Ryan Fitzpatrick locked down the starting quarterback job for the Buffalo Bills during the 2010 season. Prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, however, the Bills made it very clear to Fitzpatrick that they'd take a quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick if they liked one.
Ultimately, of course, they didn't, and Fitzpatrick was the recipient of a six-year, $59 million contract extension last October. And while the team is still looking at quarterbacks leading into the 2012 NFL Draft, hosting four on pre-draft visits, the early-round emphasis - particularly with fans - has shifted from seeking to replace Fitzpatrick to giving him the help he needs to improve.
Fitzpatrick has had an up-and-down journey as the quarterback of choice for head coach Chan Gailey. His run as a starter in two separate seasons have very distinct similarities, which we'll get into after the jump.
In both of his seasons as a starter, Fitzpatrick started off hot, then endured a nine-game stretch of mediocre-to-bad performances that contained one bright spot. The big difference: Fitzpatrick's hot start lasted just four games in 2010, while it went a full seven in 2011. Take a look at the numbers:
|1-4, 2010 (4)||81||128||63.3||977||7.63||11||4||102.2|
|5-13, 2010 (9)||174||313||55.6||2,023||6.46||12||11||73.5|
|1-7, 2011 (7)||155||229||67.7||1,739||7.59||14||7||97.8|
|8-16, 2011 (9)||198||340||58.2||2,093||6.16||10||16||66.5|
The Bills have tried to explain away Fitzpatrick's second-half shortcomings last season to a rib injury that went unreported until after the season; there's a trend to keep an eye on as shown above, however, that may not have anything to do with the ribs. In each season, Fitzpatrick had one performance (2010 at Cincinnati, 2011 at the New York Jets) that was a statistical anomaly in a stretch of generally bad play. The similarities really are quite striking.
GM Buddy Nix has cited injuries, a lack of team depth and the need for more playmakers as reasons - "not excuses" - for some of the team's, and Fitzpatrick's, shortcomings over the last two seasons. Maybe he's right. Maybe all the Bills need to get more consistent improvement as a team, and from its quarterback, is better players and better luck on the injury front.
On the "better players" front, the team will have an opportunity to improve its left tackle and wide receiver situations this very week, with the 2012 NFL Draft set to begin on Thursday night. The team could use a player that can push Chris Hairston for the starting left tackle job, at minimum, and finding a running mate for Stevie Johnson would be a welcome surprise, as well.
We also know that the team is taking great pains to address its fledgling defense this off-season, hiring a new defensive coordinator and throwing out gobs of money to try to fix one of the league's worst pass rushes. That's all fine and dandy, but as the saying goes, a team will generally only go as far as its quarterback can take them.
There's no question that Fitzpatrick is the man in Buffalo now, and the team will do what it can this week to try to support him in his quest to lead the Bills back to the playoffs after 11 straight seasons of golfing in January. It's important to keep in mind, however, that no matter how excited you've been this off-season - or how excited you'll be Thursday night, Friday morning and the rest of this upcoming weekend - this is still Fitzpatrick's team. His style is the team's style. And no matter what's done to bolster him, Fitzpatrick - and the team - must take strides of their own if the playoffs are to be achieved.