It is not easy being a starting QB in the NFL. The league has, mistakenly in my view, created a game where the QB is often the most important player on the field. Because of the rules changing to favor the passing game and to provide more physical protection of the QB, most fans assume that while every other position on their team will have to deal with injuries over the course of the season, the QB should remain playing for most if not all of the 16 games of the regular season because there is less risk of the injuries that impact most other positions on the field. Teams plan accordingly as well, as evidenced by the huge dropoff normally associated with the QB position when for one reason or another, the chosen one is unable to play. In sum, the starting QB in the NFL is expected to play all 16 games, fans anticipate it, and teams plan around it, devoting precious few resources to having an equally or close to equally competent 2nd stringer waiting in the wings in the case of injury.
Another element which separates the QB from other positions in the NFL is the idea that, while most positions are won through intense competition with teammates, the QB position is one where it is considered wise not to have a close competition for the starting position. More importantly, it is considered unwise to have even a whisper of competition in the air when the season actually begins, because it is considered dangerous to the confidence of the starting QB for him to be "looking over his shoulder" every time he makes a bad play or has a bad game or even a few bad games in a row. The idea of preserving and protecting the self confidence of the QB, in a league built around the idea of the QB as CEO of the team on the field, as the Field General, the Man etc. all goes into creating this obsession with NFL QBs and in particular, the idea of a so called franchise Quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the undisputed starting QB for the Buffalo Bills. He has been so proclaimed by the GM Buddy Nix and his Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey repeatedly over the past two years. At the same time, most Bills fans would resist the notion that Ryan Fitzpatrick is The Solution, The Man, the Chosen One, the Franchise Quarterback to lead the team to the promised land of annual playoffs and repeated opportunities to go to the Super Bowl.
Imagine being Ryan Fitzpatrick. Since signing his contract just prior to the midway point of last season, he became the Bills $59 Million Dollar Man, its Starting Quarterback, its Team Leader, one of its Faces of the Franchise, and yet, few if any were ready and willing to proclaim him as the Franchise Quarterback the Bills have been looking for since the retirement of Jim Kelly following the playoff loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars at then Rich Stadium.
Many Rumblers called him nothing more nor less than a Journeyman QB. Other Rumblers til this day have said he is not even worthy of being considered an NFL Quarterback, much less a starter in the NFL. As he approaches Bills history as one of the all time leaders in passing touchdowns in just a few seasons as a Bills starter, it is clear that no matter his accomplishments as the leader of a revived Bills offense, his shortcomings and tendency to throw interceptions at just below the rate of his touchdown passes, and especially his seeming inability to develop a consistent long ball connection with his wide receivers has led to an outpouring of disgust and depression from many fans with the state of the Bills at their team's most important position.
I have been of the opinion that before we draw any conclusions concerning the Fitz Era, we ought let at least one more full season unfold before reaching the states of depression which afflicts so many passionate and frustrated fans. Last season was Fitz's first season as a #1 Quarterback on an NFL football team. This is Fitz's 2nd season as a #1 Quarterback in the NFL. All prior seasons Fitz began as a backup QB. His track record, to be fair, is limited.
Not surprisingly, to earn the right to be named the starter at the most important position in the NFL, Fitz has had to show signs of greatness from time to time, which he did during parts of the previous two seasons. It was those signs of greatness, or at least excellence, which led the Bills to sign him to the richest contract in team history prior to the deal with Super Mario this past off season. But Fitz has also showed signs of mediocrity or worse from time to time, and these passages through the tunnels of QB incompetence have led many fans to close the book on Fitz and declare him unfit to continue as the Bills starting QB. Indeed, he has not played his best football since signing the new contract. Some would say Fitz has gotten worse since then, others would say he has played about the same, and a few would admit that he has made significant progress in some facets of his game.
We all know Fitz is the starting QB for the rest of the 2012 season if he stays healthy. With nine games left in the season, odds are Fitz is at the crossroads in his career as a Buffalo Bill. He has shown signs of great promise, and signs of not having enough of what is required to get the job done at a high level to lead the team to the promised land, especially when attempting to overcome one of the league's worst defenses.
Few believe Fitz is the Bills franchise QB. But what does Fitz believe? Does Fitz have the ability to rally himself and his team to a higher level over the course of the next few months? Can Fitz elevate his play to another level? Can Fitz continue to produce points for his offense while eliminating the killer interceptions at critical stages in those games where the offense has to keep scoring to match the other team's mauling of our at times pathetic defensive unit?
Fitz Magic is going to be required for the Bills to make the playoffs this season, of that I am sure. He must play the best football of his life over the course of the final nine games of the regular season. The Bills do not need to win either of the next two games of the regular season to have a chance to make a run for the playoffs, because they could conceivably run the table in the seven games that remain, or come close to running the table. But it is unlikely that the Bills will do anything impressive in the win-loss column unless Fitz rediscovers, relocates, channels some of the Fitz Magic which poured out of his bottle in the early 2011 campaign.
We need the Fitz Magic to return, and we need it now and going forward.
Fitz also needs Fitz Magic if he wants to remain a starting QB in the NFL.
But to be fair, because of the defensive struggles this season and last season, it remains difficult to evaluate what Fitz and his offense is capable of doing under "normal circumstances." Imagine Fitz playing for a team with an average or above average defense? The fact is he has never played for a Bills team with a good or excellent defense. I believe the offense has played well enough for the Bills to be 5 and 2, instead of 3 and 4. I also acknowledge that the most impressive aspect of the Bills offense is its running game, one which I have consistently stressed should be relied upon more rather than less heavily.
Fitz seems to work best when his defense plays well and his running game is moving the chains. In this way, Fitz is like most other NFL QBs in the history of the game: he wins when his team plays well, and loses when his team plays poorly. But what separates average from great QBs is the latter win games their teams deserve to lose, or at least they appear to be able to win games their teams deserve to lose.
Great QBs produce fear in the defense. Average QBs do not. Fitz does not produce fear in other teams' defenses, but despite that fact it would be wrong to ignore that Fitz knows how to get the ball into the end zone through the air. A defense that underestimates Fitz's potential for magic will get burned, as we have seen several times over the course of the past few seasons.
I believe Fitz deserves more credit for managing the Bills offense than he generally receives from most Rumblers, precisely because being an NFL QB is not only about throwing the ball, but keeping the offensive unit in sync when it comes to protections, sight adjustments on passing routes, the atmosphere of the huddle, etc.
Fitz has intangibles which are hard to measure except through looking at the offense before and after Fitz became its starter, and by looking at the offense over the period in which Fitz has been starting. In this view, we see slow but steady progress in the production of the offense, while Fitz's personal statistics remain more or less in the range of average to above average QB play in the NFL.
If Fitz cannot come up with the good stuff, we will look at these next two games as not the beginning of the return of Fitz Magic, but the beginning of the end of an exhilarating as well as often exasperating era of quarterbacking play in Bills franchise history.
I wish Fitz the best, whatever the outcome on the field. Because no matter what any fan or Rumbler may think of Fitz as the Bills starting QB going forward, he has done what few Bills QBs have ever done at home and on the road, from time to time, in spectacular fashion. And when he has not had his A or B or even C game, he has still managed to handle the media pressure and grilling with style and grace. He has never thrown any of his teammates under the bus, and has always accepted more than his share of the responsibility for team losses.
Even if you are not a Fitz believer, there is no doubting he has helped raise the play of the Bills offense to at times elite levels, something we have not seen very often since the days of Kelly ended. And, it is hard to argue against the idea that he has been, throughout his tenure as a Buffalo Bill, a first class act with his teammates, the media and the fans.
No matter what happens with the Bills and Fitz going forward, I believe he deserves our support. He may not be our franchise QB, but he is our starting QB until further notice. I think our support over the course of these last nine games can only help him finish strong and give the Bills a fighting chance to make the playoffs.
This past week, GM Buddy Nix helped fan the flames of off season excitement by committing himself to drafting a young QB who could be ready take over from Fitz within a few years or less and become the Bills long sought after Franchise QB.
In doing so, Nix reminded the Bills fans that Fitz is the current Bills starting QB and there are no plans to bench him this season or most likely next season. We now know the beginning of the end of the Fitz era is officially is in play.