Ryan Fitzpatrick lets one rip while rolling out during a training-camp practice at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. (my photo)
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Before the Buffalo Bills would ever consider dropping $120 million on a pair of standout free-agent defensive players, they had to be convinced they had the winning parts on offence.
First and foremost, at quarterback.
The club eliminated all doubt last October when they signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a six-year, $59-million contract extension.
Not bad for a football player from Harvard. You know, Hehhhvid.
References to Fitzpatrick’s intelligence are no joke. At the 2005 NFL scouting combine, he famously breezed through the Wonderlic Test — scoring 48 out of 50 on the intelligence exam, according to a report, and completing it in an unheard of nine minutes.
Maybe it’s because of that, and because Fitzpatrick does not possess the prototypical NFL quarterback’s athletic look either — he’s somewhat stocky at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, and sports a beard — that his critics always have sold short his physical abilities.
Does that bug him? Yeah, you can tell it does. But he doesn’t apologize for his smarts.
“What I maybe lack in physical skills, I like to think I make up for with the mental aspect,” Fitzpatrick told me in an interview before training camp.
“It’s not a bad thing to be known as a smart person. But it’s nicer now to be known as the Buffalo Bills quarterback, not the smart kid from Harvard.”
Now 29, Fitzpatrick grew up in Gilbert, Ariz. — a suburb of Phoenix. A three-sport star in high school, he started at quarterback for more than two seasons at the prestigious Ivy League university. He didn’t pass a lot at Harvard and ran quite a bit (amassing more than 1,000 yards), so his pre-draft buzz was low.
St. Louis selected him in the seventh round in 2005. He started four unmemorable games as a Rams rookie, didn’t throw a pass in 2006, didn’t throw a pass for the Bengals in 2007, and in 2008 started 12 games in Cincinnati without impressing anyone.
His combined stats after four years in the NFL: 12 TDs, 17 interceptions.
The real world was beckoning, but the Buffalo Bills picked him up before the 2009 season to back up Checkdown Charlie. Fitzpatrick relieved the shell-shocked Trent Edwards halfway through that season.
Under new head coach Chan Gailey in 2010, Fitzpatrick got the starting call much earlier — in Week 4 — and hasn’t surrendered the job since. Last fall, for the first time since the ’90s, the Bills no longer had a moribund offence.
Fitz was sensational through the first two months, as the Bills went 5-2. He completed 68% of his passes, for 14 touchdowns against only seven picks and a shining QB rating of 97.8.
But on Oct. 20, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher pulverized Fitz’s ribs on a wicked, legal hit in Buffalo’s victory at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Top wideout Stevie Johnson told me in March that thereafter, Fitz at times could barely call the play in one breath, his ribs hurt so much.
The Bills nosedived, losing eight of their final nine games. Fitzpatrick completed 58% of his passes, with a TD-to-interception ratio of 10-16, and a QB rating of only 66.5 — a marked drop.
In Western New York, Fitz’s late-season struggles seem to trump the early-season brilliance. A sizeable chunk of Bills fans believe he can take the Bills to the playoffs, sure, but never to a Super Bowl.
Yet Bills GM Buddy Nix and Gailey say they are sure they have the right man. Not that Fitz can’t improve.
Gailey hired renowned quarterback-mechanics guru David Lee to work with Fitzpatrick on his throwing motion, and he’s been correcting a footwork flaw when Fitzpatrick throws to the right.
“It’s about just getting my feet out of the way,” Fitzpatrick told me. “My stance wasn’t as open as it needed to be.”
Gailey’s passing offence demands quick, precision throws — ”it’s all about timing and hitting guys in stride,” Fitzpatrick said. And the fact Fitzpatrick and Buffalo’s core group of wide receivers and running backs are entering their third or fourth season together is a key factor if the Bills are to become one of the NFL’s elite offences, as they all hope.
“Continuity is such a big thing in the NFL that maybe gets overlooked,” Fitzpatrick told me in the spring.
In the three OTA sessions I attended in May and June, and at a pair of first-weekend training camp practices near Rochester, Fitzpatrick was incredibly accurate — seldom missing on any passes, anywhere. He hardly could have been better.
Such super-human accuracy can’t, and won’t, continue from redshirts and shorts in practices, to pads and live hitting in real games. But it is a sign that Fitzpatrick and the Bills offence are getting closer to something better.
You don’t even need a 48 on your Wonderlic to see that.
‘WHAT PEOPLE DONT REALIZE’ ABOUT BILLS OFFENCE:
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Perhaps the best thing Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills offence have going for them in 2012 is the team’s newly upgraded defence.
Head coach Chan Gailey explains:
“I think people don’t realize the effect that getting better in one area affects the entire ball club. They think it’s just, ‘OK, our defence’s statistics are better.’
“But when the other team goes down and scores three times in a row, all of a sudden you feel like you do have to score every time on offence, and you’re taking chances with the ball — which Fitz did, I believe, in some situations last year. He was just trying to get us back into the game.
“I do think that it’ll help Fitz and the entire offence and our overall win percentage by getting better on defence — by not falling behind all the time, and by getting the ball in better field position.”