FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — EJ Manuel and Geno Smith were two guys with big arms and even bigger dreams when they first met at a football camp in South Florida a few years ago.
They kept in touch with occasional text messages through high school and then college, where Manuel starred at Florida State and Smith at West Virginia. By the time the draft rolled around in April, both quarterbacks were considered first-round possibilities.
Manuel went to Buffalo at No. 16, a bit higher than some projected.
Smith, once mentioned as a possible No. 1 pick, slid all the way to the Jets in the second round at No. 39.
“I stood up,” Smith recalled Wednesday of his reaction when Manuel was drafted before him. “I congratulated him and that was it. I was happy for him. I was happy for every single guy that got drafted.”
Smith, however, went through the embarrassment of having television cameras focused on him as each pick was made in the first round — without hearing his name.
“I’m past that now,” Smith said. “I hate to talk about it because I’m focusing on what we have here, which is a great opportunity, (a) good team and we’ve got a tough matchup coming up on Sunday.”
That’s when the attention will again be on the first two quarterbacks drafted, when the Bills (1-1) and Jets (1-1) square off. It’s the 106th game in the series, and the first featuring a pair of rookie starting quarterbacks.
“To be compared to EJ, I’ll take it,” Smith said. “EJ’s a great guy. He’s accomplished a bunch in his career and I think the world of him. He’s also my good friend, so it’s good to compete against a guy like that.
“But when it comes down to Sunday, there are no friends on the field. We’re out there competing for our teams and that’s all there really is to it.”
Smith said there was no extra motivation going against a quarterback drafted ahead of him.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m not going to be selfish and go out there with that on my mind. I think that’s a distraction. I’m focusing on going out there and running the offense and leading my team. What happened at the draft has come and gone. I’m blessed to be in this position here with this team and I look forward to it.”
Both Manuel and Smith have already led their teams to fourth-quarter comeback victories and are considered the potential future of their respective franchises. Sunday’s game also will put the winner in a respectable position in the AFC East at 1-1, while the loser will fall to 0-2 in the division.
“Obviously, they’re coming off an emotional high, a big win,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “We’re coming off a disappointing loss. At the end of the day both teams are 1-1 and it’s a divisional game.”
“We know this is a huge game for us,” Manuel said. “One, it’s on the road, and, two, it’s a divisional game and it’s definitely a game we need to win. We both lost to the Patriots and early on you don’t want to get behind in the season.
“It just adds even more urgency to this game.”
Both quarterbacks were heavily scouted by the Bills and Jets during the draft evaluation process.
“You notice the physical (size), when he walks in the door he fills up that doorway,” Ryan said of the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Manuel. “He was really a tremendous person and you can see why Buffalo’s excited about him.”
Manuel’s ability to come through in the clutch was evident last week when he connected with Stevie Johnson on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 2 seconds left to lead Buffalo past Carolina 24-23. It capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive as Manuel became the fifth quarterback in NFL history since 1960 to record a fourth-quarter comeback in either the first or second game of his career.
The fourth quarterback? Well, that was Smith, who did it in the season opener while leading the Jets to the winning field goal with 2 seconds left in an 18-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“He’s always been able to make every throw, he’s always had a high level of accuracy,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said of Smith. “I see him going through progressions and I see him talking with protection. You’re seeing that he’s developing into a fine quarterback. He’s going to create some challenges for our defense.”
Smith was the first quarterback to overcome a deficit of at least nine points in his NFL debut since St. Louis’ Ryan Fitzpatrick did it against Houston in 2005. Meanwhile, Manuel is the first quarterback since 1960 to post a passer rating of 89.0 in each of the first two games of his rookie season.
Both the Bills and Jets fell just short against New England: Buffalo was edged 23-21 in Week 1, and New York dropped last Thursday’s game 13-10. Manuel was solid against the Patriots, going an efficient 18 of 27 for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Smith threw three fourth-quarter interceptions at New England.
“Both players were poised, I thought,” Ryan said. “I’m not lumping them together, but EJ was impressive. I thought Geno was for the most part, as well.”
As for trying to prove whether the Bills or Jets got the better quarterback, both Manuel and Smith insist that can be for everyone else to debate.
“It’s about this team,” Smith said. “It’s about all of us going out there and getting a win for each other.”
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