(WKBW) - It all started around the time of the NFL Draft.
As a football reporter, you check in with everyone you can to try and get a feel for what the team you cover will do with their selections. Sometimes, a byproduct of that is hearing things about the team that you didn't believe would be an option.
And then you start asking more and more people about that topic, and eventually it becomes something you can't ignore. This year's digging led to one conclusion:
If former first-round pick and quarterback EJ Manuel doesn't show some serious progress this spring and summer at OTAs, minicamp and training camp, he very well may be enjoying his final few months in Buffalo as a member of the organization.
It's a stunning revelation, and one that is met with questions like, 'they wouldn't actually do that, would they?'
Oh, they would, alright -- as long as it's warranted. The 'make or break' rhetoric used by the decision makers over at One Bills Drive when it comes to Manuel's third season in the league isn't just throwaway, clichéd football speak. They mean it.
The Bills will use all the workouts to decide not only if EJ Manuel will be their starting quarterback, but also if they believe he warrants a spot on the roster.
Besides clinging to the fact that he was a first-round pick, which increasingly means less and less as the years pass by with the new rookie wage scale, the reasoning for it is actually quite sound.
Manuel, although jaded by some peculiar coaching techniques post-injury in 2013 and then again in 2014, hasn't looked as comfortable as he did at Florida State, or as he did near the beginning of his rookie season.
Slowly, but surely, his playing style has increasingly become one that's meek and fearful of mistakes, rather than one inspired by confidence and bravado. He doesn't try to fit a ball into tight windows, he doesn't take off and run when advantageous, and had a playbook built around him that essentially neutered him as a quarterback.
Who's fault was that? It's probably best to opt out of the answer, although one could probably wager a solid, educated guess.
However, his problems go deeper than just being coached to not make mistakes. Unfortunately for Manuel -- despite being both a great teammate and person that does and says all the right things off the field -- it's his on-the-field limitations that are causing the Bills to ponder making what would be as perceptively stark a move as they could.
The simple truth is this: as he is currently constructed, Manuel is not an accurate enough quarterback to thrive as a starting quarterback in the National Football League. He misses throws that players starting at his position make without hesitation. There are times where he gets completions from inaccurate passes, but it takes the receiver so off course that it crushes any hope of legitimate yards after the catch.
This isn't a new phenomenon for him, either. The inaccurate quarterback Bills fans have seen for two years is the same one that started at Florida State University for four seasons. And for those that were holding out hope that it could dramatically improve, accuracy isn't commonly one of the traits that can be heightened. Many times, it's a simply a case of 'you either have it or you don't.'
It's also something GM Doug Whaley wants out of his quarterback. Asked for his top traits he looks for when scouting quarterbacks, Whaley gave an answer that didn't exactly provide a ringing endorsement for Manuel.
"I'd have to say accuracy, decision-making, being able to play the game with his eyes,” he said.
This isn't totally on Manuel, though, and you have to feel for him in the position that he's in. By watching the tape of him at college, it was very obvious that he wasn't a first-round caliber quarterback. He had the raw tools teams looked for, and pigeon-holed by a quarterback craving Buddy Nix that was making the draft calls, the then GM decided to make Manuel the 'face of the franchise.'
The original plan was to have EJ Manuel sit behind Ryan Fitzpatrick -- or at least that's what the coaches thought would happen. That was scrapped, and Fitzpatrick was released.
Then, it was to have Manuel sit behind Kevin Kolb. That was scrapped, after a freak training camp mat incident and a career-ending concussion.
With his skill-set, Manuel should have never been put in the position that he was early on in his career. He should have never been a first-round pick. But, he was, and now we're here with a brand new coaching staff and a GM that still has a chance to remove his connection to the pick of the quarterback.
The biggest question the Bills will have to answer is this: can they actually carry three quarterbacks on the roster? With the amount of specialists they have, and the increasing amount of skill players they're electing to carry, the room just isn't there for a third arm unless a completely compelling case can be made for it.
Some fans will cling to Manuel not getting enough of a shot as a starting quarterback. After all, he was benched after just four games in 2014 because the coaching staff felt the pressure to win, and to win there and then.
While that may be true by the old standards, the romanticized idea that young quarterbacks get three full years to start anymore is getting more and more antiquated. For better or worse, teams are making decisions quicker and quicker because, to be quite frank, they don't have the time to see it through.
It seems, as much as anyone you can think of in recent memory, Manuel is an extreme victim of circumstance. Being forced into the lineup prematurely, the death of an owner and sale of a franchise that put everyone in the building on edge from a job security standpoint -- and being benched because of it, and then being the potential odd man out from a team that now sports a coach and GM that didn't draft him.
All he can do is focus on the task at hand, and that's to show a relaxed, accurate quarterback through the spring and summer. If he succeeds, he'll get a shot to revive his career as a starter. If he doesn't the Bills will likely look to deal him elsewhere, and if they can't, an outright release is not out of the question at all.
As if the 2015 offseason wasn't intriguing enough for the Bills, it could be paired with as high profile a release as you'll find.