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EJ Manuel and the fate of benched first-round quarterbacks

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The Bills are taking a break from EJ Manuel just 14 starts into his career. That's fast, but it's far from the fastest hook in NFL history.

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EJ Manuel's benching was the act of desperate men. Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone will soon be operating under a new owner, Terry Pegula, and with a change of leadership comes the chance that the Bills will go a new direction. Whaley and Marrone recognized their perilous position, and made the move they think makes the most sense if they want to win right now: Sit your first-round draft project and roll with Kyle Orton, a veteran who has been successful in spots.

Brian Galliford at Buffalo Rumblings framed the decision beautifully. The decision is an admission of failure, he says, but also refreshing: "Are the Bills trying to save face, and their jobs, by switching to Orton? Of course they are - but that's not an entirely bad thing. It's only viewed negatively because it's a conclusion that many fans can claim they saw coming."

Whatever their motivations, the Bills are doing right by their fanbase. They're swallowing their pride and a hefty investment to do what will help them best in the short term. And the Bills have the potential to accomplish a lot this season. Even after a loss to the Houston Texans, Buffalo is still atop a weak AFC East. The defense is excellent and the skill on offense may be uncorked with competency at quarterback.

The team is still doing something extraordinary. If Manuel doesn't start another game for the Bills, a real possibility assuming no injuries, he will have started fewer games in his first four years (the length of a rookie contract) than any first-round quarterback this century other than Brady Quinn. And Quinn wasn't ushered into a starting role as a rookie. The Bills threw Manuel into the deep end, quickly determined he would drown, and have now replaced him with someone they know can tread water.

Here are the first-round quarterbacks who started 20 games or fewer in their first four seasons since the AFL-NFL merger:

Players Team Year drafted Pick No. Games started
Brandon Weeden Browns 2012 22 20
Matt Leinart Cardinals 2006 10 17
Akili Smith Bengals 1999 3 17
Aaron Rodgers Packers 2005 24 16
Kelly Stouffer Seahawks 1988 6 16
Tim Tebow Broncos 2010 25 16
Cade McNown Bears 1999 12 15
EJ Manuel Bills 2013 16 14
Mark Malone Steelers 1980 28 12
Brady Quinn Browns 2007 22 12
Jerry Tagge Packers 1972 11 12
Marc Wilson Raiders 1980 15 12
Todd Marinovich Raiders 1991 24 8
John Reaves Eagles 1972 14 8
Art Schlichter Colts 1982 4 6
Andre Ware Lions 1990 7 6
Dan McGwire Seahawks 1991 16 5
Jack Thompson Bengals 1979 3 5
Tommy Maddox Broncos 1992 25 4
Steve Pisarkiewicz Cardinals 1978 19 4
Jim Druckenmiller 49ers 1997 26 1
Rich Campbell Packers 1981 6 0

That's 14 first-round quarterbacks who started fewer games in four seasons than Manuel has through one season and change. Most of the names are ones that any quarterback would not want to be associated with. Rich Campbell, the only first-rounder to never start an NFL game upon entering the league, threw for 386 yards, three touchdown and nine interceptions in three seasons, then left the Packers to join a seminary.

Is there hope for Manuel?

Maybe, at least by the numbers. Through 14 starts in 14 games, Manuel owns a 78.5 quarterback rating. Since the AFL-NFL merger, 48 first-round quarterbacks started more games with a worse rating through four seasons. Many of the names include several of the players above (except for, you know, Aaron Rodgers) and other dubious characters, but also several players who went on to have long careers. Notables:

Steve McNair -- 78.0 rating through his first four seasons
Michael Vick -- 76.9
Troy Aikman -- 76.4
Eli Manning -- 73.4
Drew Bledsoe -- 72.0
John Elway -- 71.9
Alex Smith -- 69.2
Phil Simms -- 65.5
Kerry Collins -- 64.5
Vinny Testaverde -- 63.2
Jim Plunkett -- 61.0
Archie Manning -- 60.7
Terry Bradshaw -- 52.9

That list comprises three Hall of Famers, 16 Super Bowl Champions and a helluva lot of years in the NFL. Of course, passer rating doesn't tell us a lot of what the naked eye can see. Last Sunday, Manuel had one of the worst outings of his career. The numbers were bad enough on their own -- 21-for-44 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions -- but as Bill Barnwell points out, the numbers were still deceptively in Manuel's favor.

Manuel was 10-of-11 on throws to his running backs, with most of the resulting 79 yards coming after the catch. On throws to his wide receivers and tight ends, Manuel was 11-of-32 for 146 yards, and 80 of those yards came on a pass to Mike Williams against a totally blown coverage by the Texans defense. That stuff counts, but the degree of difficulty on the plays where Manuel actually accrued yardage was very low.

Whaley and Marrone are desperate, but they're also not dumb. Manuel hasn't progressed much, if at all, since his first rookie snaps. He was considered a risky first-round selection from the get-go, and his every snap has confirmed the fears of Bills fans.

But Manuel can take heart that a lot of quarterbacks have done worse and gone on to do better things. And it could most definitely be worse. Can you guess the worst ever first-round quarterback, with 13 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and 50.0 passer rating through his first four seasons? I bet you -- OK yeah, it's Ryan Leaf.