It’s just a little patch with a letter ‘C’ sewn on the upper corner of the uniform. So how much significance should we read into who has it for the Bills this year and who doesn’t?
The team announced its captains Monday, selected by a vote of the players, and there were the usual suspects in Fred Jackson, Eric Wood and Kyle Williams. Mario Williams has ascended to the role here for the first time while newcomers Brandon Spikes and Corey Graham, both of whom have made it to the Super Bowl and know a thing or two about the playoffs, also got the nod.
Most teams pick their quarterback. The Bills did not pick EJ Manuel. Hmmm.
Now, a word of caution before jumping to any big conclusions. This isn’t hockey, where the wearer of the ‘C’ is incredibly symbolic in history in addition to having the major duties on the ice, in the locker room and often in the community. New Sabres forward Brian Gionta, for instance, will forever carry “captain of the Montreal Canadiens” as one of the prime accomplishments on his career resume.
(An aside: One wonders if Gionta might get another line later this month that reads “new captain of the Buffalo Sabres”).
It’s not nearly that way in football. Some teams merely appoint captains weekly. The New York Jets, in fact, have designated no captains at all under Rex Ryan since 2011. That’s when captain Santonio Holmes became such a disruptive force that Ryan has avoided the issue entirely since then.
Does anybody remember, or even care, who the Bills’ captains were during the ‘90s? Of course not. But you wouldn’t have to go too far to find someone who could run down the list of Sabres’ captains. So it’s a bit of a different animal by the nature and tradition in the sport. In fact, the NFL didn’t even start its practice of captain patches until 2007.
Still, the list of NFL teams that name captains and don’t have their quarterback as one is pretty short. By my count, that would be Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Oakland and Tampa Bay.
And it’s pretty obvious they’re similar to the Bills: Mediocre teams with major questions under center.
So it was downplay-mode all around the Bills’ complex Monday when the touchy subject of Manuel and the captaincy vote surfaced on the same day that Kyle Orton showed up.
“If you look at it, it’s mostly the veteran guys that have been around,” said coach Doug Marrone. “I think that position has leadership qualities in it just by the position itself.”
“It’s one of those things where we have a lot of veteran leadership on the team,” Jackson said. “Give him time, he’ll definitely be a captain at some point.”
Jackson has a background of coming from a Division III college and morphing into one of the most popular Bills of the post-Super Bowl years. He called being a longtime captain the best accolade he’s received in his career here. So it counts to these players.
And it’s notable that the Bills went from three captains to six this year. But still no quarterback.
That said, young quarterbacks are not an automatic unless they accomplish something (See: Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick or Andrew Luck). Cam Newton wasn’t selected in Carolina, for instance, until his third season.
“With him being a quarterback, that’s a lot of pressure,” Spikes said of Manuel. “He’s going to lead and he’s going to be great. The sky’s the limit for that kid. He’s just got to keep working. He’s young but I’m looking for him to be that leader for us and get us going.”
Manuel speaks to the media on Wednesdays during game week and he’ll probably pass this issue off as no big deal too. He’s got enough going right now, even though it’s easy to think this is a bit of a snub.
There’s more talent on this team in many spots than there’s been in several years. Everyone in that locker room — and outside it — knows the biggest question mark is the most important spot on the field. If you didn’t think everyone in the room shared the same feeling, you do now.
Manuel needs to go out and play well, right from the opening snap Sunday in Chicago. Orton has started 70 NFL games and antennas went up Monday when he said he’s confident he can learn the offense this week. Marrone made it clear he believes a veteran learns fast as well. Uh-huh.
Orton was politically correct, saying he was brought here to be Manuel’s backup and to help him learn.
But the Bills aren’t on any long-term plan.
Not after trading their No. 1 draft pick and not when the coach and general manager are hanging in the breeze waiting to see who their owner will be.
The Bills had to have a veteran backup if they needed to give Manuel a quick hook. Better late than never with Orton, who certainly figures to be in line for start No. 71 and beyond if Manuel plays in September anywhere close to the way he did in August.
Besides, if the day comes that Orton is the starter, the backup can’t be a captain.