Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been through two up-and-down seasons as the team's starting quarterback - and heading into a critical third year under Chan Gailey, there are a lot of questions Fitzpatrick must answer, most of them dealing with whether or not he can play playoff-caliber quarterback on a consistent basis.
Now, Fitzpatrick's leadership is being called into question. Former NFL scout and current NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah took to Twitter (@MoveTheSticks) on Thursday to discuss Fitzpatrick and his image as a leader. Let's just say the former talent evaluator isn't fond of said image.
"I like it when QBs take care of their appearance and project a CEO image. I don't want a 'sloppy' looking leader," Jeremiah wrote. "Fitzpatrick led the NFL in int's last year. When I see his Woodstock beard, it reminds me of his 'sloppy' play."
Whatever the man's opinion on Fitzpatrick's image as a leader, for two years and counting, it hasn't seemed to be a problem in Buffalo's locker room. Last June, wide receiver David Nelson told Buffalo Rumblings' Matt Warren the following: "You should see the way he acts around guys now. Everybody walked in there and knew this was my quarterback and he was the guy."
Fitzpatrick was the subject of a high degree of loyalty even before it became clear that he was the team's quarterback for the foreseeable future (i.e. after they missed out on Cam Newton and passed on Blaine Gabbert in the 2011 NFL Draft). Then there's "Camp Fitz" to consider - team workouts that Fitzpatrick organized and hosted at his home in Arizona during last year's NFL lockout.
I don't think there's a good argument to be made that Fitzpatrick is a poor leader, beard or no beard, based on the amount of respect that his teammates had for him. Fitzpatrick's not leading Daniel Jeremiah onto the gridiron on Sundays; he's leading an offense filled with ragtag cast-offs just like him. His teammates identify with him. And we definitely know that the beard isn't a problem with blue-collar Bills fans, considering Fitzpatrick reached new levels of popularity and earned his "Amish Rifle" nickname after growing it out.
But there may be something to Jeremiah's thought process. The Bills, at least on paper, appear to be turning a corner from a talent perspective, and are seriously talking about a playoff run for the first time in 12 years. The scrappy, aggressive Fitzpatrick projected the perfect image for a young football team taking its lumps and working hard to improve. Can he evolve as a leader as the team matures and begins to have more serious organizational aspirations? It's something to ponder, at least - even though I think we'll all still agree that the beard is awesome.
Fitzpatrick, for what it's worth, is taking a slightly different approach to leveling pre-season expectations for the Bills than running back C.J. Spiller (who also recently staunchly supported Fitzpatrick as the team's starter). In a 1-on-1 interview posted at BuffaloBills.com this very afternoon, Fitzpatrick talked about the team's desire to finally return to the post-season.
"We haven't sat down as a team and set goals yet, but I know that's on every player's mind, is to get to the playoffs. That's it" said Fitzpatrick. "I think we'll be disappointed if we don't get to the playoffs this year. That mentality, that expectation, is something that's been a hope before, and something we wanted to do, but I think last year was the first time we really expected it and were disappointed. So you expect that this year, and we know that anything else is a failure. That's our goal. We want to get back to the playoffs and see what happens."