5-2 through October, 9 games left.
That was the auspicious start to 2011 that earned Ryan Fitzpatrick a major contract extension and the Bills and their fans a chance to ponder the possibility of the first postseason in over 10 years. Much of that start could be attributed to Chan Gailey's Spread offensive schemes, keeping defenses off-guard by exploiting Fitzpatrick's Harvard smarts and new-found, untapped confidence. The pinnacle of that season came at Ralph Wilson Stadium as the Bills ended their era of futility against the New England Patriots. The team looked to be improving at that point, a team possibly on the rise especially after a win in Toronto against Washington. Then they faced the New York Jets, and it all went awry.
After an offseason of addition and renewed hope again lifting Bills fans' spirits, the Jets were again the ones holding the needle to pop that premature balloon.
On Sunday, Fitzpatrick looked like the guy who led the league in interceptions in 2011, a stark contrast to the way he started last season. He threw three interceptions on Sunday, and each one exhibiting a different facet of the main culprit in his current situation, which is the pressure to succeed. The first, he was late throwing to Stevie Johnson, and you can't make that mistake on Darrelle Revis. The second came on the next series, as he threw behind the receiver. The final one, a disgusting piece of debauchery, came as he completely misread the coverage and threw directly into perfect coverage.
An offense as complicated as the Spread puts the emphasis on the quarterback - the most successful NFL team today running this offense has future Hall-Of-Famer Tom Brady at the helm. For Fitzpatrick, it has become clear that, once the new contract and the weight of expectation fell to his shoulders, his production went in the tank. There has been no indication in this early season that it has changed, unless you count the garbage time drives he led that actually gave the Bills hope towards a comeback (i.e. the pressure was off).
All the while, we've seen the emergence of one of the few 1st Round Draft Picks that has panned out for the Bills in recent years, C.J. Spiller. He has shown moves, an ability to break tackles, and most importantly, another gear which changes games once he breaks to the second level and beyond. This guy is a game-changer at this point. He gained 169 yards on the ground yesterday, and averaged over 5 yards per carry in 2011.
When you have a quarterback who is struggling, both in confidence and mechanics, the best thing you can have is a running back who can take some of the burden. Unfortunately we've seen this already, last year. 2012 has started like 2011, but even after the 2nd half of 2011, Gailey didn't look to change the offensive scheme. It could be argued that a move towards a run-first offense might give the Bills a solid chance to make this season's Playoffs. But Gailey stuck with the Spread heading into the 2012 campaign, and it appears difficult now to just rip up the playbook and start game-planning to give the ball to Spiller 25+ times per game.
And yes, this has ignored a Bills defense that looked nowhere near improved. The gameplan against the Jets Offense looked abysmal, especially considering that this isn't 1975. Teams can negate a pass rush nowadays. The days of Bruce Smith and Reggie White are over, and other tactics are needed to make a defensive line be effective. As far as I can remember, the line did not have a single pass from Mark Sanchez knocked down.
But it seems that the offensive woes are more pressing, and fans are left praying that Fitzpatrick gets his head straight, or that perhaps Gailey can dial up enough runs to take the pressure off Fitz. The season is not lost with a demolition by the Jets, but if the Bills are going to earn a Wild Card team in a competitive AFC race, the turnovers must be greatly reduced.