b/w EJ or OL re: who benefitted from halftime coaching-up.— rob hodges (@ricobert1) August 18, 2012
Per quarter, EJ's 2 highest YPA? 1st & 2nd quarter. Also his highest sack rate (14.7%) per pass attempted. This is not a coincidence.— rob hodges (@ricobert1) August 18, 2012
The sack rate & YPA— rob hodges (@ricobert1) August 18, 2012
#s tell me this: EJ looked intermediate/deep for his receivers in 1st half. He was able to hit some. Sacked on the rest.
Very interesting stuff.
Part of this is setting the offensive line up for success with pre-snap reads and adjustments. Many notable instances of instant pass rush pressure were not the fault of the offensive line, but of Manuel not seeing things. For instance, with a five-man pass protection, if the defense brings six, the outside man is Manuel's responsibility. The QB must know that the guy will not be blocked (by design, mind you) and flip the ball out.
His evasion skills also really need some work. Manuel was extremely reliant on the spin move. So much so that defenders anticipated and he often spun into big hits. Manuel must figure out a way to avoid the rush without using a predictable spin move which takes his eyes away from the field.
Manuel is a very good runner in the open field. But his long legs which help him cover a lot of ground on designed runs are actually a hindrance in the pocket. Pocket evasion requires taking short, choppy, quick steps to shuffle around. He doesn't have the quickness that a guy like Christian Ponder had, though he is a much better runner in the open field. People often think that running skills translate to being evasive in the pocket and escaping the rush. It's not a perfect exchange. If we can pick this out from watching Manuel in person and reviewing games with the limited angles provided by television, FSU's coaching staff definitely knows this given all the camera angles they have at their disposal.
Another issue is attempting to keep plays alive. Far too often, Manuel would actually evade the initial pressure, but then run himself back into it! And he would hold the ball for way too long. Was this a function of his injury adjustments? Perhaps. But in 2012, he needs to get out and pick up 5-6 yards on a scramble rather than take those huge sacks.
Of course, why is Manuel holding the ball that long? One major reason, as discussed above, is because he missed seeing the receiver come open, and by the time he did see it, the receiver was then covered. This "the guy was open when and where he was designed to be had you looked there at that time, but is now covered as the defense has finally reacted" phenomenon is frustrating. Anticipation and understanding needs to improve.
For his part, Manuel did say at ACC Media Days that this is something he's been working on quite a bit.
Also, he must do a better job of protecting the football when in the pocket. 9 fumbles is far too many. This is a criticism I've had of Fisher since 2008, and Ponder had issues with this as well.
I don't think he does a good job of getting his quarterbacks to avoid fumbling the football when in the pocket. Last year Manuel had a crucial fumble against Virginia (an awful game for him), and a few others as well. Better pocket awareness and more emphasis on in-pocket ball security should help with this some. As would abandoning the half-dive/half-jump move that Manuel seems to favor. Three of his nine fumbles actually came on that move with which he elected to finish runs. It really serves no purpose and is perhaps dangerous as well.
The Need To Run Manuel
Manuel cannot be a great college quarterback without his legs. He's simply lacks the football IQ to carry a team solely with his arm. He's a running quarterback and needs to run.
Some will argue that running Manuel exposes him to injury. It does. But the potential for injury is worse than the alternative of having him not run. Florida State has a very capable backup QB in Clint Trickett who, in my estimation, understands the offense better than Manuel. If Manuel isn't running, he isn't going to come close to his maximum effectiveness.
"But what if Manuel gets hurt? FSU won't have a great season!," you say. I agree. But it won't have a great season if he's not running. It is better to try and fail than to never try. 2012 has been the goal of this staff since it was put in place. It's set up to be a very nice year, coming off 19 wins in the previous two seasons.
Running also simplifies defenses. Staying within the scope of this article and not getting overly technical, just know that there are certain coverages defenses aren't going to run if the QB is a major run threat (designed runs, not scrambles). If EJ Manuel can run more (his greatest strength), defenses will adjust and Manuel will be able to mentally eliminate some coverages before the snap (his greatest weakness). Talk about a win-win.
How To Run Manuel... And Keep Him Healthy
One aspect of the run game that he does extremely well is the traditional option. Manuel has an uncanny knack for feeling the defender and knowing exactly when to pitch. His ability to wait until the last moment really is special. And though it does expose him to hits, that's the risk you have to take, because the reward in Manuel is his dual-threat capability.
Another option, however, that is much safer for the quarterback are the read plays. The veer, zone read, inverted veer, etc. Why are these plays safer? Because the quarterback only keeps the ball if the defender responsible for the player to which the QB would have otherwise given the football elects to follow that player, vacating an area into which the QB will scamper. That means the QB doesn't get hit, at least initially.
But this didn't work last year. And it was infuriating.
For as good as Manuel is at the option play, he is equally as terrible at the zone read. This confounds me to no end. The zone read is a simple, simple play run all the time by kids in grade school! The inability of Manuel to run the play, the offensive staff to teach the play, or both, is ridiculous.
This has to be fixed, because it is the perfect mesh of utilizing Manuel's legs while still giving him an opportunity to gain yards without a significant chance of taking a big hit. This is something that can be repped over and over again in practice. It also fits Florida State's offensive personnel quite well. I know that Florida State's coaches can teach this because it's a very simple concept and I saw them run it correctly with Xavier Lee and Ponder. If Manuel, for whatever reason, still doesn't execute it correctly, it needs to be scrapped. If he does the exact opposite of what he is supposed to do, as he did last year, it will hurt the team. This really needs to get right.
Wrapping It Up
Manuel has the potential to be an excellent college quarterback, and he's already a good one. This is his last chance. His "money year," if you will. The tools are definitely still there. He's still enormous, a terror in the open field, and the bigger arm should be returning now that his opposite shoulder isn't hanging by a thread.
And for FSU to go where it wants to go in 2012, it'll need Manuel to play to his potential. To this point in his career, his traditional numbers look better than his actual play has been. If he takes that final step, FSU will as well.
It's on the staff to determine what Manuel can and cannot do, fit the offense to their scouting report of his skills, and make it work. This includes realizing that some players may understand the offense well on the chalk board, ask the right questions, and even be OK during much of practice, but may struggle at full speed. Full speed is what counts.