After major changes in the Buffalo Bills organization, the future of Ryan Fitzpatrick ‘05 with the franchise remains muddled. The Bills, if looking to go in a different direction behind center, would save half a million dollars by cutting him. The team has a new coaching staff, headlined by former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, and a new president of football operations (Russ Brandon) with a possible replacement for current general manager Buddy Nix coming. Coming up on the four-year anniversary of his signing with the Bills, Fitzpatrick’s future is uncertain but his impact on the team over the past four years is clear.Before signing with the Bills in February 2009, Fitzpatrick was an NFL journeyman. Brief stints with the St. Louis Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals showed flashes of good play—Fitzpatrick is one of seven quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards in his first game—but he was let go by the Bengals to make way for the return of a previously-injured Carson Palmer. The Amish Rifle signed with the Bills as a backup, sitting the first six games of the season until starter Trent Edwards went down with an injury in an October game against the New York Jets. Fitzpatrick finished that game, a 16-13 Bills win, and was named the starter exactly one month later. The next season, after being forced to sit behind Edwards the first two games, Fitzpatrick was named the starter again and has started 39 of the 40 games since (one missed due to injury).
Fitzpatrick signed a massive, six-year, $59 million extension in October 2011 but has not been able to provide the Bills with wins to back up his contract. Fitzpatrick is 12-20 over his past two years with the team, throwing for 7,232 yards and 48 touchdowns during that span but also turning the ball over 49 times. Although surrounded by elite running back talent in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, Fitzpatrick has struggled with throws down the field and the lack of a second wide receiving option after Stevie Johnson. However, he provided a ray of light for a franchise that had dealt with the subpar quarterback play of J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards (a combined 71 turnovers against only 49 scores in the six years prior to Fitzpatrick) but the team’s commitment to him had adverse effects.
By committing to Fitzpatrick—a 28-year old quarterback entering his prime at the time of signing—the Bills decided to not pursue an alternative through the draft or in free agency. The team has historically struggled to lure free agents to Buffalo (the Mario Williams pickup notwithstanding), meaning that the team’s decision to go with Fitzmagic was essentially a choice between him and the riskiness of the draft. In the two years since the Bills made Fitzpatrick their starter, they have held top-10 picks in the NFL draft (not including the year he started 10 games—where drafting Spiller in the first round has proven to be a solid selection). With the third pick in the 2011 draft, the Bills drafted Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus—the only non-Pro Bowler among the seven top picks. In doing so, they passed up on first-round quarterbacks Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder as well as second-round selections Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. In 2012, the Bills selected South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore but their pick preceded only three quarterback selections in the next three rounds—Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Denver’s Brock Osweiler, and Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
Pursuing Fitzpatrick meant eschewing these other possible selections. Although only in their first or second years in the league, an in-prime Fitzpatrick has proved better than several of those selections. Ponder, Gabbert, Weeden and Locker have alternated flashes of greatness with predominant mediocrity and Osweiler has not left the bench behind Peyton Manning. It is easy to second guess the Bills for not drafting a backup quarterback since their current backups, Tyler Thigpen and Tavaris Jackson, are aging veterans with little upside, but Dalton, Kaepernick, or Wilson—the most successful quarterbacks the Bills could have drafted—would have been reaches in the top 10.
In summary, although Fitzpatrick has not taken the leap that the Bills expected when given the extension, he has provided a serviceable replacement for a team that has struggled elsewhere. Free agent signings Mario and Kyle Williams have similarly failed to live up to their contracts and injuries have made the rotating Spiller-Jackson backfield unreliable on a week-to-week basis. Entering a weak quarterback draft, Fitzpatrick will likely be given one more season as the starter before a stronger draft class, headlined by the possibility of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, comes in 2013. Committing to the Harvard alum delayed the Bills from entering a long rebuilding process, but in view of the franchise’s previous quarterback play, provided a dramatic improvement under center.