Kevin Kolb has a distinct advantage in the battle to win the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback job entering training camp. Kolb has six years of NFL experience over rookie EJ Manuel, along with experience in an offensive system similar to the one the Bills have adopted.
The key phrase in the competition, however, is “distinct advantage.”
If at any point this summer the competition between Kolb and Manuel is looking close to even – either because Manuel is playing well or Kolb is struggling – then it will make sense for the Bills to play their first-round draft choice.
The key quarterback questions, then, as the Bills prepare to report to training camp Saturday at St. John Fisher College are:
• How fast can Manuel develop?
• And how well can Kolb pull together all the new pieces to coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s new offense?
Coach Doug Marrone expresses confidence that the decision on who to start in the season opener against New England will become clear.
“I think the more reps you give them, I think it’s going to be easier to tell it apart,” Marrone said. “I believe that we’ll be able to see it at training camp.”
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel has the physical tools to be an elite quarterback, which is why the Bills picked him 16th overall. He displayed an outstanding arm and a quick release in spring practices.
Nevertheless, it takes time for a rookie quarterback to react to what he’s seeing from the defense. That’s especially true for Manuel, who played in a college offense in which he often had to read only half of the field.
“With EJ, we just want to make sure we’re taking it in a natural progression,” Marrone said. “He’s not seeing the same type of things that Kevin’s seeing out there right now. We’re just working ahead and building him up.”
Manuel has said all the right things in the run-up to camp.
“I’m still trying to learn, still trying to get a great feel for my teammates, still trying to earn the respect of the veteran guys as well as the rookies,” he said in June. “We’re all just trying to get on the same page.”
How does he prepare to compete with Kolb?
“Just continue to get better every day as a team, and obviously personally, just make sure you’re prepared for the opportunity, prepare at night, and prepare during meetings and go out there and execute,” Manuel said.
While he realizes he must earn his stripes, Manuel brings credentials to the table. He went 25-6 as a starter at Florida State. He seems to grasp the idea he can’t just be a typical, yes-sir, no-sir, subservient rookie. He has to inspire some confidence among his teammates.
What does he think of his opportunity to win the job?
“I’m always going to be confident,” he said. “As an athlete you always have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself nobody else will. Try to exude confidence to my teammates, get those guys playing at a high level.”
“He’s a good kid,” said receiver Stevie Johnson. “In the locker room, he’s good. There’s going to be ups and downs, and not just with rookies, with everybody, myself included. I think having Kolb here is beneficial for him. He’ll learn a lot, as far as the presence. Just by watching him he looks like he’s going to be ‘that guy.’ Like I said, being patient and working and he continues to work, we’ll be all right.”
Manuel is not as polished a product as last year’s three best rookie starters – Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, Robert Griffin III of Washington and Russell Wilson of Seattle.
Manuel attempted 897 passes in college, fewer than most college QBs who start from Day One. Wilson had 1,489 attempts, Griffin 1,192 and Luck 1,064. There are immediate-starter exceptions, such as Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (774 college attempts) and Carolina’s Cam Newton (628, counting junior college).
It all points to Kolb providing a bridge to the Manuel era.
Kolb entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2007. He received great training from coach Andy Reid in the West Coast system, which forms the basis of Hackett’s offense.
A big reason Kolb is hitting the reset button on his career is he has not been able to stay healthy. A Kolb injury in 2010 opened the door to Michael Vick’s revival in Philadelphia. Injuries helped limit Kolb to 14 starts the last two seasons in Arizona.
“I’ve been through a lot of these and look forward to the challenge,” Kolb said of QB battles.
“I approach the competition like, hey, I’m competing against the playbook, I’m competing against the defense,” Kolb said. “I’m not competing against the guys in another red jersey.”
Bills players recognize Kolb is comfortable running an offense.
“I think that’s one thing that sticks out to me when you’re in there with Kolb,” Johnson said. “He steps to the line or in the huddle and you know he’s been in the league for a few years. I think that’s good for us, right now, especially with this new offense.”
“It’s a new offense for him also, but it doesn’t feel like it’s new for him,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing that’s good. I think we’ve got to build that with Kolb and EJ because we can be a threat. We’ve got guys who can run any route. A soon as this chemistry gets knocked down, we’ll be exciting.”
If Kolb or Manuel can bring excitement to the offense, it will be a step forward for the Bills.