Monday, October 1, 2012

Can Bills' Fitzpatrick improve decision-making?

Just about a year ago, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was given a lucrative six-year contract extension, entrenching him as the long-term starter. After a poor finish to the 2011 season (10 TD, 16 INT in last nine games), Bills head coach Chan Gailey revealed that Fitzpatrick played most of the second half of that season with two broken ribs.

Fitzpatrick had a poor showing against the New York Jets to open the season, but had a combined five touchdowns and no interceptions as the Bills were able to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks. This past weekend, Fitzpatrick had a chance to lead Buffalo to a potentially franchise-altering win against the Patriots. Instead, Fitzpatrick threw four interceptions as the team blew a 14-point halftime lead on their way to a deflating 52-28 loss.

We Bills fans knew what we were getting with Fitzpatrick when we signed him to that long-term extension: An athletic quarterback with slightly below-average arm strength. Fitzpatrick tends to make head-scratching decisions with the football, often forcing throws into tight windows when other options are more readily available. Sometimes those passes can pay off in a big way, and the faith he shows in his receiving corps makes him a favorite among teammates.

Through four weeks, Fitzpatrick has the interesting distinction of leading the NFL in both touchdown passes (12) and interceptions (7). He's had a gun-slinger mentality in his entire time with the Bills, and at 29 years old (he'll turn 30 this November), the odds of him changing his style of play is slim.

Buffalo spent big this past offseason, re-signing top offensive playmaker Stevie Johnson, and also spent over $120 million on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. There's little doubt that ownership and management wants to see these moves pay dividends on the field.

Buffalo also traded for QB Tarvaris Jackson this preseason, giving up a conditional pick to acquire the former Seahawks and Vikings starting quarterback. While Jackson has never put up big numbers as a starter, he provides an upgrade in both athleticism and arm strength over Fitzpatrick, two things that an offensive-minded head coach like Chan Gailey looks for (i.e. Vince Young). The Bills also wouldn't sacrifice a future pick for someone to just fill a spot, even one as potentially important as the backup quarterback.

The sledding won't get any easier in the next two weeks for Buffalo, as the team will go up against two of the strongest defenses in the league in San Francisco and Arizona. The Bills will also likely be without starting left tackle Cordy Glenn and starting right guard Kraig Urbik, as both injured their ankles in the loss to New England.

If Fitzpatrick continues to struggle, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jackson replace him, as Fitzpatrick's contract extension was largely front-loaded. By doing that, the Bills somewhat hedged their bets, as cutting him wouldn't be nearly as big of a cap hit at season's end.

As a Bills fan, I'm really hoping that Fitzpatrick is able to play smarter football.

Being a Bills fan, I don't really expect him to.

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