After a 2012 regular season that began with playoff hype but ended with the Buffalo Bills posting a 6-10 record for the third time in four years, Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 heads into the offseason with an organization facing more questions than answers. Although Fitzpatrick signed a seven year contract valued at more than $60 million dollars with the Bills last season, with the head coach that developed him—Chan Gailey—gone, his future with the organization is in doubt. Looking both at the franchise and the current free agency situation around the NFL, The Back Page offers a look at where Fitzpatrick could be playing next year.
On the Bills’ side of things:
In his fifth season starting ten or more games, Fitzmagic posted the second-highest completion percentage of his career and matched his career high with 24 touchdown strikes. However, he had 24 turnovers and his QBR (an advanced metric valuing quarterback performance that takes into consideration game situations and quality of opponents) was the lowest since his first year on the Bills. For his career, Fitzpatrick has never led a team to a record north of .500 and has committed 19 or more turnovers in each of the past three seasons. However, he has thrown for over 3,000 yards in three straight seasons and has been a dramatic improvement over previous Bills turnover machines Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman.
Gailey was often Fitzpatrick’s biggest supporter but was let go by the organization on Monday. Remaining is general manager Buddy Nix, who signed off on Fitzpatrick’s contract but last week said, “We need a good, young quarterback, and we’re going to do our best to get him.” While the Bills hold the eighth pick in the draft, teams with more dubious quarterback situations draft ahead of them. The first three picks in the draft go to the Chiefs, the Jaguars, and the Raiders—none of which has a convincing future at the position. Directly ahead of the Bills are the Browns and Cardinals, two more teams that could use another quarterback prospect. In a draft with weak quarterback prospects—headliners Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, and Geno Smith struggled late in the year with inconsistent play and injuries—the Bills may opt to take another year of Fitzpatrick rather than hemorrhage picks to trade up and select a quarterback without the potential of last year’s RG3 or Andrew Luck.
Fitzpatrick’s large contract includes $24 million in guaranteed money and drafting another quarterback would be tantamount to acknowledging such a large contract was a mistake and eating the money. After splurging and giving defensive ends Kyle Williams Mario Williams $67 million in guaranteed money last year, the Bills would be strapped for cash if they took to free agency to find a high-priced veteran option like Michael Vick so the draft is likely their only option. For those reasons, although Fitzpatrick likely will not have the same rapport with the next Bills coach, the huge contract ensures the Bills likely have thrown in their lot with Fitzpatrick for 2013.
If he leaves…:
Although a trade for Fitzpatrick would be hard to pull off or justify—his contract would be a large burden for a team to take on for a starter that hasn’t yet lived up to it—Nix may decide cutting the Amish Rifle is worth the risk. Various general managers have tied their futures to young quarterbacks—Bill Polian in Indianapolis (Peyton Manning) and Bruce Allen in Washington (RG3) are two good examples—and Nix may try to save his job by taking a flier on Barkley or Smith. If Nix were fired before the draft, Fitzpatrick would be left without the general manager or coach that brought him into the fold and could be left out in the cold.
If Fitzpatrick is released, he could sign a significantly smaller contract as a starter for a team looking for a short-term fill like the Chiefs or Cardinals (a la what Chad Henne did this year for the Jaguars). He would provide an upgrade to their current situation while not forcing them to draft a quarterback in a year where the draft is stronger at other positions. The Amish Rifle could also land as a low-priced backup on teams with little depth at that position like Cincinnati (current using Bruce Gradkowski), Oakland (Terrelle Pryor), or San Diego (Charlie Whitehurst).
Although Nix’s rhetoric is strong and he threatens to trade up to draft Fitzpatrick’s replacement, the Bills spent heavily last offseason and should be reluctant to make their $60 million acquisition a backup or even cut him without a sure alternative. Before tailing off at the end of the year, Fitzpatrick had thrown 15 touchdowns against only eight picks and the team was a game out of first in the AFC East through seven games. The combination of a weak draft and huge contract will likely end with Fitzmagic staying for one more season in Buffalo. If he leaves, as a 30-year old on the downswing of his career, the Amish Rifle is unlikely to get longer than a two-year contract from a team looking for a stopgap or low-priced backup who has already proved his leadership ability in the league.