ORCHARD PARK, New York — Whether resolving questions on injuries or inconsistency, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel knows he has plenty to prove in showing he's a bona fide starter entering his second NFL season.
Another reminder of how far Manuel has to go came this week when he was bypassed for one of six team captain designations in a vote of Bills players.
That's fair and understandable, Manuel said Wednesday, noting his own votes were restricted to established veterans.
"You have to earn your stripes in the NFL," Manuel said. "Nothing's going to be handed to you in the NFL. You have to work for it. And I'm going to continue to allow it to motivate myself and be better for my teammates."
The process resumes Sunday, when the former first-round draft pick out of Florida State begins his second season behind center in Buffalo's opener at Chicago.
"I think being able to show that on Sunday is huge," Manuel said. "And that's why I say I want to keep my focus on Chicago, because that's the most important thing to me. I can't control what's happened in the past. You have to move and look forward."
Manuel's past in Buffalo is a mixed bag of promising flashes, failed opportunities and hampered development after an injury-shortened rookie season.
He got the Bills off to a 2-2 start, including a 24-23 win over Carolina, which he won with a touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with 2 seconds remaining. The wheels fell off in Week 5, when Manuel was sidelined with the second of three knee injuries he sustained last season.
In missing five of the final 11 games, Manuel finished with a 4-6 record. He threw 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions and finished with a 77.7 passer rating that ranked 25th among players with 250 or more attempts.
Though he's been injury-free so far, the big step in development the Bills want from Manuel hasn't been evident on a retooled offense that struggled to finish this preseason.
Manuel and the starters failed to score a touchdown on their first 18 preseason drives before finally scoring on consecutive third-quarter possessions against Tampa Bay's second-stringers in a 27-14 loss on Aug. 23. Buffalo's starters finished the preseason with two touchdowns and four field goals on 23 possessions.
Manuel and coach Doug Marrone chalk up the lack of production to not wanting to reveal too much of their offense in preseason games. The results, however, weren't encouraging for a unit that upgraded its receivers by adding veteran Mike Williams and selecting Sammy Watkins with the No. 4 pick in the draft.
No worries, said Marrone.
"I'm excited. I'm not really looking at it and saying, 'Oh, gosh,'" said Marrone, who said Manuel has made better throws and been more decisive in his reads.
The focus now is not putting too much on Manuel's shoulders.
"There's 11 guys out there," Marrone said. "So you've just got to go out there and do what's asked of you and not try to press."
That doesn't mean Manuel has arrived just yet.
"When you're a young quarterback, you've got to prove yourself, so there's a reason he feels that way," veteran running back and captain Fred Jackson said. "He has to go out there and make plays for us, lead for us, put guys in situations to make plays. And we expect that from him. He knows everybody in this locker room is behind him."
Center Eric Wood, another team captain, also has confidence in Manuel.
"He showed me enough over the past year to make me think he's going to go out and play well. I'm fired up," Wood said.
Manuel shrugged off questions of his past deficiencies by saying he's focused solely on playing Chicago.
"That's the first thing. I don't focus on answering criticism or anything like that," Manuel said. "I think if we win games, that'll alleviate everything."
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