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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs’ Glennon, Bills’ Manuel add new chapter to friendly rivalry

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TAMPA — As Mike Glennon pondered the question one day last week, the only thing that gave him reason for pause was the first three victories he engineered as the new quarterback of the Buccaneers.

In the end, though, Glennon had to admit that not even the upset of the Lions two weeks ago was as big as the victory he orchestrated against Florida State during his senior year at North Carolina State in October 2012.

The Seminoles were unbeaten and ranked third at the time and, Glennon argued, the fact he converted three fourth-down passes during the winning drive to complete a 17-point comeback set it apart from anything else he has done.

Besides, Glennon said, his good buddy EJ Manuel was there for that game.

Well, of course he was.

Manuel was the Seminoles’ quarterback for that nationally televised Saturday night ACC matchup, and he helped FSU build the 16-0 halftime lead that Glennon wound up erasing.

But hasn’t Manuel always been there, walking in virtual lock step with Glennon as the two prospects worked their way through high school and college on their way to the NFL? It sure seems like it.

The Virginia natives grew up about three hours apart — Glennon in Centreville, Manuel in Virginia Beach — but as high school juniors and seniors, they always seemed to wind up on recruiting trips together.

Later, they were roommates at the Elite 11 quarterback camp they attended as high school seniors and roommates again when they returned as counselors three years later.

They both went to ACC schools, played against each other as juniors and seniors and, finally, came to the NFL together in April, Manuel as the first-round pick of the Bills, Glennon as the third-round choice of the Bucs.

“Yeah, we’ve known each other for a long time,’’ Glennon said of Manuel, who he will face again today when the Bucs take on the Bills at Raymond James Stadium. “I remember in the state semifinals one year, we played against a school right by him and he came to the game just to watch me.

“He’s a great guy, and his parents are great people, and our families have gotten to know each other over the years and everything. And so it’s really pretty cool that we’re getting to play against each other again.’’

What the Bucs find cool is that after years of mirroring his every step, Glennon has begun to separate himself not just from Manuel but from every other rookie quarterback in the NFL.

He enters today’s game ranked ahead of Manuel and the Jets’ Geno Smith, both of whom were drafted well ahead of Glennon, in every statistical category the NFL charts except interceptions. Manuel has thrown just four picks to Glennon’s five.

But it’s Glennon’s poise, accuracy and decision-making skills that have made him — at least to this point — the best quarterback in his draft class.

He has thrown 13 touchdown passes, the most by a Bucs rookie, against those five interceptions. And he has two of the seven highest single-game passer ratings ever produced by an NFL rookie. He also became the first rookie in NFL history to throw at least one touchdown pass in each of his first eight games, and the 123 completions he made in his first five games set another NFL rookie mark.

“I’ve been quite impressed with Mike, but I was when we went through the draft process with him, too,’’ Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “He has outstanding arm talent and can throw the ball anywhere on the field.’’

The same was said of Manuel coming out of college. Scouts also liked Manuel’s athleticism, his ability to avoid contact in the pocket and his penchant for making plays on the run, both as a passer and a runner.

What concerned the scouts were the struggles Manuel sometimes had finding a passing rhythm and the fact he played the game in an almost careless way that enhanced his chances of injury. Not surprisingly, both have been issues this year.

Manuel missed four games after he sprained a lateral collateral knee ligament during a game against the Browns on Oct. 3, and he’s often struggled to find a groove as a passer, completing just 58.2 percent of his throws.

“Obviously there are some games I wish I could have back, but considering the injuries and the time away that I’ve missed, you just have to battle through it,’’ Manuel said. “This season isn’t where we wanted it to be for me.’’

This season is not necessarily where the Bucs wanted it to be for Glennon, either. Their plan after drafting him in the third round was to groom him behind then-starter Josh Freeman, but that plan was quickly scrapped.

After Freeman followed up his uneven finish of a year ago with an even rockier start this year, the Bucs benched and eventually released Freeman and turned to Glennon, who has done nothing but justify their decision ever since.

After a rocky first start in which he threw two game-altering interceptions in a loss to Arizona, Glennon threw 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions over the course of his next seven games.

Along the way, he led the Bucs to three straight victories, something no other rookie has done this year, and set the standard for passing accuracy by posting an 87 percent mark (20-for-23) during the Bucs’ victory over Atlanta.

Put it all together and Glennon checked in this week ranked 11th overall in passer rating with a 90.3 mark that is better than those posted by the likes of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (89.6), New England’s Tom Brady (88.0) and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (78.5).

Yet, it’s not those numbers that most impress the Bucs. What has them thinking Glennon might prove to be the franchise quarterback they’ve long been looking for is the way he handles the mental aspects of his position.

“He just gets it,’’ Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “He’s just very, very perceptive, and that’s two-fold, because first you have to understand what the heck it is we’re saying and understand the intent of the play.

“Then you have to be able transfer that information onto the practice field and then do it when you’re live against some really good defenses in the game, and that is the part that has been very impressive about him.

“I haven’t been around a lot of young guys, but in talking with other coaches and (learning) what some other young guys are doing, Mike’s got a good grasp and he seems to be ahead of the curve, so to speak.”

Glennon has been ahead of the curve for a while now. Tom O’Brien, his coach at N.C. State, thought he was ahead of it entering his junior year, which is why he let then-Wolfpack starter Russell Wilson (now with the Seahawks) leave for Wisconsin.

Glennon convinced O’Brien of that late in his junior season and again during that October evening in Raleigh, when Glennon completed passes on fourth-and-2, fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-goal to cap N.C. State’s rally against FSU.

“That was one of the moments where I knew he had the ability to make it at the next level,’’ O’Brien said. “He converted those three fourth downs, and those were all big throws with pressure in his face, and he threw the ball with pinpoint accuracy to the only spot it could be at for the receiver to catch the ball.’’

Glennon smiled broadly this week as he thought back on that moment.

“I don’t think there’s much that tops that,’’ he said. “Down 16-0 and to come back the way we did in that one. That was definitely one of my best football experiences ever.”

It wasn’t so great for Manuel. He referred to it as a “tough’’ loss, but said he learned a lot from it, including just how good a quarterback his old Elite 11 roommate is.

“Yeah, Mike’s doing really well, and I’m looking forward to getting down there and playing against him again and putting together a good game,” Manuel said. “I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, it’s just another building block for our teams.’’

And for two young quarterbacks.

rcummings@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7979

Twitter: @RCummingsTBO

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