ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. –- Doug Marrone hasn't just been the Buffalo Bills' head coach since last season; he's been their goalie, too.
Slap shot after slap shot, the tough questions about quarterback EJ Manuel and his underwhelming play in 14 NFL starts have come screaming in. Marrone might as well have been wearing a hockey glove and mask, because he's been forced to deflect each and every criticism of his front office's 2013 first-round pick.
After Marrone decided to bench Manuel on Monday in favor of veteran Kyle Orton, those questions will now stop. No more pad saves will be necessary.
It's a significant weight off the shoulders of Marrone, a second-year head coach whose team has lost its past two games and whose job future could be subject to the whim of new owners Terry and Kim Pegula.
With Orton at the helm, it's full speed ahead for a Bills team that has playoff-caliber talent across its roster but has been held back by Manuel, a young quarterback whose development was far too spotty to justify Marrone continuing to defend his role as starter.
"You like for things to pan out for you. You'd like for things to go on this merry road, but you have to endure," Marrone said Monday. "This league is going to throw you a lot of different bumps in the road, whether it be productivity by position, whether it be injuries. Whatever it may be, you just need to endure it, you need to fight through it, and you need to go."
It's not to say winning hasn't been a priority for the Bills this season, but before Monday they've had to balance Manuel's growth and the progress of the entire team. At times -- especially over the past two games -- it was a juggling act that threatened the Bills' chances of snapping a 14-season playoff drought.
That problem has been swatted aside. What resulted was a noticeably more relaxed Marrone when he announced his decision Monday.
"As a head coach you have to evaluate everything and, at the end of the day, you've got to make the right decisions with your mind, with your heart and things like that," he said. "The one thing is that when you go to bed at night you have to make sure that you're making the best decisions to help our football team win."
Marrone didn't seem Monday like a coach who agonized over this decision. There was almost a sense a relief, as if he could move on from the first 20 games of his tenure in Buffalo -- a period defined mostly by shoddy quarterback play.
The decision, the Bills say, was made entirely by Marrone, who delivered the news Monday afternoon to general manager Doug Whaley.
"I didn't ask for an agreement," Marrone explained. "I just went in there and said, 'This is the direction that I'm going.'"
For the Bills, that direction must be forward. Orton gives Marrone his best chance at the playoffs, and in the process Marrone's best shot of saving his job when the Pegulas settle into their new offices later this season.
As for Manuel, he'll now have an opportunity to reflect on his first experience as an NFL starter.
"[This] gives him a chance to just step back for a moment and look at things that we can work on and correct. Again, he'll have to have some thick skin through this and you've got to fight," Marrone said. "That's what usually happens in life. To get what you want, you're going to have to fight for it. I think that he'll be able to grow."
That growth, if it occurs, will now take place behind the scenes. Manuel will be out of the spotlight, and Marrone can go back to playing offense without having to defend his own net.
After starting 2-0, the Bills have lost each of their last two games. Orton will start Sunday at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions.
"It's not all EJ's fault, but we need to get better production, obviously, out of that position," coach Doug Marrone said Monday. "We have to make adjustments. We've got to make some changes, because we can't keep going in the direction that we're going."
Marrone made the decision Monday and informed general manager Doug Whaley of the change.
"I went to Doug, I said look, 'This gives us the best opportunity to win.' We talked about it. We looked at some things, and we were in full agreement on it," Marrone said.
In four games this season, Manuel completed 58 percent of his passes and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt. Manuel's completion percentage dropped in each of the first four games this season, as did his Total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Manuel started 14 games for the Bills after being selected 16th overall in the 2013 draft, posting a 6-8 record.
"It gives him a chance to just step back for a moment, look at things that, you know, we can work on and correct," Marrone said. "And again, he'll have to have some thick skin through this. And you've got to fight, and that's usually what happens in life to get what you want, you're going to have to fight for it.
"I think that he'll be able to grow, I think he'll be able to handle it well from my conversation with him. And he'll be able to continue to grow as a quarterback."
RB Fred Jackson -- For the second consecutive week, Jackson led the Bills in catches and also had their second-most receiving yards. He averaged 4.7 yards on seven carries. Overall, he was part of five of the Bills' 17 first downs in the game.
LB Nigel Bradham -- Bradham was having a career game before leaving with a knee injury in the third quarter. Playing a little more than half the game, he tallied a sack, two quarterback hits, and an interception.
DT Marcell Dareus -- Dareus led the Bills with three tackles for a loss and added a quarterback hit, in addition to a sack.
CB Leodis McKelvin -- Good bounce back game for McKelvin, who made an acrobatic interception in the second quarter. On the down side, he was flagged twice (for illegal contact and defensive holding) and also made a questionable fair catch decision on a punt.
QB EJ Manuel -- Outside of his 80-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams on a play where Texans defenders failed to cover Williams, Manuel had statistically one of his worst days as a pro. He didn't get much help from his offensive line or receivers but missed on several throws that could have sprung big gains.
WRs Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Mike Williams -- Outside of Williams' touchdown and a five-yard touchdown from Watkins, this trio was quiet. They caught just 9 of 27 targets from Manuel, a problem where both the receivers and Manuel deserve blame. After going without any drops in the first three games, they had several Sunday.
Offensive line -- There seemingly wasn't a single player who could slow down J.J. Watt, who accounted for an eye-opening nine of the Texans' 16 quarterback hits in the game.
CB Corey Graham -- The veteran cornerback played just eight snaps and was beaten on a 35-yard touchdown catch by DeAndre Hopkins.
Manuel posted a Total QBR of 7.4 in the Buffalo Bills' 23-17 loss to the Houston Texans, the NFL's lowest QBR in Week 4, prior to Monday night's game.
It's the second consecutive week that Manuel has finished at the bottom of the NFL's charts in Total QBR, an advanced statistic developed by ESPN that uses situational and historical data to evaluate quarterbacks.
It's also the first time that an NFL quarterback has recorded a single-digit Total QBR in back-to-back full games since Kansas City's Brady Quinn did so in the final two weeks of the 2012 season.
Manuel now ranks 35th out of 36 qualified NFL quarterbacks in Total QBR. Only Jacksonville's Chad Henne, who lost his starting job last week, has a lower Total QBR than Manuel, whose season average is a 19.8 out of a possible 100.
The Buffalo Bills couldn't stop J.J. Watt in Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Houston Texans. No matter where he lined up, he couldn't be blocked. And when he snagged an EJ Manuel pass out of the air in the third quarter, he couldn't be chased down to prevent an 80-yard touchdown.
It was that rumbling score that erased a Bills lead and breathed fire into NRG Stadium. After that point, the Bills had an uphill battle.
"One of the keys was to make sure that he wasn't going to make that big disruptive play prior to the game, and he did," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "He made a lot of plays."
Watt accounted for nine of the Texans' 16 quarterback hits on Manuel. For some perspective, the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, and San Diego Chargers combined for eight hits on Manuel through the Bills' first three games.
He didn't turn off his motor after the game:
Watt was apparently upset at the Bills for some aggression after plays that weren't flagged.
"I was upset. I get personal fouls called against me all day. I get some extracurriculars done to me, and I don't see repercussions on the other side, but that's fine," Watt said. "That's kind of how the game goes when you try to play the way I play. The guy on the other team is gunning for you and trying to rile you up."
Watt and Manuel met frequently in the backfield. Watt was arguably too powerful for his own good, reaching Manuel but being flagged for roughing the passer twice.
Despite the pressure, Manuel said he wasn't too thrown off by Watt.
"He wasn't in my head. J.J. is a great player, and we knew coming in that he was going to have his opportunity to make plays or that he was going to get in the back as much as he could," Watt said. "But no, he wasn't in my head."
HOUSTON -- You can blame quarterback EJ Manuel. You can blame his receivers. You can blame his offensive line.
No matter whose fault it is, the woefully inconsistent play of the Buffalo Bills' passing game should prompt serious questions after Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Houston Texans.
The Bills spent three first-round picks to acquire Manuel and top receiver Sammy Watkins. Given that sort of investment, those two players should be among the team's strengths. Instead, they've been Buffalo's greatest weaknesses through the first quarter of the season.
Besides his eight-catch, 117-yard outing in Week 2, Watkins has been disappointing. His first two targets Sunday were dropped. One week ago, Watkins admitted he "took a play off" when he was unable to catch an accurate Manuel pass late in a loss to San Diego.
Manuel had another characteristically underwhelming game Sunday, when he averaged 3.2 yards per pass attempt before an 80-yard touchdown heave to Mike Williams. It was a throw ex-Bills Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards or even J.P. Losman could have made. It was a massive blunder on the Texans' part -- not the sort of play that separates a first-round draft pick such as Manuel from his predecessors.
Then there was an offensive line that could have linked arms, formed a wall and still failed to block J.J. Watt. The NFL's premier defensive player could not be stopped Sunday. He reached Manuel for nine quarterback hits, an eye-opening stat that became a side note to Watt's 80-yard interception return for a touchdown that turned the tide of the game in the third quarter.
"You got young receivers, a second-year quarterback, and you got some [young] guys on the line," Bills coach Doug Marrone said of his team. "They have to grow, and they have to grow fast."
He's right. The Bills can't afford to wait until next season to see how Manuel matures or until 2016 to watch Watkins flourish by his third season. They paid a high price for both of those players and are leaning on both of them now. This is the path the Bills have chosen.
The Bills traded away their first-round pick next season to add Watkins, they spent a second-round pick last season on Robert Woods, and they shipped out a sixth-round pick for the troubled Williams. Yet Manuel threw a combined 27 times to his top three receivers Sunday and completed only nine of those passes.
If you hear an echo, that's because Manuel posted a 33 percent completion rate, identical to his receivers' completion percentage in the past week's loss, when they connected on just seven of his 21 passes to the trio of Watkins, Woods and Williams.
Their collective struggles essentially wasted what was a respectable defensive effort. The Bills won the turnover battle -- they forced two interceptions and one fumble -- and held the Texans to 37 rushing yards.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, who came away with an acrobatic interception in the second quarter, could only push the defense to do better after they won the turnover battle but lost the game.
"When you win the turnover battle, it's a must win," he said. "You can look at the percentages. ... Once you get two or more turnovers, you're supposed to win the game. We have to do a better of going out there, situational football, make sure we get off the field when we need to. We need to get off the field [and] give the offense more chances to make plays."
The offense had plenty of chances to make plays Sunday. It didn't. And on the whole this season, it hasn't -- even though Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller have done their share.
"I think the backs are running well," Marrone said. "I think that when we get into games where we throw as much as we did, that gets us in trouble."
That's accurate, but it shouldn't be the case. Given the Bills' investment in Manuel and Watkins, they've both dropped the ball.
Quarterback EJ Manuel, who struggled for most of Sunday's game, was one of the last players to leave the Bills' locker room. While most of his teammates changed and headed for the team bus, Manuel sat facing his locker with his head down. A couple of teammates came over to offer Manuel encouragement, but for the most part he was left alone. The second-year quarterback normally is remarkably even-keeled as he meets reporters after games, but I saw a slightly more beleaguered Manuel on Sunday.
Coach Doug Marrone was asked directly if there was "any consideration or temptation" to turn to backup quarterback Kyle Orton in Sunday's game. "No, no, not at all," Marrone responded.
HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Buffalo Bills' 23-17 loss Sunday to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.
What it means: After a hot 2-0 start, the Bills have now lost back-to-back games and sit at 2-2 at the quarter mark of the season. The questions rightfully begin at quarterback. EJ Manuel finished 21-for-44 passing for 225 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions -- the first of which was an 80-yard pick-six from J.J. Watt that turned the tide of the game in the third quarter. The Bills' defense did their part in this one, forcing three turnovers and holding the Texans to 37 rushing yards, but the offense proved far too inconsistent to win. This is a recurring, troubling theme for the Bills, whose early wins were mostly the product of defense and special teams -- and whose offense could threaten their chances of success this season.
Stock watch: Manuel, down. Yes, he threw that 80-yard touchdown strike to Mike Williams. I don't think that absolves Manuel of what was probably the NFL's worst quarterback performance of this season before that play. Manuel averaged 3.2 yards per attempt before his touchdown toss; only two games -- from Ryan Tannehill (3.04 yards per attempt in Week 16) and Nick Foles (2.76 yards per attempt in Week 7) -- were worse last season. Manuel didn't get help from his offensive line or receivers at times in Sunday's loss, but there were enough poor throws from Manuel to put the majority of the blame on the second-year quarterback's shoulders.
Williams injured: Veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a team captain and the Bills' longest-tenured current player, departed to the locker room in the third quarter with a knee injury. He did not return. The Bills do not have a more consistent defensive player than Williams, and any lost time on his part would be a big blow.
Watkins watch: The Bills entered Week 4 as just one of two teams without a drop, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That changed quickly after Sammy Watkins dropped his first two targets Sunday from Manuel. Watkins finished with four catches for 30 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown grab. Through four games, Watkins has been a contributor to the Bills' offense but hardly the vital cog that Buffalo needs him to be.
Game ball: RB Fred Jackson. It's a back-to-back honor for Jackson, who also received my game ball in last week's loss to the San Diego Chargers. Even when the Bills' offense is down as a whole, Jackson keeps on trucking. He led the team with six catches, the second consecutive game that he's topped the Bills' receiving charts. Jackson, the NFL's oldest running back at 33, added 33 yards on seven rushes.
What's next: The Bills will head back on the road next weekend to face the Detroit Lions.
Brown is one of three healthy scratches for the Bills, who also de-activated offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and cornerback Ross Cockrell -- their second- and fourth-round picks this year.
Brown, whom the Bills acquired in a trade from the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, has been inactive each of the first four games.
Meanwhile, rookie Cyril Richardson -- a fifth-round pick this year -- will start in place of Chris Williams, who is inactive with a back injury.
Here is the full list of Bills inactives: