Manuel must prove mettle when Act 2 starts

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- If EJ Manuel's first five games in the NFL were an orientation, his next seven games will be an evaluation.

The Buffalo Bills' rookie quarterback -- the 16th overall pick in April's draft -- said Monday he has been cleared to play after missing more than a month with a knee injury.

So now it's time to take the kid gloves off.

If coach Doug Marrone decides to start Manuel on Sunday in Pittsburgh, it will begin Manuel's second chapter with the Bills. This time around, rookie jitters or inexperience aren't as valid pardons as they were in September, for Manuel or the team as a whole.

"[Manuel] said he'll be ready on Sunday," wide receiver Stevie Johnson said Monday. "After that, there's no excuses."

Getting a grasp on Manuel's performance through the first five games, the last of which he departed in the third quarter, is not an easy task. At some points -- like his game-winning drive against the Carolina Panthers -- he looked all the part of a franchise quarterback.

But at other times, his errant throws have been ugly. One memorable pass in the Meadowlands in Week 3 sailed over a receiver, hitting an official who was several yards out of bounds. Several others have made it to their target ... on a hop.

Those are the blunders that rookie quarterbacks will make; there's little doubt about that. In the NFL, though, good is not good enough, especially at the quarterback position.

In QBR, ESPN's metric for measuring quarterback play, a score of 50 -- on a scale of zero to 100 -- is average. Through Week 5, Manuel was rated a 42.2.

In other words, he was below average.

Manuel's QBR ranked 23rd among NFL quarterbacks through Week 5. To provide some perspective, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was fourth-best through Week 5 of last season -- his rookie year -- with a 77.7 QBR, while the Redskins' Robert Griffin III was 10th-best at 67.2.

So if the Bills expect Manuel to be the next Luck or Griffin, he'll need to pick up the pace. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a perfect example of why that's doable.

Through Week 5 of his rookie season, Wilson had a 39.7 QBR, which was 28th in the NFL. From Weeks 10-17, Wilson posted a 85.1 QBR, the best mark in the NFL over that span.

That's the track the Bills will need Manuel to follow. Being 23rd in the NFL early in his rookie season is acceptable. Not improving by the end of this season or into his sophomore campaign, though, will be an increasing problem for the Bills.

Manuel's draft status has given him the opportunity to prove himself. But being selected in the first round will only take Manuel so far. If he can push into the top half of NFL quarterbacks by next season, he will solidify his standing as a franchise quarterback. If he can't, he will be on shaky ground.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though.

What matters right now is how Manuel bounces back from his latest injury, and the situation couldn't be better for him. Manuel's top offensive weapons are healthier than they were when he last played, and the combined record of the Bills' final seven opponents is 20-38.

So for the Bills, who are 3-6, the result of their games down the stretch is only part of the equation. They will also need to take a serious look at whether or not Manuel can be their long-term solution.

The training wheels are coming off.