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Bills have nothing to lose with EJ Manuel at QB

Buddy Nix’s top priority before stepping down as the Bills’ general manager wasn’t building a Super Bowl winner or even a playoff team. His standard was much lower, his goal far more realistic. He was intent on acquiring a franchise quarterback who would help push the franchise in the right direction.

Nix quietly slipped away a few weeks after the draft, apparently convinced that his job was complete after trading down and selecting EJ Manuel with the 16th pick overall. So-called draft experts lined up to say Manuel, the first quarterback taken, was a risky pick who could come with high reward.

Sorry, but I can’t assure that Manuel will be a quality NFL quarterback. I also wouldn’t suggest he’ll be a poor one. Nobody is certain about any player until he steps on the field. It’s why there are so many first-round busts. It’s why players like Tom Brady last until the sixth round. You just don’t know.

Is Manuel a franchise quarterback?

There’s only one way to find out.

Doug Marrone can talk all he wants about quarterback competitions and players separating themselves from the pack and finding the guy who gives the Bills the best chance to win. It’s a nice spin for public consumption, but he shouldn’t be messing around with Kevin Kolb or any other passers during training camp.

Manuel should be the starting quarterback when camp opens this evening at St. John Fisher College. End of story. He should remain the starting quarterback until further notice, which means well beyond this season. If he’s the quarterback of the future – and he is – the Bills should be working toward the future as soon as possible.

If that means handing him the job before he earns it, well, that’s what it means. No, it would not be fair to Kolb. It might not be fair to veterans who are looking to win more than six games or actually make the playoffs. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone, actually, but the NFL isn’t about fairness. It’s about winning or, at the very least, progress.

The Bills have a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new offense, a new quarterback. If they’re going to have a new quarterback, they should play the one that has greater potential upside and a longer future with the team. To me, it’s common sense. Kolb would be little more than a Band Aid.

In Manuel, they might have a cure.

In the past five seasons, 10 teams have had first-year head coaches and rookie quarterbacks. The Ravens finished 11-5 and reached the AFC Championship Game with Joe Flacco the same year Matt Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs with the same record. A year later, Mark Sanchez helped the Jets reach the AFC title game. Last year, Andrew Luck helped the Colts to an 11-5 record after they finished 2-14 the previous season.

The six others were Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Josh Freeman, Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill and Christian Ponder. All came away better for the experience. Sanchez is the only one of the aforementioned 10 who appears to be in trouble. Let’s not forget Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, who became stars as rookies last season with veteran coaches.

It can happen. It does happen.

In a perfect world, Manuel would be able to spend a few seasons behind a proven quarterback the way Aaron Rodgers did when Brett Favre was with the Packers. Colin Kaepernick had a year behind Alex Smith with the 49ers before taking over and becoming a dominant player. This is not a perfect world.

It’s Orchard Park.

The Bills have little to lose, and much more to gain, by playing Manuel. He has more physical talent than any quarterback in franchise history. He’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, mobile, a terrific athlete with a strong arm. He needs better footwork and ball-handling skills, but he’s not some bumbling, stumbling kid who never played the position.

Yes, he’s bound to come with growing pains. There will be some, ahem, suffering along the way while he learns the mental side. But there is no better means of accelerating his development and finding out his maximum potential than getting him on the field as much as possible. You never know. The Bills could win more games than they expected.

The Bills have missed the playoffs 13 straight seasons, so what’s one more? In most years, they’re finished by December. They’re still a long way from overtaking the Patriots in the division. The Dolphins appear to be better, in part because they started rookie Tannehill right away and expedited his development last season.

Let’s get something straight here, too. The Bills aren’t going to stunt Manuel’s growth by rushing him into the offense. That’s an excuse made for players who weren’t good enough in the first place. Ryan Leaf’s career didn’t fall apart because he had too much thrown at him. It fell apart because he couldn’t play and was a mental midget.

Anyway, it’s not as if the Bills need Manuel to fully digest the entire playbook before the season opener. They will add different formations and plays as the season carries along depending on their strengths and those of the opponent. Manuel should grow with the offense, which is a continuous work in progress on any level.

The effectiveness of the K-Gun, which will return under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, didn’t come from its complexity so much as its execution. It was the same way during the Bills’ glory days. It was the same way when Marrone and Hackett were coaching at Syracuse. It can be simple and still be efficient.

It all comes with time and repetition. The best way to get Manuel more repetitions is making him the starter, preferably at 6 p.m. today. And while he’s improving his footwork, he can continue studying the offense and gaining a better understanding of the speed and complexity of NFL defenses.

For all the physical qualities he has shown, the one characteristic that has stood out more than anything is his head. He’s 22, but he carries himself like a man who has been in the NFL for a decade. He looks like an NFL quarterback. He sounds like a man who is ready to assume control. He already seems like a professional.

Remember, too, that the Bills aren’t likely to be throwing the ball all over the field. They have one of the most dynamic running backs in the league in C.J. Spiller and a very good second option in Fred Jackson. If you’re a Bills fan, you’re hoping Marrone and Hackett have enough sense to hand them the ball.

It should start with snapping the ball to Manuel.

And it should start today.