Camp Countdown: When will the starting quarterback be known?

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Camp Countdown presented by M&T Bank will examine some of the more pressing issues facing the team on the field as they make their final preparations for the regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll address these subjects one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully probe for some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 30 and the Sept. 13 opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium against Indianapolis.

"It's a three-horse race."

Those were the words of Bills head coach Rex Ryan this past spring as he was very careful not to dole out too much praise for any one of his three contenders in the competition to be the Bills starting quarterback for the 2015 season.

He's also made it clear that the competition really wouldn't receive meticulous evaluation until training camp when the play on the practice field more closely resembled real football.

As much as every Bills fan wants to know who the starting quarterback will be, the more pressing question might be when will the decision be made?

Something to proveThe national media has been quick to dump on Buffalo's quarterback situation this offseason. A three-man competition is obviously far from ideal, but dismissing each of the candidates as unfit to lead a team and make plays is misguided. EJ Manuel (14 career starts) and Tyrod Taylor (14 career games) haven't played enough NFL football for anyone to make a call on their abilities at the pro level.

Meanwhile Matt Cassel, who has orchestrated a pair of 10-win seasons as a starter in his career and has a Pro Bowl on his resume, still has to convince national pundits that he's still a capable starter at age 33.

"I think they all have something to prove—how they're going to be in this system—we're going to find out," said Ryan. "Some quarterbacks flourish in certain systems and I believe all three guys will have a chance to be successful. I hope that's the case.  Hopefully that decision is going to be tough, in a good way, not that this guy wins it by default.  We're going to have a good competition." 

Coming out of the spring practices the race between the three signal callers was largely described as tight with no one candidate clearly pulling ahead.

"I think we're all doing a good job," said Manuel. "Everybody is being very sharp and picking up the offense like coach Roman wants us to do pretty quickly. When you're playing against good competition in the league that's how it is, so it's the little small things that will separate all of us."

A new approachIt might not be new to the league, but the approach Ryan and his offensive assistants intend to take in getting the necessary exposure to each of the quarterbacks' individual games is new to the Bills franchise.

During team segments of practice (7-on-7, 11-on-11) the team will run a pair of offensive units against a pair of defensive units on two different fields simultaneously. The idea is to maximize the reps for all three quarterbacks so there's enough of a body of work from each player for the coaches to effectively evaluate.

"I think it's great for all of us because we get more reps," said Cassel. "Sometimes when you just have one group you sit there a lot of times and you're watching and you've got to get the mental reps, but this is great. You get all those reps, the more repetition we can get the better for all of us."

Ryan admits it's more difficult to follow on the field, but the evaluation will be more thorough and conclusive in the end.

"Sometimes (there's) a coaching thing and you miss two plays," said Ryan of the goings on during practice. "That's the disadvantage of it on the field, but then you get all the film work to really look at them and talk about it with your guys. I would rather have it that way than just all eyes on the one group and it's so slowed down. For us to get a legitimate look, I kind of like the way we're doing it."

Is there a drop dead date?As much as Ryan wants to let the players determine who is deserving of the starting role there are other considerations to take into account. Chief among them is being ready for the regular season opener. The most extensive game planning typically goes into the opening game because it allows for the longest lead-up time.

That lead-up time will naturally be shorter for the Bills due mainly to the quarterback competition. Logic would suggest that Buffalo's game plan would be noticeably different if, for example, Matt Cassel was the starter instead of Tyrod Taylor.

Ryan and his offensive staff have to carefully balance the importance of picking the right quarterback for the starting job, while also affording that quarterback enough time with the starting unit to be clicking on all cylinders for the season opener.

"Ideally, you'd like to do it sooner rather than later, but I don't think we're going to be there," said Ryan. "I think this will go through two or three weeks into training camp. We'll see how it goes. Especially having the three guys, you want to get all the looks you can. But ideally, you'd like to be able to make that decision sooner rather than later."

Knowing it's a brand new offense for all three quarterbacks, having the starter ready for live competition is critical. That's why in many cases when there is such a competition starters are named heading into the third preseason game. It's typically the last dress rehearsal for the starters before the regular season slate.

The problem is Ryan and his staff can't predict the future. They truly have to take a day-by-day approach through training camp and the preseason schedule.    

"I think I've learned you let that thing sit there," Ryan said having been through quarterback competitions before. "I think it's going to be interesting. Let's let it shake out.  We're going to give them a platform that will showcase what they can all do, and let's see what happens. 

"I feel good about the three guys. Is it a perfect situation? No, I'm not saying it is, but we have three-and we'll see about the options as it goes forward. I think by the time we end it there will be a clear number one guy. It may not happen until the week of the Colts game, so we'll see."

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