"I think you guys know that you can't win in this league without a quarterback. So we had to find a quarterback, and we think this guy will be our quarterback for the future for a long time... at three years, maybe he's not. Then I'll be sitting there saying, 'Hey guys! Anybody got a job for me?'" - Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley, speaking post-draft in April 2013
This won't be as philosophically elegant as the "if a tree falls in a forest..." conundrum, but it's a practical question worth pondering: can a professional football player be the most important player on his team in a given season if he doesn't play at all?
There is a very good chance that first-round pick EJ Manuel - the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL Draft and the first quarterback taken by the Bills with their top overall draft pick in franchise history - will begin his career on the sidelines, headphones worn and clipboard in hand, watching Kevin Kolb quarterback the Bills. It doesn't happen much these days, but it's also not out of the question that we won't see Manuel on the field for a start at all in 2013.
Even if that were to happen, there is no more important player on this roster heading into the 2013 season than the quarterback of the future. Just look at that quote from GM Doug Whaley above: do you think he'd say that about any other player on the team? The franchise quarterback - whether he's a quarterback of the future or a quarterback of the present - is always the most important player on an NFL team. Period. (Unless, of course, a team doesn't have one. The Bills believe they do.)
Perhaps a better title for this series would have been "Ten Bills to shape 2013" (where "shape" subs in for "decide"), because while Manuel won't be deciding anything in the win-loss column if he's on the bench, his progress is the most important benchmark to monitor for the Bills in 2013. Yes, the Bills have overhauled their front office, and a brand new coaching staff is installing new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. Everything is new, and therefore everything is interesting and important. But if this Manuel kid doesn't pan out, the reset button will be pushed again in a few years, and everyone in the building at One Bills Drive knows it.
Of course, the odds that we won't see Manuel on the field at all this season are very low. Kolb, the free agent addition meant to bridge the gap between present and future, if necessary, was cut by Arizona not just because of inconsistent play on a massive salary, but because he couldn't stay healthy. If Kolb starts in Buffalo, there's a good chance that they'll need to call on Manuel as an injury fill-in. Then there's the fact that in the last five years, 13 of 15 quarterbacks selected in Round 1 started at least nine games in year one.
Plus, what good is the 2013 season if Doug Marrone, Nathaniel Hackett and Whaley don't establish some idea of what they have in Manuel, the on-field product? If he sits for most or all of the season, they're stuck repeating platitudes into his second season, letting him run the scout team in practice so he receives as many reps as possible without harming the team's chances on Sundays. No; that won't be acceptable. By the end of this season, we'll have plenty of tape to review on Manuel's rookie season performance.
Team success is almost irrelevant this year, given that everything important about the organization is new or refreshed. It's in that type of year especially that establishing a floor for your rookie quarterback is paramount. With no floor, there can be no progress toward a ceiling. Regardless of who starts on opening day, there's no more important Bill in 2013 (or for several - and hopefully many - years after) than EJ Manuel.