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Orton did Bills a favor by sliding into retirement

For most Bills fans, the news must have come as a holiday surprise, like a belated Christmas present that your parents find hidden in the back of the closet.

Kyle Orton’s sudden retirement on Monday was no cause for regret. Orton did the Bills a favor by choosing family life over another year of ducking away from onrushing defensive linemen. His departure will accelerate the difficult but necessary search for a better answer at the game’s most important position.

Orton had his moments. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and produced a couple of last-second wins, overcoming deficits largely of his own making. He beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. He developed an erratic bond with Sammy Watkins that came very close to getting the rookie to a 1,000-yard season.

But overall, Orton was an uninspiring presence, an ordinary player whose signature moment was sliding 2 yards short of the first down on third-and-1 in the loss in Denver, the Bills’ biggest game in a decade.

Orton put up a lot of garbage yards during a futile playoff run. Still, coach Doug Marrone stuck by him, insisting that Orton gave his team the best chance to win. Looking back, I wonder if Orton was looking to avoid a big hit because he knew he was sliding into retirement.

During a season-ending news conference Monday, both Marrone and General Manager Doug Whaley said that Orton’s retirement came as a surprise, even though there had been reports that Orton was considering retirement when he bolted the Cowboys last summer.

“We didn’t discuss how long he would hang around,” Whaley said. “He said he wouldn’t come here unless he was fully committed. We took him at his word, and he was committed for this year, for sure.

“I was surprised. He told us this morning, so we had no inclination that he was thinking of making that decision at this time or down the road.”

Still, it’s hard to believe that Orton’s decision came as a total shock. Receiver Robert Woods said Orton had mentioned retirement recently. Last summer, the Cowboys believed Orton had retired when he missed their off-season activities, including a mandatory June minicamp.

The Cowboys cut him, assuming Orton was going to retire. But he didn’t retire, which allowed him to keep all of the $5 million bonus he pocketed when Dallas signed him in 2012. Then late in the summer, the Bills signed him to a $5.5 million deal, making him the highest-paid backup in the league.

Marrone turned to Orton four weeks into the season, after two dreadful performances by EJ Manuel, the presumed franchise QB. He stuck with him to the finish, despite Orton’s regression and cries from some quarters for the Bills to go back to Manuel.

Orton got them to 9-7, their first winning season in a decade. I’m not sure Manuel would have done much worse. He certainly deserved to see playing time in New England with the Bills out of playoff contention. With Orton retiring, it’s even more outrageous that Manuel didn’t play a snap.

Marrone said he might have handled things differently in Foxborough if he had been aware that Orton was leaving. But he had no regrets about sticking with the journeyman for the last 12 weeks.

“No,” Marrone said, “because if I didn’t have that information, I’m not going to question anything that we’ve done.”

But they have to question what to do from here. The Bills have an urgent need to get better at quarterback. They might have cut Orton anyway (I would have). It would be hard to sell Orton as the incumbent starter after his lackluster play down the stretch.

There’s always Manuel. But Whaley, who swore by his former first-round draft pick last spring and traded up for Watkins in the hope that “better weapons” would hasten Manuel’s development, wouldn’t even say that he still considers Manuel the franchise quarterback.

“Well, that’s something we’ll look at throughout this offseason,” Whaley said. “By sheer numbers, we’re going to have to add one, maybe two more. That’s something we’ll go through with a fine-tooth comb and see if we can figure it out.”

I told Whaley it must be disappointing to have Manuel slip so far in his esteem, considering how much he and the organization had invested in him.

“I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing,” Whaley said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to see. I can’t sit here and say because he did take a little bit of a regression back. But we’ve also seen some progression in what he’s doing in practice.”

That’s quite an endorsement. He’s looked good in practice. Marrone also said Manuel has progressed on the sidelines. But how can they go back to Manuel after Marrone buried him and made it clear he doesn’t consider him a winning option?

The Bills missed the playoffs for the 15th straight year, despite having their best defense in a decade. If they were in win-now mode this season, why would that change? Marrone benched Manuel because he felt it was holding his team back, so he’s not likely to play EJ if he feels there’s a better option.

The franchise has been compromised by mediocre quarterback play for years. It has to do better. If you have any doubt that an elite QB can carry a team, consider this: Seven of the top eight seeds in this year’s playoffs had a quarterback who finished in the top 10 of the NFL’s QB rankings.

The Bills won’t have anyone close to elite in the foreseeable future, so they have three options: Find a veteran through trade or free agency; give Manuel another chance to prove he’s a legitimate franchise quarterback; or find a hidden gem in this year’s draft, in which they have no first-rounder.

The list of pending free agents isn’t appetizing. It includes the likes of Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez, Matt Flynn, Jake Locker, Matt Moore and Christian Ponder. They could pursue Jay Cutler, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford or Robert Griffin III via trade, though it would make sense to see if Cutler gets cut by the Bears.

Of course, the Bills will be in a holding pattern until Terry Pegula decides whether to bring in Bill Polian or some other veteran football man to evaluate the operation. But whoever runs the show will be looking to upgrade at QB.

Polian has a history of investing heavily on the offensive side of the ball. He would want to improve at quarterback, offensive line and maybe tight end or running back. That might require shifting some resources from the defensive side.

Quarterback is a huge issue, regardless of who is running the show. This is the worst shape they’ve been in at QB since Jim Kelly retired. That’s why it’s hard to see a winning season as progress, and why it’s so important they find a qualified personnel guy to get things right.

It’s pretty discouraging to think that Orton, a mediocrity with one foot in retirement, could have been perceived as any kind of answer.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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