As the interceptions piled up last Sunday I reached an uncharacteristic threshold of frustration. I ripped off my Fitzpatrick jersey that I purchased from Walmart, homage to the rare mold of a modest superstar. I began stomping on it with my boot heel letting all the pain of a decade of disappointment exit my body in one perfect moment of violent catharsis.
Then as fate would have it, staring blankly at the television in a state of numb disdain, hope appeared in the most unlikely of places. There was my fallen hero running full steam out of the backfield with what looked like every ounce of his might to lay a block on the defender and spring us for a big gain. I proceeded to then watch him rummage through garbage time with fever and precision. Slowly, building back the confidence that deceived him only hours ago. Small victories.
In an ocean of losses spanning a decade of travel there is only one crew that I will not forget. It’s the trio of Fitzpatrick, Jackson, and Johnson. Cut from the same cloth, three anti-stars emerged and won my heart. Never big enough, never fast enough and nothing prototypical about them. Cast offs from obscure colleges and forgotten rounds they rose to prominence on a team desperate for a spark. Today, those once average men now carry the weight of an entire fan base on their shoulders. Every one of them has let me down only to pick me back up again. The Stevie Johnson drop in overtime against Pittsburgh, to a cozy vacation on Revis Island. The early season excitement of watching Fred Jackson showcasing his potential to be considered elite, often followed abruptly by injuries that beg the question; is father time against his slow rise to relevance? Finally, the Harvard quarterback, endowed with all the gifts the Wizard of Oz handed his visiting band of misfits but yet still lacking a key component to complete the mold of the coveted quarterback of today, rare athleticism.
This trio is nothing perfect and far from elite, an afterthought in the fantasy football world of dungeons and dragons for jocks. A tiny blip on the national radar; a Cinderella shoe that’s always waiting to drop off and return to sweeping the dust off the league basement. Are the answers in place? The only reason our franchise acquired the label of off season sleeper was the acquisition of an elite talent in Mario Williams. After an opening loss in ugly fashion, talking heads are once again calling into question the talent of not only our quarterback but the actual franchise as a whole. I don’t pretend to know the answer. I can’t pretend that Fitzpatrick is an elite quarterback ready to bloom like a bushel of mums in the early autumn of his career. What I can pretend and hope for is that maybe, just maybe. We can somehow put it all together with the just enough maybes and a lot of help from quality coaching to breach the threshold.
Everyone can point to a series of reasons why Fitzpatrick and this band of cast offs won’t succeed and all of those reasons would be correct. So why can’t I look at something like San Francisco and think the opposite? Alex Smith was an utter disappointment. The team was on the verge for years as a sleeper for playoff contention with a budding young defense yet couldn’t find its way out of the cellar. All of a sudden, they won a sweepstake not for a franchise quarterback replacement but a highly touted up and coming coach in Jim Harbaugh. Many questions about Smith still remained. Harbaugh was also rumored to be in the running for Smith’s replacement with the services of the the aging yet elite, Peyton Manning. Through all of the adversity and questions the new coach was able to install an offense and defensive scheme that was able to skyrocket an almost identical team as the year before to its first playoff appearance since 2002. Again, I beg the question? Are we looking in the wrong place yet again? Is the real problem with this franchise not the lack of talent but a questionable coaching staff? Is an elite coach more valuable than an elite quarterback? Can you think of a successful perennial winner that doesn’t include a quarterback and coach tandem with name recognition and staying power?
Walking into this year we seemed to be so close. On paper the holes seemed manageable. Yet every single weakness of this team was so carefully and meticulously dismantled in game one I have to consider this possibility:
In a league filled with parity, how have teams with salary cap restrictions and free agency of the modern era been able to consistently remain competitive. Great coaching and management has to be in that argument. Too many times over the last three years have questionable calls and flip flopping really caused me to question whether or not this staff has the ability to compete with the brains of our rivals and the league.
I do root for Fitzpatrick. I do find a bit of magic and memory in the core of this team because they have given me so many moments or excitement and potential that this team has sorely lacked for so long. I have seen this team lose so many close games against elite franchises. I have seen us exercise demons against the Patriots in rousing fashion. I have had this feeling of being on the cusp since this group started playing together. Something is missing. Something elusive. Many would argue the consistency of a franchise quarterback but I would argue for a consistency in coaching prowess. Fitzpatrick is not elite. The same goes for Fred, Stevie and a host of others that make up the heart of the new Bills. Why aren’t we a run first team? Why did we change defense schemes half way through the coaching tenure? Why does it seem like this staff cannot utilize our strengths and mask our weaknesses on a consistent basis like so many coaches within our division have done time and time again.
I will root for Fitzpatrick for the same reason I will cheer for the rest of this team. There is this wonderful sense of underdog rising that keeps me coming back for more. This team is not filled with superstar egos of the modern athlete, but humble characters you hope can somehow pull through on a movie script ending. Was the first game in a long season just an aberration? Is our coach strong enough to tie this all together? I have caught myself daydreaming many times about the wonderful personal tales that would fill the airwaves leading up to a super bowl starring this team. I have actually never wanted to see a team succeed as much as I want it for this core. As odd as it sounds, this has been my favorite group of players ever collected on any Bills roster. So here’s to hope and the reason we all watch the game to begin with, the dream of winning it all, and just maybe, with an odd cast of characters that I firmly believe deserve it. What could be sweeter than that?