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Patience is key with Bills’ Manuel, as with all rookie quarterbacks

You want to know what it’s like for EJ Manuel right now, and for all rookie quarterbacks? Here’s the best way Rich Gannon can put it:

“Go back to when you were 16,” Gannon said Friday. “You have that new driver’s license. What do you see? The car in front of you, the stop light and the stop sign. It’s like they have blinders on. That’s how it is. It’s so new, all you do is hold tight to the wheel and look straight ahead.”

Gannon has been there. He played quarterback for 18 years in the NFL. He didn’t start a game until his fourth season. Gannon was past 30 when he hit his stride. He was in his 16th season when he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl and was league MVP in 2002.

So Gannon, now a game analyst for the NFL on CBS, knows a thing or two about young QBs. He knows it takes a lot of time and patience, a virtue that is in short supply with many fans in today’s win-now NFL.

Manuel played his first road game last week at the Jets. It did not go well. Already, some people are hysterical about the rookie quarterback. They’re like the dad who hollers at the kid, makes him pull over and demands the keys back after the kid’s first time driving the family car.

I’ve heard it all in the past five weeks: Play Jeff Tuel. Bring back Ryan Fitzpatrick. Nate Hackett is in over his head as offensive coordinator. Manuel is scared to throw downfield. He needs to have his vision checked. Maybe they should draft another quarterback next year in the first round.

“I think that’s ignorant,” Gannon said. “Who are these people? Have they played in the league? Have they coached in the league? You’re talking about three games, a small body of work. I think that’s ludicrous.”

Gannon isn’t soft on Manuel. He was pretty hard on the kid in last Sunday’s telecast. He likes what he sees in EJ – his demeanor, his intelligence, his intangibles. But like you, he saw a lot to criticize against the Jets – and against Carolina.

“There’s a lot to like in him,” Gannon said. “He’s big and strong, he’s physical and seems like he can make every throw. But I think the last two weeks wasn’t his best stuff. I didn’t think he played particularly well versus Carolina with the exception of the last drive.

“It’s obvious that he’s spent a lot of time in the shotgun. I’d like to see him under center a little more. You can see things in his footwork where he can get lazy and it affects his accuracy. That can be an issue.”

Gannon echoed one criticism that followed Manuel into the draft. Remember “slow eyes?” Gannon said EJ seemed “late with his eyes” against the Jets.

“By that, I mean late with his eyes to the target,” Gannon said. He said there was one throw late in the game where Manuel was looking left to hold off the safety, even though the safety wasn’t close to the play. He wound up throwing the ball late and well out of bounds.

“They probably repped it in practice that way,” Gannon said. “He went right back to that. So you see, there’s mechanical things and technical things that can get cleaned up and he can learn from. The key thing is going through that learning process.

“You see he’s making five or six mistakes a game, and they’re not good enough to overcome that.”

Gannon agrees that the pace of the Bills’ offense could be making things more difficult for Manuel. He likes Hackett, but he said there are times when you need to play “complementary football.” Playing fast with a rookie QB and a depleted roster can wear a defense down.

“The tempo is so fast and furious at times, I thought he’d be better served by slowing down,” Gannon said. “In some third-down situations, it seemed to me he was going so fast I don’t know if was he was processing information fast enough.”

This isn’t a revelation to the Bills. Marrone admitted he might need to modify the pace if the offense can’t stay on the field. Manuel said so, too. He says he’s as critical of his play as anyone.

“Definitely, that’s something I battle with myself,” Manuel said. “Obviously, I have high expectations and goals. One, I don’t like to lose, and I think our whole team, everybody doesn’t like to lose. But I think the bigger thing for me was I felt like I should’ve been more composed.”

As Gannon suggested, the Bills need to complement Manuel, make some adjustments so he can stop gripping the steering wheel. How about rolling him out more? Maybe some screen passes would help. Throw more slants on first down. Spread the field to give C.J. Spiller better running lanes.

Still, Manuel will continue to stumble along the way. That’s how it goes with young quarterbacks. Gannon said expectations were unreasonably high for Manuel and the Jets’ Geno Smith because three rookies (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) made the playoffs last year.

Quarterbacks do develop quicker than in Gannon’s day, partly by necessity and also because their college experience better prepares them. But it’s still difficult, and it’s not a clean, linear progression, either.

Look around the league. The Rams are wondering if Sam Bradford, a former No. 1 overall pick, is a true franchise guy. Tampa Bay benched Josh Freeman. Three years ago, in his second NFL season, Freeman had 25 TD passes and six interceptions and led the Bucs to a 10-win season.

A year ago, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill looked lost. Remember how brutal he looked in that Thursday night game here last season? Now the Dolphins are 3-0 and people are saying Tannehill is the real deal.

How about the guy who’s playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium today? Joe Flacco was the 18th pick in the draft in 2008. In the third game of his rookie season, Flacco went on the road and got embarrassed by the Steelers. Five games into his first season, he had one TD pass and seven picks.

Of course, Flacco was surrounded by an elite defense and a winning organization. Even though he won playoff games, people had their doubts. Last year, in a lame-duck contract year, he was named Super Bowl MVP.

So you never know. I don’t know if Manuel will be Flacco, or Freeman, or Tannehill. He might be J.P. Losman or Trent Edwards. As Gannon said, some quarterbacks evolve more quickly than others. Manuel has the athletic ability and the mental makeup. So he might be a fast learner.

“Again, it takes time,” Gannon said. “People have to realize, every time out is a new experience for EJ. Every time out.”

“I’ll get better with each game,” Manuel said.

Chances are, he won’t experience the roller-coaster of emotions he did in his first three weeks. One week, Manuel was winning his first NFL game on his father’s birthday. The next week, he was getting schooled by a Rex Ryan defense in the Meadowlands.

Bills fans ought to be hoping for a slow, steady progression. Manuel is a raw rookie and you need to keep things in perspective. As Gannon said, the Bills don’t have a strong enough roster to be a playoff contender in the kid’s first season.

Relax. Park the car. Hang up the keys. Hug the kid and remind him that every drive won’t go as smoothly as Carolina. Some day, when it’s all second nature, maybe we’ll look back and laugh.