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Memo to Buffalo Bills Fans: Don’t Give Up on Fitzpatrick Yet

Posted on December 09, 2010 by John Wingspread Howell

Ryan Fitzpatrick has experienced both ups and downs since taking over as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills.

Many Buffalo Bills fans were quick to jump on the Ryan Fitzpatrick bandwagon after he won the starting position from Trent Edwards. Many of the same fans are also the first to throw him under that bandwagon, after his first bad game in seven starts. The focus on drafting a franchise quarterback is on again in Bills Country, after being muted for a while as the Harvard quarterback created offensive numbers not seen in Buffalo since the early days of Drew Bledsoe’s ill-fated tenure. Fitzpatrick joins Bledsoe, Johnson, Losman, and Edwards on the scrap heap of premature faith blown up.

It is true that by his performance against the Vikings in the 31-14 debacle in the MetroDome (oh, excuse me, “Mall of America Field”) Fitz took a step backwards. But was it simply that—a step backwards after six consecutive brilliant and inspired performances– or is it more that he was playing over his head for a while and the Vikings game exposed the man behind the curtain?

It is certainly true that Fitz’s play in Minnesota often resembled that of his predecessor, derisively dubbed “Captain Check Down” by Bills fans, when he made little dump passes after being unable to find any targets downfield.  Yes, he may have seemed intimidated by the Minnesota defensive line at times, and his fumble on the Minnesota one yard line was less than we have come to expect from Fitzpatrick’s leadership since he assumed the starting role.

You can’t blame Bills fans for being quick to judge, the moment the first little hole pops up in the blue superhero tights. It is a self-defense mechanism often observed in people who have been burned in relationships a series of times. The more often people are burned in love, the more quickly they anoint the new squeeze as the love of their life, but in turn the more quickly they dispatch said person after the first crack in the veneer is spotted. Falling fast is usually followed by falling hard.

And in Buffalo, as much as anywhere, there are numerous parallels between fandom and romance, as well as heart-throb/heartbreak syndrome, or as some might call it: relationship addiction.

It is possible that Fitzpatrick will prove to be a false love, too quickly embraced as the love of our lives, like most of his predecessors who have had streaks of brilliance or at least of promise, for several weeks at a time before shedding the Superman cape and becoming just another false positive.

It is possible he will. It may be even more likely, however, that he will prove to be the real deal. It is possible his performance in the Vikings game was just a normal and predictable let-down after six consecutive games of grit, brilliance, and perseverance. After losing 3 overtime games, after losing the last one only because a perfectly thrown pass to your new go-to guy was dropped in the end zone in overtime against the Steelers (meaning, NOT the Lions), you have to expect a week when Fitzpatrick and the rest of the team just couldn’t get up for a game that resembled Christians versus (real) Lions in old Rome.

So, putting our burned-too-many-times subjectivity aside, how are we to evaluate the true value of Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Bills quarterback of the present, if not the future?

My canary in the Buffalo coal mine of fickle fandom is Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan. As one of Fitz’s early adopters, I am always anxious to see how Sullivan evaluates him from week to week, and have had growing satisfaction with my own evaluative skills as Sullivan’s view gradually confirmed my own. But I shuddered to think of what I might find in Jerry’s column this past Monday. Would he fail my hero after only one bad grade?

Sullivan is characteristically cynical, especially when writing about the Bills the past couple of years. He was the last to get on the Fitzpatrick bandwagon. His esteem of the Harvard quarterback has been slow and cautious, a slow weekly ramp-up of praise, first for his efforts, then for his leadership, and finally, without having to read too deeply between the lines, he seemed to actually say that Fitz could be Buffalo’s starting quarterback for the next few years.

His view of Fitzpatrick, hard won and only gradually conferred, validated my gut on the guy. So now that Fitzpatrick finally fell on his face, I wondered, would Sullivan echo some of his colleagues at the News and most of the fans and declare Fitzpatrick the latest illusion to seduce fickle fans, grasping at straws for any sign of hope in Buffalo?

I was happy to see that he wasn’t. His muted criticism of Fitzpatrick’s performance seemed to say, “It’s about time the guy and the team had a bad week. How long can you put it all out there and lose the heartbreakers before your admirable refusal to quit finally just wears down, for a week at least.

Sullivan said it better than I could, “The Bills had won people’s hearts with six straight solid efforts, including three overtime losses. They were due for a game like this…” Sullivan went on to describe Fitzpatrick’s short comings without qualitative comments on Fitzpatrick’s value to the team (significant for Sullivan that he didn’t say it) and focused primarily on the team’s overall need for more impact players, for better performance by  top draft picks, not just seventh round picks like Fitzpatrick and his new favorite target Stevie Johnson, and undrafted signees like emerging star running back Fred Jackson.

With a number of talented young players like Fred Jackson the Bills seem to be building the right way for the future.

In other words, Jerry Sullivan, my canary in the coal mine of Bills fandom isn’t saying Fitzpatrick isn’t the guy. He’s implying it will take as long to bring Ryan down from the pedestal we’ve put him on, as it took him to get up on it, in the esteem of professional skeptics like Sullivan.

Fitzpatrick now faces the biggest test of his career. Getting up for the next game, and getting his team mates up. If their quarterback can lead them to show that fight they’ve had since Fitz took over the helm, Fitzpatrick will survive to start another season, and the Bills should be better for it. But if we don’t see what we’ve seen from Fitz between blow-outs, the fickle will prove themselves right in doubting him all along– except when they didn’t.

The next big question: Is Chan Gailey the man?

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