Written by Sal Maiorana, Democrat and Chronicle staff writer
Much of the focus on Sunday's AFC East battle between the Bills and Jets has been centered on the return of Mike Pettine to New York to match wits with his defensive mentor and good friend, Rex Ryan.
That's a nice subplot, but when you get right down to it, no one at MetLife Stadium, and no one watching in HD glory backhome in western New York, will pay any attention to the two middle-age guys calling signals from the sidelines.
In a quarterback-driven league, this game has some chutzpah because each team will be starting a rookie quarterback; the first two quarterbacks selected in the 2013 NFL draft, Buffalo's EJ Manuel and New York's Geno Smith.
OK, it will lack the media frenzy that surrounded the Russell Wilson-Robert Griffin III playoff showdown last year, only the second postseason game since 1966 where rookie quarterbacks started against each other. Still, because they were drafted into the same division, Manuel and Smith will inaugurate what could become a juicy twice-a-year rivalry. Of course, while fans and media are excited about this storyline, the two combatants aren't paying it a red cent of heed.
"I'm not really focused on facing Geno," said Manuel during a news conference earlier in the week. "He's not on defense, so we're just looking forward to the next game and trying to get another win."
Smith was equally laconic during a conferencecall with reporters, saying, "I haven't spoken to him. We both have a lot on our minds and we have to prepare for the week."
Ah yes, 21st-century athlete-speak at its finest, where players utter the same tired banalities, any semblance of personality siphoned from their brains by micromanaging agents and team PR staffs. So, if they don't want to wax poetic about a game that is historic in that never in 104 previous Bills-Jets encounters have rookie quarterbacks started for both teams, we can.
The foundation for this potential long-term AFC East rivalry was laid during the first two nights of the draft in April.
New York had two first-round picks, Nos. 9 and 13, and even though everyone knew the team was hoping to move on from embattled Mark Sanchez, the Jets chose cornerback Dee Milliner and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
Buffalo stepped up at No. 16, and with every quarterback on the board still available, the Bills tabbed Manuel, which came as a surprise to some draftniks who had graded Smith as the best of the rookie crop and maybe the only first-round-worthy QB. Smith lasted until the second round, picked 39th overall by New York.
"I'm past that now," Smith said of the disappointment of falling out of the first round. "I hate to talk about it because I'm focusing on what we have here."
This summer, Manuel was the undeniable best quarterback in Buffalo's training camp, even before he hurt his knee and Kevin Kolb suffered a season-ending concussion. Things didn't go as smoothly for Smith, who played terribly in the preseason and won the starting job by default when Ryan made an egregious error inserting Sanchez into a preseason game in the fourth quarter. Sanchez suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and may be out for the year.
Smith was a winner in his first regular-season start, though he was tremendously fortunate in defeating Tampa Bay. He then threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in a Thursday night Week 2 loss to New England. His two-game passer rating is 55.2, his completion percentage is 53.4, he has one TD and four interceptions, and the Jets have scored a grand total of two touchdowns.
Like Smith, Manuel lost to thePatriots , then bounced back and led a scintillating game-winning drive last week against Carolina to square his record at 1-1. Manuel has completed 68 percent of his passes (fourth in the league) with three TDs and an interception for a passer rating of 95.9 (ninth-best), and Friday was named NFL rookie of the week.
Despite his early struggles, Bills coach Doug Marrone knows what Smith is capable of.
"Having competed against him incollege (Marrone's Syracuse team beat Smith's West Virginia team three times) and then having the ability to work him out and spend some time with him (pre-draft), I had a great appreciation for him then," Marrone said.
In the end, the Bills liked Manuel better, and with Smith winding up with a division rival, he'll have two opportunities every year to prove the Bills wrong.
"It's not about revenge," Smith said. "That's definitely not going to be on my mind this week or in the game because I feel that's a distraction and it can only be hurtful. I think it would be selfish to go out and play for those reasons."
These kids today, they wouldn't know how to plant the seeds for a good old-fashioned rivalry if you tilled the soil and watered it for them.