To many Queen City football fans, the $59 million, six-year contract given to Ryan Fitzpatrick last season was a bigger waste of money than buying a Terrell Owens Bills jersey.
Sure, the Harvard grad has been doing some great things in Buffalo, with back to back 3,000-yard, 20+ TD seasons (the first since Jim Kelly to do either), but he also threw more INTs than any other quarterback in 2011 with 23 and hasn't seen a winning season in his three years playing for the Bills (as a starter, he's a dreary 10-19).
The Buffalo Front Office wasn't blind to these flaws, they knew Fitz wasn't perfect and wooed quarterback coach David Lee to come in almost specifically to fix their "franchise" leader.
Granted, many of the stat problems aren't Ryan's alone and can be shared by the team around him, as injuries decimated the team last season, but when you're the leader of a team, you've got to be able to overcome those things.
Fitzpatrick may be great when his team is healthy and rolling, but when the chips are down, there's just no visible assurance that he can take the team on his shoulders and drive them to victory.
Therefore, identifying the problems in his game becomes one of the primary goals for Buffalo in the offseason. Fitz is no Tim Tebow, so he won't need a major overhaul to his mechanics in order to succeed, but for a man who scored a 48 of 50 on the Wonderlic test and graduated from an Ivy League university, he does some dumb things on the field and doesn't really seem to know why. It's not his IQ we quesiton, then, but his ability to understand the intricacies of the quarterback position (which is, hopefully, where Lee comes in).
In the end, there are three areas that need to be addressed before the team and the fans can rest their hopes comfortably on his bearded shoulder, before they can establish him as the clear-cut starter over... say... Vince Young.
Sure, he's already got a rhythm with his receivers and has proven he can win some tough games, but when you're nine games under .500 as a starter and half of your losses in 2011 are by less than a TD, it means that you can't be the difference maker in close games (though I'll blame that second Jets loss in 2011 to Steve Johnson's butterfingers). To me, here are the areas that need to addressed before any success can be truly had.
1. Tries to be too much (Superman syndrome)
Fitzpatrick is not Peyton Manning, he's not even Eli Manning, so the fact that he attempted 569 throws in 2011 (ranked sixth) is one of the major problems with his game. Too often Fitz seems to get a Superman mentality and begins to believe he can will his team to victory like the Mannings or Tom Brady, but he just isn't that guy (at least not yet) and he just ends up getting the team in turnover trouble because he doesn't know his own limitations.
It's not in the 4th quarter or on third downs either, as he threw almost a dozen INTs on first downs, many coming early in the contest. Face it Fitz, just because the word "franchise" has been attached to you doesn't mean you're an elite QB that can just sling the rock with ease. Ryan needs to reign in that cowboy attitude that worked so well for a QB like Brett Favre and start playing the kind of smart, controlled game that caters to his mental strengths (like Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer, a QB with similar strengths and weaknesses).
If the team is injured, you can't just expect to go out and create offense from nothing, but try to and you're almost assured defeat. Play smart though, don't panic, and you could turn one of those close losses into a tight win.
To better his game in 2012, Fitz needs to eliminate his tendencies to do too much when backed into a corner. He needs to become more controlled, not flail about the field dropping bombs that could be caught by either team (overall with Buffalo, he's had eight games of 40+ attempts, only two were wins) . He's a smart guy, he just needs to play like it when the chips are down and realize that sometimes it is okay to make a safe play rather than a big splash. To borrow from baseball: Don't swing for the fences on every pitch.
Looking at his stat line, you wouldn't think this was a problem, as he posted a 62 percent completion rate in 2011 and has improved every year in that area with the Bills. He was ranked ninth overall last season in accuracy, ahead of Super Bowl winner Eli Manning (61%), as well as perennial top chuckers Matt Schaub (also 61%) and Matt Ryan (61.3%). However, it's not just a case of good days and bad, as he makes some pretty awful throws even in wins.
Though I stated earlier that Fitz is no Tebow, that doesn't mean that his game is mutually exclusive. Too often, Fitz misses the easy throws like Tim does, getting happy feet and sailing quick outs over the heads of receivers or forcing receivers to come back on deep throws.
Again, this isn't an every down thing and Ryan has shown many times that he has the ability to hit a receiver in stride on a 20+ yard strike, but it seems like he gets so excited in games sometimes that he just lets loose before he sets himself. The result are open receivers getting balls that come out hot and fly loose, resulting in easy completions turning into horrid mis-throws. What's worse, this isn't happening in just close contests or on opening drives, but seems to occur without rhyme or reason at any point in the game.
For 2012, Fitzpatrick needs to concentrate on throwing properly, worrying less about getting the ball out quickly (the problem with many Buffalo QBs before him... see Rob Johnson and JP Losman) and more about making sure he's set to throw.
Hopefully the protection is there for him to do this (it sure wasn't after last season's injury plague), but he should be able to unconsciously know to set his body before throwing whether he's got the time or not. In the end, this one kind of gets back to the first issue, where Fitz has to stop thinking about winning with every throw and just make sure he's focused on making a play for first down.
3. Take a Sack
In the end, all these issues kind of gel when you look at it, as this last one is once more about Fitz trying to do too much and doing it the wrong way.
For a team that had one of the most beat up offensive lines in the league (only two starters lasted the whole year), you've got to be amazed that they also had the fewest sacks with 23. What's more amazing is that Fitzpatrick would have benefited from taking some of those hits.
Ryan needs to learn that the risk of causing a turnover with an ill-advised play makes it okay to take a loss on occasion just to keep the drive alive.
Scrambling around to avoid the rush and trying to make something happen downfield just doesn't make sense sometimes and has to be one of the major issues the coaching staff has with Fitz.
I know, no one likes to be hit, but you're a football player, Ryan, and you need to start getting some bruises to show for your time on the field. The good QBs know that a good loss can lead to a big gain the next play, while an INT just gets you off the field.
In the end, there's nothing wrong with Fitzpatrick's game that a few tweaks won't fix, so don't look for 2012 to have an unrecognizable quarterback playing in Buffalo. Keep the beard, keep the passion and aggressiveness, but realize that one of the greatest assets you have is that Harvard brain, not your NFL arm.
Finally having a true quarterback technician like David Lee coaching him this year, he'll now get to learn things he was never taught before (Harvard is not known for their football programs), like the importance of foot placement in why he's making the mistakes he is.
Lee won't be looking to overhaul Fitz's throwing motion, but will instead show him how to improve in the areas he wasn't even aware he was lacking in because no one took the time to teach him. In the end, Fitzpatrick looks to have the smarts and humility to be told what he's doing wrong and fix it, rather than pout over it like some QBs do (...Vince Young springs to mind).
So, if Ryan can learn to play within his limits, let mechanics rather than excitement dictate his throws, and just secure the ball rather than try to make the big play sometimes, the Bills might see the other side of .500 in 2012. Heck, I might even start using the word "franchise" without quotations.