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Bills’ coach Marrone needs to be careful

People ask for my early impressions of new Bills coach Doug Marrone. I tell them to check back with me in September. But from what I gathered in minicamp, the players are excited about the energy and optimism of the new staff.

Here’s a quote from Fred Jackson, one I’ll store away for future reference:

“When a new coach tells you we’re going to the playoffs this year, that changes the mindset of some guys,” Jackson said Wednesday. “It’s not a guy coming in and saying we’re rebuilding.”

That’s no surprise. Rookie coaches don’t usually come in and tell people to prepare for the suffering. They’re young and full of themselves. They’re competitors who expect to win. And they’re in charge of a bunch of confident athletes who expect to succeed, too.

So when Marrone says the Bills can make the playoffs, Jackson takes him at his word. He’s a captain, a leader, the most respected guy on the squad.

Look, I don’t expect the Bills to contend this season. It is a rebuilding year, despite what Marrone says. But he needs to tread carefully. A new coach has to be consistent with his players, especially his veterans. If he talks playoffs, he has to back it up.

That leads us to the quarterback issue. There’s a school of thought that says Marrone should make rookie EJ Manuel the starter from Day One. Throw him out there and let him learn on the job. What do you have to lose, right? They’re not going to the playoffs, anyway.

Tell that to Jackson or Eric Wood, or Kyle or Mario Williams, who have never appeared in an NFL playoff game. If they’re buying into the notion that the Bills have a shot, it’ll be hard for Marrone to sell roster moves that compromise the team’s ability to win in the short term.

Remember 2005? It’s understandable if you’d rather forget. That was the year they unloaded a fading Drew Bledsoe and handed the starting job to J.P. Losman, who was in his second NFL season.

Losman was a disaster. Mike Mularkey, in his second season as coach, yanked him twice in the first four weeks, then gave the job to Kelly Holcomb. The veterans, who had expected to contend after winning nine games in ’04, were against the Losman move from the start.

That was the year when Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher talked about making history on defense. When Losman struggled, there were mutterings in the locker room that Mularkey was hurting their playoff chances by playing Losman.

There were suspicions that Mularkey was taking his lead from Ralph Wilson and Tom Donahoe. He lost the locker room. He had a falling-out with Eric Moulds. At the end of the season, Mularkey, Donahoe and Moulds were all gone. It was one of the most embarrassing seasons in team history.

This situation is different. Manuel is a rookie. No rookie has won the Bills’ starting QB job out of camp since Jim Kelly in 1986, and Kelly was 26 at the time, with two years of USFL experience.

Manuel is an exciting athlete with a big arm. But he’s raw, and he’s likely to struggle against NFL defenses at the start. He might be even less ready than Losman was as a second-year pro in 2005.

Sure, it’ll be great if Manuel is a revelation, if he picks up the NFL game in training camp and dazzles us in preseason games. Management is surely hoping he’ll win the job, raising the hopes of fans who believe they have a true franchise quarterback at last.

But Marrone has promised a competition at every position. Manuel will have to fight Kevin Kolb for the starter’s job. That’s why they cut Tarvaris Jackson, to reduce it to a two-man battle and give Manuel enough practice reps to prove himself.

Manuel signed his rookie contract on Friday: A four-year deal for an estimated $8.9 million, commensurate with the 16th overall pick on the rookie wage scale. It’s good to have Manuel locked up early, ensuring that he will be happy and in camp on time.

That’s a fairly modest contract. A four-year, $8.9 million deal is what you pay an average offensive lineman nowadays. In 2009, Aaron Maybin got $25 million over five years as the 11th overall pick. Maybin got $14.2 million in guarantees.

So there’s no urgency to play Manuel right away to justify the investment. I don’t buy the notion that management must “sell him” to the public by playing him right away.

The Bills are great at selling hope to a captive audience. They’ve done a nice job by restructuring the organization, putting young faces in the key management and coaching positions, and drafting a potential franchise quarterback and hot young receivers.

Bills fans are a patient, forgiving lot. They won’t disappear if it takes Manuel time to develop into an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t have to be Andrew Luck, Cam Newton or Russell Wilson to justify the pick.

Kolb has the upper hand right now, in deference to his experience. I asked Kolb if he needed to be the clear-cut winner to get the No. 1 job. He just smiled. He said he’s played every role in quarterback competitions. He knows how the game is played.

These things have a way of working themselves out. Kolb has been more prospect than producer in his career. He’s been prone to injury, partly because he holds the ball too long in the pocket and doesn’t handle pressure well.

If Kolb exceeds expectations and the Bills get off to a fast start, fans will be thrilled. It’s more likely that he’ll falter and Manuel will get his chance. Of course, there’s also the chance that Kolb will have an uninspiring camp and Manuel will do well enough to win the job.

Marrone’s job is to conduct a fair competition. He said during minicamp that he expects the winner to become evident during training camp.

“I think it’s going to be something that we’re all going to see, not just a decision that’s made,” Marrone said. “I believe that we’ll be able to see it at training camp. I think the players on the team are going to be able to see that separation, and that’s the most important thing.”

It’s interesting that Marrone would talk about the players being able to see the separation. He’s saying it won’t be that close, which leads me to believe that he doesn’t expect Manuel to be ready.

Marrone’s words also show that he’s sensitive to his players. He knows they’re watching to see if he’s true to his word. The last thing Marrone needs is for players to suspect that the quarterback decision is being influenced by the men upstairs.

Quarterback is by far the most important position in the NFL. But don’t forget, the Bills also have a rookie head coach. He’s trying to find his way, too.


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