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Hope rides on the arm of Bills’ rookie quarterback

A good friend of mine – and as you might surmise, a big Bills fan – said he wakes up every morning thinking, “Maybe he will be great.”

“He” is EJ Manuel, the Bills’ rookie quarterback. I’m sure my buddy’s daily musings reflect the fondest hopes of football fans in Western New York and around the world.

Yes, what if Manuel is the real deal? What if he has true greatness in him? Maybe this time, the Bills found the quarterback who can lift a team and a city and transform the fortunes of a chronically dysfunctional franchise.

I’m wondering, too. There seems to be more anticipation for the team’s training camp – which opens a week from today at St. John Fisher – than in any year in recent memory, maybe since Jim Kelly showed up at Fredonia in 1986.

I wasn’t here in ’86, so it’s hard to compare. Kelly, who had played in the USFL, was 26 years old and already an established pro. There’s no comparing the rosters, either. Looking back at the ’86 team, it’s stunning how many great players were assembled on one squad.

But I imagine there was a similar sense of fascination and possibility back then, a feeling that the Bills were on the rise, that a bad team was making the transition to a more promising new day.

The parallels are stretched, I will admit. But we’re talking about Bills fans, remember. Years of bumbling and failure can do two things to a fan: It can turn him into a hardened cynic, or test his seemingly bottomless capacity for belief.

There’s nothing like a physically gifted quarterback to stoke the fires of optimism. Manuel gives fans hope. He’s the future, a 6-foot-5 specimen with a cannon of an arm and the ability to make plays with his legs. Manuel is the first quarterback ever taken by the Bills with their first pick in an NFL Draft. He was the only QB taken in the first round. That makes him a national story, an object of intrigue not just in Buffalo but around the NFL, where quarterbacks always matter.

When you have the quarterback, you have a future. Until that happens, it’s all hype and hope. Look around the league. Six of the 12 playoff teams last year had a rookie or second-year starting quarterback. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson breathed new hope into their teams.

The success of the young QBs has raised expectations for Manuel. He’s not in their class, not yet. He doesn’t need to set the world on fire from the start. But Manuel needs to show the skills that made the Bills take him at No. 16 overall, a pick that many felt was a reach.

So all eyes will be on Manuel at St. John Fisher. Every throw will be analyzed, every mannerism evaluated for signs of leadership and swagger, every public utterance dissected for hidden meaning.

People will be watching for the “separation” that Doug Marrone said would become evident in the battle between Manuel and Kevin Kolb. It will not be an encouraging sign if Marrone meant that Manuel’s lack of readiness would become quickly apparent to coaches, players and fans.

We’re done with OTAs and voluntary camps. Now the competition begins. Buffalo fans, who have grown weary of “suffering,” are ready for some real competition. Maybe Manuel isn’t quite ready to zip through his progressions and make precise, NFL throws, but they want to see him compete.

They want early, tangible evidence to support their belief. When they get up the morning after the Bills’ first preseason game at Indianapolis on Aug. 11, they want to be thinking, “Yeah, I do see greatness in him!”

Of course, it’s not all about the quarterback. The Bills have a new head coach in Marrone: a new, young offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett; a new defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine; a lot of new players.

I’ll be looking for a new edge, a fresh operation led by men who can impart a creative, attacking personality to a franchise. Let’s see how Marrone and Hackett channel the offense’s speed. Let’s see how Pettine plans to unleash his pass rush and disrupt opposing offenses.

We’ve been through this before. Gregg Williams promised a smart, attacking style. It was mostly talk in the end. It always comes back to talent. Coaching matters in the NFL, but no coach has a game plan that can consistently make up for poor personnel.

Buddy Nix says the team is more talented that it was when he took over in 2010. We’ll see. The defense was putrid last year. I get tired of hearing how they came on late in the year.

Consider this stat: The six teams the Bills beat last year all finished in the bottom seven of the NFL in passer rating. So they were 0-10 against teams that finished 25th or higher in passing.

The offense wasn’t much better. The Bills were 25th in passing, and Ryan Fitzpatrick couldn’t make the big throws in the fourth quarter of close games. In three years under Chan Gailey, they had one win against a team that finished the year with a winning record.

Maybe, as Nix contends, the overall talent on the roster is better. It ought to be. Going back to the 2002 draft, only one Bills draft pick has been voted to the Pro Bowl at his position: Jairus Byrd. There might be some hidden gems on this team, but they have a lot to prove.

They have two players I consider top 10 in the NFL at their position: C.J. Spiller and Byrd, who probably won’t be at camp. Save your breath on Mario Williams until he does it against a real quarterback.

But the season of hope is upon us again. If nothing else, it’ll be fun and interesting. The great thing about the NFL is you’re never more than a player away from contention – as long as that player is a legitimate franchise quarterback.

Manuel has the franchise label. Now we start to find out if he’s legitimate. I would advise patience. Keep in mind, these things don’t usually happen overnight.