How long does it take for a quarterback to go from good to great? 120 seconds. Brady, Montana, Aikman – quarterbacks who have built their reputations on the two-minute drill go on to have long, celebrated careers. That bodes well for Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who – in his second career NFL start on September 15 – found himself down by six with less than two minutes left and no timeouts in hand. The rookie drove 80 yards down the field into the teeth of the Carolina Panther defense and hit wide receiver Stevie Johnson in the end zone as time expired. The pundits offered plaudits, but the most remarkable thing about the performance was not that Manuel won. It was this: All of him (at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds – that’s a lot) seemed focused entirely on the task at hand.
“It’s just all about being prepared to be great,” Manuel told ‘Men’s Journal,’ explaining his uncanny ability to come through in big moments. “In the midst of a football game, you’re not going to be perfect. You’re going to miss throws, and you’re going to miss a read here or there – you don’t want to, but it’s going to happen. So you have to accept that – accept that it’s a fact – and move on from it.”
This ability to live solely in the moment and not dwell on past mistakes separates Manuel from other quarterbacks – the tizzy throwing Tom Bradys of the world included – who let mistakes fuel their fire or rely on their successes for confidence. Manuel simply plays each down – one at a time. It’s not that he doesn’t comprehend when the moments are big. He does. “You always see those two-minute drives on NFL Films growing up,” he says, “and to be a part of one . . . man, it doesn’t get any better than that.” It’s just that he doesn’t sew together the final drive and the pick he threw earlier with a narrative thread – that’s the play-by-play guys’ job. Manuel is focused on winning.
That mind-set came into play against Carolina on September 15, when a late fumble and interception could have easily planted the seed of doubt in the mind of a lesser rookie. “I wasn’t worried about the pick,” he says, sounding both a bit obtuse and entirely genuine. “I wasn’t worried about the fumble. I wasn’t worried about whatever happened early in that game. I just knew we had to go out there and score, and that’s what we did.”
In a world in which sports fans are led to believe that every athlete, game, and play is infused with plot, Manuel’s outlook is downright refreshing: A fumble isn’t the beginning of a tale of human redemption, and a game-winning touchdown does not a season make. Manuel executes the game plan as drawn up and assumes that the rest will fall into place, something athletes everywhere can learn from.
Just do your damn job. A fine mantra.
And, yes, Manuel plans to deal with the increasingly high expectations the same way he does high-pressure moments on the field. Asked whether he feels pressure – as a rookie, as a first-round draft pick, as the starting quarterback for a win-hungry franchise – his answer is simple: “I don’t feel any pressure. I feel great.”