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Bills’ company line on QBs doesn’t quite add up

Rex Ryan has hit a bit of a rough patch over the past several days. It’s enough to make me think the honeymoon period is officially over.

On Sunday, the Patriots came to town and shoved Ryan’s tough talk back in his face. On Monday night, the Jets embarrassed the Colts, moving to 2-0 and taking some of the luster off the Bills’ opening-day win. Oh, the Jet defense leads the NFL with 10 takeaways. They had 13 all last year under Ryan.

On Tuesday, General Manager Doug Whaley traded backup quarterback Matt Cassel to the Cowboys, forcing EJ Manuel’s elevation to No. 2 on the QB depth chart. On Wednesday came Ryan’s fumbling attempt to defend the Cassel trade as a strategy to help EJ develop and strengthen the team in the long term.

“We appreciated Matt,” Ryan said. “He did a fine job for us. But when you look at it, EJ is going to develop much more when he’s the two than he would be as the three. At the end of the day, a lot of it, that’s what it came down to.”

OK, any quarterback will develop more as the backup, where he gets more reps. But when did Manuel’s long-term development become the primary consideration? When did it take precedence over the immediate objective, winning?

EJ was third string during the summer. He was third string after the Bills cut Cassel and re-signed him for less money. He was third string for the first two games. So by their actions, it was the coaches who said Manuel was inferior to Cassel. If not, why wasn’t Manuel the backup the first two games?

“That was certainly a discussion at the time,” Ryan said. “I thought EJ played extremely well. But to say EJ is inferior, he’s not inferior to any quarterback.”

Sorry to use a loaded word like “inferior.” I’d hate to hurt Manuel’s feelings by suggesting he’s inferior to Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or even Tyrod Taylor.

I was no Cassel fan. I felt he would be an uninspiring choice as the starter and agreed that Taylor deserved a shot. I can understand why some fans felt EJ was a better option, especially after the preseason games.

But this isn’t about my judgment, or the average fan’s. It about the coaches, who clearly determined that Cassel was the superior option on more than one occasion. QB coach David Lee said Cassel was the best he ever saw in meetings, a savvy veteran whose insight was an invaluable asset to the younger QBs.

Ryan did his best to put forth a united front, as he did after Whaley cut Fred Jackson. But this is an obvious case of the GM favoring his own guy. Whaley’s reputation is tied to Manuel. So he clears out space for EJ, putting him one step closer to playing and making a first-round draft reach look good.

This is a classic case of the Bills middling it. They want to win big in a year when Rex essentially guaranteed the playoffs – as Whaley did a year ago – while maintaining the notion that Manuel is still salvageable as a franchise quarterback.

“Maybe down the road – and right down the road – it’s going to help our football team,” Ryan said, “because we feel we have our quarterbacks of the present and the future in Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel.”

That’s when Ryan’s weekly press conference got really weird, or knee-slapping hilarious, depending on your perspective. So the Bills are in that rare, privileged position among NFL teams where they have not one, but two franchise quarterbacks?

Taylor is seven months older than Manuel. Which one is the future, exactly? Are they the modern version of Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson? And again, if Ryan truly believes Manuel will prove himself “right down the road,” why was EJ inactive in the first two games of the season?

It’s probably because Ryan doesn’t believe it himself. The News has been told by more than one informed source that the offensive coaching staff doesn’t trust Manuel. The fact that he was on the scout team in the summer proved that.

Manuel played well in a couple of preseason games, raising his profile as a worthy No. 2. But the coaches apparently weren’t convinced. They confirmed their lack of faith by making Manuel the No. 3 QB for the first two games.

Maybe Taylor’s encouraging play as the starter convinced Whaley he had wiggle room and could afford to play around with the backup QB job, which he has mismanaged almost from the moment he became the official GM.

But if anything, Taylor’s play against New England showed he has a long way to go to be a franchise QB in the league. Forget the stats. He was unsteady in the pocket and missed open receivers. He’s only played two games. He needs time. But it’s a little early to assume he has the starter’s job locked up.

So why would the Bills weaken themselves at the position? Later Wednesday, they signed quarterback Dustin Vaughan, who might as well be Vince Vaughn as far as I’m concerned.

Ryan is selling the company line: It’s to hasten Manuel’s development and help the franchise down the road. It’s too bad Whaley didn’t force Doug Marrone’s hand late last season, when Marrone refused to play Manuel because he wanted to win every game.

At least Marrone was honest about the situation. Ryan wants us to swallow the notion that Cassel gave him the best choice to win as the No. 2 for the first two games, but now he’s OK with Manuel as his go-to guy in a crisis.

Sorry, but it doesn’t add up. You can’t tell me that the coaches spent all these months determining that Cassel was the man they trusted as the backup, then had a change of heart overnight. Ryan wasn’t animated or forceful in his argument Wednesday, which made you wonder how sincere he was in making it.

When Ryan was hired, he went out of his way to dispel any ideas about a possible GM-coach rift, as he suffered through with the Jets at the end. He talked about the Bills organization having “one ego.” He said Whaley would have the final say on personnel. He said there were no “hidden agendas.”

Ryan said Wednesday that Whaley has the final say. That’s good for now. But it’s a fine line when the coach is the most empowered figure in the football operation, the one making $5 million a year. If things begin to unravel, we’ll find out whose ego has the most clout in the building.

Cutting Cassel is Whaley’s latest risk. The Cowboys, who made the playoffs a year ago, thought enough of Cassel to deal a fifth-round pick for him. I would be surprised if Jerry Jones had real interest in Manuel.

Whaley is determined to prove the investment in Manuel was worth it. Ryan says it’ll be the right thing for the franchise in time. Don’t insult our intelligence by pretending to believe it’s the best thing right now.


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