ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Buffalo Bills watches play from the sidelines against the New England Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. Buffalo won 34-31. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
"I broke down every pass of Ryan Fitzpatrick from last season. I watched every ball Ryan Fitzpatrick threw. You see a lot of great plays, a lot of positive plays. But the negative plays, the majority of them are based on mechanics. Improper mechanics hurt him. His mistakes were made when his feet were not underneath him, when he wasn’t balanced. Mechanics are the foundation of playing that position on a consistent basis. What I’m looking forward to is the hard work that he’s going to do and seeing a much more consistent quarterback this season." - Ron Jaworski in June 2012
Every year here at Buffalo Rumblings, we run a summer series in which we talk about the ten most important Buffalo Bills players entering a given season. Where in past seasons we've focused the series on guys that needed to perform if the team was going to succeed, this year's focus will just be on the team's ten players most likely to directly influence the team's successes or failures in 2012.
Obviously, the man sitting atop this list is Ryan Fitzpatrick, the team's $60-plus million starting quarterback. You're not surprised by this. That doesn't diminish this unassailable fact: the Bills will go as Fitzpatrick goes in 2012.
The Bills spent a large amount of time, and a larger amount of resources, trying to get better around Fitzpatrick this off-season. They've put together a solid-looking defense on paper, and at the very least have significantly more talent on that side of the ball than they did a year ago. They've also added more speed at receiver and increased their depth at offensive tackle - tweaks that were necessary, but may not necessarily help in tangible ways in 2012.
Yes, the Bills appear better, but that doesn't change the biggest truth about the team: they'll only go as far as Fitzpatrick can carry them.
You don't need a great quarterback to win big in today's NFL, but you certainly need a good one that's capable of playing great in clutch situations. At his best, Fitzpatrick has been exactly that: efficient and capable of making big throws when they're needed. More often than not, however, he's been erratic and capable of making the critical mistake in clutch spots.
We've talked at length this off-season about the idea that Fitzpatrick's struggles may be attributable to a rib injury that wasn't reported until after the season. More recently, there's been a big focus on the mechanical tweaks to the lower body that new quarterbacks coach David Lee is making to help improve Fitzpatrick's accuracy (and thus consistency). That's all fine and dandy, but just like fancy free agent signings and big-name draft picks, it doesn't mean a whole lot until we see it on the field.
At this point, we know three things about Fitzpatrick: we know what kind of quarterback he has been; we know that he's capable of playing playoff-level quarterback; and we know that the gap between where he is now and where the team needs him to be doesn't seem insurmountable. Fitzpatrick can get better. He's paid like a starter, so the expectation is for him to improve. It needs to happen quickly, because if he doesn't, it's hard to imagine the team ending its decade-plus long non-playoff streak. Fitzpatrick is the difference between a more competitive Bills team and one that will push for the post-season.
Ten Buffalo Bills To Decide 2012
1. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
2. DE Mario Williams
3. DT Marcell Dareus
4. RB Fred Jackson
5. DT Kyle Williams
6. DE Mark Anderson
7. LB Nick Barnett
8. FS Jairus Byrd
9. RB C.J. Spiller
10. WR Stevie Johnson
That brings this series to a conclusion, at least until next summer. Who belongs on the list that didn't make the cut for me? How would you re-arrange the list to suit your own beliefs? Does anyone take the cake over Fitzpatrick as the team's most important player, in your mind? Let it all hang loose in the comment section.