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Bills are no stranger to quarterback controversies

If J.P. Losman approaches the caliber of performance he put on against Cincinnati last Sunday in the game against the Dolphins today, he could take a commanding lead in the Bills' quarterback controversy.

On the other hand, maybe not. It may depend on how well he survives in next Sunday night's game against the Patriots. Or how Coach Dick Jauron feels about returning rookie Trent Edwards to the starting lineup for road games at Jacksonville and Washington. Or whether Jauron will even admit there is a quarterback controversy at all.

That's how it goes with quarterback controversies -- or public debates on quarterbacks -- or "It's a figment of the media's imagination" quarterback controversies. Whatever description you prefer, the Bills have been through this a few times in their past.

The first and most famous was the Kemp-Lamonica argument in the AFL championship days of the mid '60s. Undeniably Jack Kemp and Daryle Lamonica were both good quarterbacks whom Coach Lou Saban used imaginatively. Kemp had the powerful arm of a javelin thrower, which he had been in college. Just as important he was a natural-born leader who, when he entered politics after his retirement, referred to himself as "a bleeding-heart conservative." For anyone who knows him well it was an apt description. Other conservatives tried to latch on to that description but as pundit Mark Shields once pointed out on CNN's old "Crossfire" panel show, "Jack Kemp has showered with more blacks than most of these other guys ever met."

Lamonica, brash and confident, came into pro football as Tom Brady did, with an unexpected explosion of talent. In each quarterback's case, approximately 150 players were drafted ahead of each. Lamonica, like Kemp, had a powerful arm, perfect for the AFL in which "going long" was a league-wide motto. In those days pass receivers with per-catch yardage averages in the high teens were common place.

After Lamonica's rookie year Saban had enough confidence in him to use him like a baseball relief pitcher. The idea was to augment Kemp, but Lamonica was a Notre Dame product and this is a Notre Dame town. For the fans, if not the players, the Bills were broken into camps -- those for Kemp and those for Lamonica.

One time Kemp spoke at a dinner in Angola and a Lamonica fan, feigning a desire for a handshake, squeezed his hand so hard he nearly missed the next game. Saban's use of his quarterbacks may not have pleased either man, but it worked and the Bills won consecutive championships in 1964 and '65. Days after the Bills' title victory and the announcement that Kemp had won the AFL's most valuable player award, Saban resigned as coach. A year later Lamonica was traded to the Raiders.

The next quarterback controversy came in 1998 with the Bills, desperate to find a fitting successor to the retired Jim Kelly traded a first-round draft choice for Jacksonville backup Rob Johnson and then Doug Flutie, the top player in the Canadian League, was signed as a free agent. The Bills won 21 games in the next two seasons with the fans breaking down into Flutie and Johnson factions. A local radio station even staged a promotion where the public could get free political-type posters with the quarterbacks' names on them to advertise their preference on their front lawns.

Who won the crown as Kelly's successor? Neither, although Flutie came closest.

Despite the victories in '98 and '99, Johnson was a classic tease, looking good at times but holding the ball an agonizing amount of time instead of passing, a sign of incurable indecision. Flutie, adored by his fans, thought on his feet as well as any quarterback and had a strong arm, but his short stature kept him from beating top-level defenses on a consistent basis.

Now we have Losman vs. Edwards, not a very even contest since J.P. is a football orphan. He wasn't drafted by the Marv Levy-Jauron management, it inherited him. Edwards was a steal as a third-round draft choice last April. Ask most NFL personnel people and they'll tell you he was a first-round talent but there was doubt about his durability since he took such a beating while playing for a bad Stanford team that didn't win a game his senior year.

The strange coincidence part of those three quarterback controversies is that five of the six contestants -- Kemp, Lamonica, Johnson, Losman and Edwards -- are California bred.

Now may the best Golden Stater win.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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