E.J. Manuel's career up to this point has been marked with inconsistency - a guy whose size, athleticism, and arm make you drool over the possibilities, but possessed too many holes in his game to overlook. His biggest flaw (holding the ball too long) has been a notable career killer for many an NFL quarterback. Holding the ball too long can be a symptom of many factors, but the root of the problem almost always goes back to the quarterback being unsure and uncomfortable with the defensive coverage and how it affects his progressions. Further, Manuel would exacerbate this problem by "shrinking" in the pocket (squaring up to the line of scrimmage and crouching, entering a running stance) and trying to improvise - often leading to self-induced pressures and sacks. Even when not pressuring himself, his movement often became frenetic - leading to mechanical failures and a loss of touch and accuracy.
In FSU's matchup against Wake Forest this season, Manuel showed improved feel for pressure both from the blindside and up the middle in the first quarter, but his movement was still very frenetic and it affected his ball placement. When the second quarter started, it was more of the same from Manuel, as he sacked himself after pulling the ball and trying to improvise after being uncomfortable with what he saw downfield. On a similar play late in the second, he did the same thing but was able to escape the rush and throw a touchdown pass. The ability to improvise and escape the rush can be an incredible weapon for an offense, but it's a double-edged sword, and when the decision to improvise is accompanied by poor eye-discipline and initial feel for the rush, the results ends up being mixed at best.
That's not to say there isn't a lot to like about Manuel's game. When he's in rhythm, his accuracy and sense of touch on intermediate/deep outside throws can be something to behold. He's also shown to be more than capable of dialing up the RPMs for throws into tight windows underneath. You can see that he has an understanding of touch - when to drill it and when to make it easy on the pass-catcher. However, his actual accuracy of his throws can be quite streaky.
One thing that has stood out to me about Manuel going back to last season is his very good sense of balance. He plays on his toes and always keeps his knees bent, which helps to keep his shoulders and upper body steady throughout his drop and release. He's developed some excellent ball handling skills from under center, making sure to show the defense the ball and effortlessly going from his run steps to completing the dropback. I wouldn't go so far as to say Manuel's movement dropping back as a passer looks completely "natural" but, at this point in his career, he does look very "comfortable," for lack of a better word. While there is some mechanical cleaning up to do (dropping elbow and/or raising back leg on release), I think he's progressed to the point where he does not require mechanical overhauls. On a side note, I think both Manuel and the FSU offense operates much more efficiently from under center than when in shotgun, but it seems as if the FSU staff is married to the gun as far as their core dropback pass game goes.
I don't think anybody would argue that Manuel's career at FSU up to this point has been a tease. This last Saturday against Clemson, however, gave us a glimpse of the outstanding quarterback prospect he's capable of being. His eye-level was much improved, and, more importantly he didn't try to do too much on every single dropback. Anybody who has seen him play before was struck by how quick and decisive he was as opposed to previous games.
Progress Against Clemson
Manuel's new-found decisiveness really showed itself on a 3rd and 5 situation at 7:39 in the 2nd quarter. FSU has 11 personnel in a shotgun formation (RB aligned weak), with two receivers and a tight end to one side (known as a Trey set) and a single X receiver to the weakside of the formation. Clemson, out of their base 3-4, sent a Fire-Zone blitz: 5 pass rushers and six zone defenders (three deep and three underneath). This is exactly the type of situation Manuel would usually hold the ball and try to improvise - a read over the middle vs a blitz in which it's unclear on who is dropping into coverage where - yet Manuel immediately identified it, found one (of two) exploitable weaknesses in the defense, and threw for a first down while under pressure.
At the 5:55 mark in the first quarter, Manuel also showed more decisiveness and aggressiveness when he actually did decide to scramble. Facing 3rd and 7, FSU had a Post/Wheel combo to the short side. Clemson is prepared for the route combination, however. The Hook/Curl defender carries the Post up the field to the safety and the corner bails and waits for the Wheel route. Forced to reset after seeing his initial read (the Post) taken away, Manuel sees the corner waiting for the Wheel route and decides to break the pocket and pick up the first down himself. Again, this is a situation that likely ends in Manuel shrinking and running right into a defender's sack a year ago.
Overall, Clemson played very soft coverages on the outside and Manuel patiently took what was given to him all game, as opposed to panicking, tucking the ball, and pressuring/sacking himself as he's been prone to do in the past. When he finally got to uncork one deep, he laid out a beautiful 29 yard touchdown to Rodney Smith in the 3rd quarter.
Looking Backwards, Moving Forwards
When writing this piece on EJ, I also went back and watched a video of Christian Ponder against Oklahoma from 2010 in order to compare the two quarterbacks. While Manuel is a better athlete from a height/weight/speed perspective, Ponder is more of a quick-twitch athlete than Manuel. Ponder, at times, actually looked to be too frenetic and out of control and also displayed some of the same "tuck the ball and sack yourself" tendencies Manuel has shown. Further, while the FSU offense has a nice blend of under center and shotgun concepts, it's not schematically sophisticated in terms of what it asks of the quarterback.
As it stands right now, Manuel is a very highly rated passer on one of the best teams in the country, and he just had his breakout game on the big stage. All in all, there was a lot to like in the performance - he was patient in the passing game and made good decisions, he picked his shots deep, and he devastated Clemson on designed runs. If the growth he showed between the Wake Forest game and last Saturday's Clemson game was not just a flash, but true, sustainable progress, then the sky is the limit for E.J. Manuel.