Let’s face it Bills fans, Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn’t exactly advanced this season.
After all the off-season hype in Buffalo surrounding the arrival of quarterback coach David Lee and the promise of having “their guy” tied up at quarterback for the for-seeable future, fans expected something more for their money.
Fitzpatrick is Buffalo’s first QB since Jim Kelly to post back-to-back seasons throwing for more than 3000 yards. Not only is he smart (scored a near perfect 48 on the Wonderlic Test… which he completed in just nine minutes), but he’s been a clutch arm at times, with four fourth quarter comebacks and six game winning drives since coming to the Bills (including last year’s brilliant defeat of New England at home).
So, after throwing for at least 23 TDs the last two years and after all his work with Lee in camp and after all the talk about his progression towards being a complete, accurate, and successful NFL quarterback in 2012, with a bevy of weapons to throw to, you have to wonder when Fitz’s improvements will begin to surface.
Sure, he had a great game last week, was much more the guy that the Bills fielded in games two and three this season (both wins), but when it was late in the fourth and all Fitzpatrick needed to do was get a first down and run the clock out to secure a win over hapless Tennessee, the interception monster once more reared its ugly head.
Between Fitz’s continuing trend of over- and under-throwing open receivers, coupled with his penchant for getting over-excited, which inevitably leads to forced throws, he’s already racked up nine picks through seven games. Add another two lost fumbles (his total for all of last year) and those 15 touchdown throws to this point aren’t all that impressive, made worse in that they’re thrown too often during garbage time when the Bills are already well behind.
Face it, Fitzpatrick was just as responsible as the defense for the loss to the sub-par Titans. In fact, the Bills won in spite of Fitz against Arizona and those early INTs in the Jets game were the reason Buffalo could never get anything going (especially the one he threw on the first drive of the second half). Even the wins haven’t been great for him in this season , having more to do with Buffalo’s two-headed running beast rather than anything Fitz has really done in the game.
So, who’s to blame? Is it the Bearded Wonder himself? Is it the coaching staff? Do the receivers and runners need to shoulder some of it? To try and clear some of this up, as well as try and get a better idea of what is wrong with the Amish Rifle in 2012, here’s a look at three possible arguments to explain the struggles of Buffalo’s franchise future at quarterback.
REASON 1: Steve Johnson and company aren’t doing their job.
Absolutely not and most especially not with Johnson, who seems to have matured as promised in the off season.
To tell the truth, the Bills receivers and runners as a whole are running solid routes and making the moves to get open. There’s a lot of speed between Johnson, TJ Graham, and Donald Jones alone, but adding in the thunder of Fred Jackson with the greased lightening of CJ Spiller, both of whom have receiver instincts and hands, and you start to realize that Fitzpatrick’s 15 touchdowns is actually kind of low.
And that’s not even taking into account QB Brad Smith, who’s more a receiver, less a quarterback option every week the Wildcat fails, and TE Scott Chandler, a giant receiver on the field and one of Fitzpatrick’s surest targets after Johnson.
The problem with all this talent is that, though they’re often open, Fitzpatrick isn’t getting them the ball.
In the Arizona game alone, a game the Bills somehow won no matter how hard Fitzpatrick fought to keep the Cardinals in the game, Johnson was targeted 11 times, but only caught six. This was made more frustrating by the fact that often Johnson had already lost his defender, would then turn to get the ball, and then have to reach behind to try and haul it in (often to keep the defender from snagging it). Or worse, Stevie’d have to leap for it and find himself laid out by a stampeding defender.
The receivers are doing most of the heavy lifting on the completions as well, catching short screens or five yard dumps and racing for big gains. Without any deep game to speak of, Johnson’s 12.1 yards per reception this season and Jones’ 12.0 per catch show that they’ve got the skills to be a solid one-two punch in Buffalo, while Graham has been burning past receivers on a regular basis, getting open deep.
The problem, then, isn’t that they aren’t open, it’s that they aren’t getting the ball, and that problem is Fitzpatrick’s.
REASON 2: The coaching staff doesn’t believe in their quarterback.
Ever since Fitz signed his $59 million deal back in October, becoming the first Buffalo quarterback since Doug Flutie to get a contract extension, the Bills have gone to great lengths to proclaim their faith in him.
GM Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey have proclaimed up and down that “Fitz is the guy” for them. David Lee said he marveled at Fitzpatrick’s progress during camp, raving about how the Harvard quarterback would be capable of major strides in 2012.
However, from watching the play on the field, you’ve got to think they honestly have absolutely no faith in his abilities.
Just look at what’s been called in the passing game this season. It’s been short pass, screen pass, quick pass, but nowhere have we seen the deep game that so endeared fans to Fitz last season. He’s posting his lowest yards per game in three years, just 205 per game, with only 19 passes of more than 20 yards and a lowly three hits of more than 40 yards.
Even those 20+ hits are, again, more due to the receivers than Fitz’s ability to get the ball down the field, but that’s what makes it so frustrating to see, as the Beard threw a bunch of deep balls in 2011, with 48 passes for over 20.
Now, if you were a coach who had no faith in your quarterback, you’d probably limit his throws, too, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Gailey may not be much of a defensive coach, but his offensive instincts are still pretty strong. With Fitzpatrick he realized that this guy is capable of making quick passes that help run a quick offense, but he gets erratic the longer he waits, so rather than give his quarterback time to maybe make a mistake downfield, he’d rather do the sure thing and dump the ball off short, letting the receivers do their stuff.
This is fine, but it prevents the big, exciting gain downfield, which doesn’t give Fitzpatrick the chance to get comfortable throwing deep balls in game, so when he does step up for a possible yardage gobble, he just isn’t accurate enough.
It’s not that the Bills have no faith in Fitz, then, it’s that they’ve identified that he’s wildly inaccurate, but can perfectly make the type of short throws that drive the type of offense Gailey is running. Even when he was making big plays in 2011, getting 25 TDs on the year, he was also making some big mistakes, as you see with his 24 INTs, so it’s not that the staff has no faith in him, it’s more that they know that his skills are more solid in the short game.
Also, it’s not like they’ve been playing with a solid lead much this season, which was when Fitzpatrick tended to really go deep late in games. Maybe a stronger start would give them more chances for deep gains later.
REASON 3: Fitzpatrick is more brains than talent.
This may very well be the sticky one, as it’s becoming more and more evident that though Fitzpatrick understands what he wants to do, can read defenses and often find the open spots in the scheme, he just doesn’t have the arm to carry out what his big brain is telling him to do.
Sure, he was making strides in camp, understanding how important his foot placement was and how to deliver a ball cleanly from a solid base, but that doesn’t mean he can do it. People can read about how to sing, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to grab a microphone and dazzle crowds no matter how much they want it, not unless God gave them a little help to start.
Just because you’re smart enough to understand how to make the notes to a song sound right, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to get your body to do that, and it just seems that Fitz similarly can’t make his arm sing on the field… not like he wants to anyway.
Too many games this season have been lost or become needlessly close due to Fitzpatrick not being able to connect with guys who are wide open. One or two inaccurate outings is excusable, but it’s worse when he’s under-throwing a streaking Graham on the sideline every week (that missed shot deep in OT could have ended the game right there, but instead the Bills had to worry about a possible Cardinals comeback unnecessarily).
The receivers are doing their work, the runners are carrying more than their share (ranked fourth in the league), and though the defense hasn’t exactly been securing leads (the other main issue in the 35-34 loss to the Titans), Fitzpatrick is too often catching the blame for the losses because he can’t get the ball to open receivers and rightly so.
It’s not the coaches’ fault for calling simple plays, it’s not the receivers, it’s Fitzpatrick who isn’t getting the job done. He’s smart enough; he’s a good game manager and he definitely has the team’s trust, but beard or no beard, he just doesn’t seem to have the talent to become more than a mid-level talent who occasionally has misleadingly breakout days.
So, what we’ve learned is, if you give Fitzpatrick a top tier running attack, incredible protection, and a bunch of speedy receivers to choose from, he can often keep up when all the pistons are firing, but he just doesn’t seem to have the goods to be the long term answer in Buffalo.
Remember, both the Rams and Bengals passed on Fitzpatrick when he started his career, so maybe they saw what those in Buffalo are just now starting to catch on to. Though Ryan Fitzpatrick can talk the talk, and walk the walk, Queen City fans are coming to the miserable realization that he just can’t do what both he and his teammates expect out of him, not on a consistent basis.
It’s too bad, as he so seemed to fit the blue collar feel of the city, seemed like he belonged there with his bushy beard and dedicated work ethic. There’s, of course, still a chance for him to turn things around, to start being the promised franchise arm he was billed as, but that window to prove himself is quickly closing and that $24 million in guaranteed salary currently seems too high a price to pay for the player taking snaps in 2012.
In the end, you know it’s bad when fans are starting to wonder how backup Tavaris Jackson is progressing.
Joshua Bauer is a writer with Football Nation