By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
There were several things that "hit" me while watching the Bills latest night practice at St. John Fisher College, and the first thing is the obvious thing; Ryan Fitzpatrick is "The Guy" and he seems to be enjoying that as much as a Harvard win over Yale. Just a year ago at this time, Chan Gailey had just arrived and despite his experience and offensive thinking, he was misled into believing Trent Edwards was the starter ahead of Fitz.
What is it about Fitzpatrick that makes people underestimate him so much? Size? Not big at 6-2, 226, but that's about the same size as Packers Super Bowl qb Aaron Rodgers. Until this year though, Fitz has had "backup" labeled on the front of his helmet.
Here's what can't be measured until you actually get into the heat of a regular season game, and this is why Fitz is now the unquestioned quarterback of now and maybe the foreseeable future, and Edwards is trying to hang on in the NFL as a backup for the Oakland Raiders.
Fitz has flaws, first of all. He can be inaccurate at times, and about once every other game the ball will, for some weird reason, slip out of his hand as he's throwing it. Because I've seen that happen to Tom Brady though, I guess that isn't a deal-breaker, but it is strange to see.
But it's a lot easier to look at his positives, and the more we see of him, especially now that he has the job from game one, the more difficult it is to understand how Edwards got the nod a year ago.
Fitz is NOT fragile. He hangs in there, knowing the hit is coming, and looks downfield. If he tucks it and goes, he GOES. His zest for the game and even for contact drives the coaches crazy at times, but you'd better believe his teammates love him for it. He's not flashy, and even though he is always the smartest guy in the room, he doesn't act like it. When he takes a hit, you'd never know it, and it's rare he's going to give up the football even on a blind side sack.
Speaking of which, Fitz makes the Bills average - am I being kind? - offensive line look better than it probably is because he gets the ball out quickly and isn't afraid to make a decision and go with it. He's actually pretty tough to sack, unlike Edwards, who often appeared frozen by indecision, and then, making matters worse, would leave the ball on the ground after being hit.
Quarterbacks who fumble when sacked are known as "coach-killers", and their NFL careers are usually kinda brief.
There was a time when I thought Edwards was going to be pretty good; maybe not a "great" qb as the late Bill Walsh supposedly told the Bills, but he had size, mobility, a strong enough arm and seemingly good football intelligence.
I've heard many Bills fans say they think the concussion he received at Arizona when the Bills were off to a 4-0 start to the 2008 season was the beginning of the end, and that makes sense looking back. That's about the time Edwards began seeing the pass rushers instead of the receivers far too quickly, and whether it was the scheme or not, Edwards seemed paralyzed to throw the ball downfield.
"Captain Checkoff" was a nickname that stuck whether he deserved it or not, and while Edwards did have good mobility, he simply couldn't stay healthy. Even Terrell Owens, who went through his entire year in Buffalo without saying anything bad about anybody, had to bite his tongue 'till it bled to avoid screaming at and about Edwards.
Much has been said and written about the Bills terrible drafting since the Super Bowl years and the now 11 year playoff drought, and while that's true, the biggest problem of all has been the inability to find a competent qb, much less a franchise player like Jim Kelly.
It took the Bills some wasted years to realize J.P. Losman and Edwards simply were not winning NFL qb's, and if you're not good at qb, the rest of the team had better be perfect. The Bills were far from that.
Getting a franchise qb is often as much about luck as it is about good scouting, etc. The Patriots grabbed Brady in the 6th round, and believe me, if they'd known he was THAT good, they would never have waited that long. Peyton Manning, on the other hand, was only available to the Colts because they were 3-13 the year before they took him #1 overall in 1998. Two of the Bills six wins that year came against the Colts. Once Manning arrived, the Colts became a different team.
We could give examples all day, but I think it's fair to say the best qb's are usually among the first drafted, and even that is partially luck because so many highly drafted qb's are busts. It's PURE luck when a franchise qb is a lower round pick, and Joe Montana (3rd round) is a great example of that.
So getting back to Fitz. No, he's not everything Bills fans want, yet he may be more than they think they have, and there simply are no other options. Think Green Bay wants to trade Aaron Rodgers? Even that story shows how impossible it is to guess what will happen in that move up from college to the NFL.
Rogers was expected to go very high in the draft, but the 49ers picked Alex Smith #1 - how'd that one work out? - and Rogers fell all the way to #24 to the Packers, who drafted him even though they had Brett Favre at the time.
Smart move, GB.
It remains to be seen how smart Chan Gailey and gm Buddy Nix are for sticking with Fitz and passing over the chance to draft a "potential" franchise qb like Blaine Gabbert or Jake Locker, but it's going to be interesting to see how it unfolds.
How can any Bills fan not pull for a guy like Fitzpatrick, who despite his Harvard pedigree, plays like a blue collar guy? If he gets the help he needs around him, the Bills have a chance to show there is at least a glimmer of hope for an eventual return to the post season.
This year? Not likely with the Jets and Pats in the same division, but IF Fitz proves to be a productive NFL qb right from the start, the way teams turn things around these days makes anything possible after that.