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At some point, the amazing story of perseverance ceases to be adorable. If that point didn't avail itself as a decimal several digits removed from a dollar sign on their latest contracts, then it certainly arrived this year for quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Cassel along with lofty expectations for their teams.
Fitzpatrick and Cassel are mirror images entering this afternoon's game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Fitzpatrick and Cassel are NFL survivors, the last quarterbacks picked in the 2005 draft. They hung around long enough and, with injuries to Pro Bowlers, became full-time starters in 2008. Each played just well enough that another team's front office got the idea he could get it to the playoffs.
But neither Fitzpatrick nor Cassel truly has met the criteria for what the NFL world considers a franchise quarterback.
They've been mediocre. Erratic. Fitzpatrick and Cassel lead teams that need consistently competent play to achieve their playoff aspirations. Now they're both coming off miserable opening-day performances and trying to avoid 0-2.
It took only one game for Bills fans and Chiefs fans to be reminded - when other elements such as the run game or the defense aren't working - a quarterback frequently must save the day.
In that regard, Fitzpatrick and Cassel have failed to generate much faith.
"They need to win games. That's what has to happen," said Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, the analyst for Chiefs radio broadcasts.
"Anybody who isn't winning or contending for the playoffs, people are going to look at him and say, 'He isn't good enough.' But they need a supporting cast."
Cassel is 30. Fitzpatrick will turn 30 in November. We've watched enough to know they're not going to morph into something else we haven't seen yet. They manage games more than they win them.
They simply aren't the heroic types. That's why fans can't buy into Fitzpatrick or Cassel. When trouble strikes and their quarterbacks run to the phone booth to throw on their capes, the result often is just a dial tone instead.
"When I look at this league," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, "I see seven franchise quarterbacks today, and I see another four or five beyond that I would take in a heartbeat and I think - either because of injury or not being with the right team or whatever - aren't quite there yet but could be franchise quarterbacks.
"And then after that there's a group of four or five quarterbacks of which I think Cassel and Fitzpatrick fit in, where I look at them and say, 'If you can complement them with a run game and a defense and special teams, they're capable of winning enough games to be a playoff quarterback.'
"But they're not going to be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and stand at the line of scrimmage in a no-huddle and just will their team to victory because of their talent, ability and intelligence."
Sam Madison, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Miami Dolphins and Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, agreed with Mayock's assessment. Madison thinks about Fitzpatrick and Cassel and doesn't see a quarterback defenses should be afraid of.
"Franchise quarterbacks, no matter what type of players they have on the roster, they're able to make those players better," said Madison, a radio analyst in South Florida. "It's going to be an uphill battle for them.
"Until you put those players around them, fans are going to continue to lay it on."
Madison said the game plan for both defensive coordinators should be to shut down the run game, double-team the best receiver and force Fitzpatrick and Cassel to beat them.
With Buffalo's receiving corps thinner than tissue paper, running back C.J. Spiller appears to be the Bills' most dangerous weapon. Kansas City's ground attack, with Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis, is its backbone.
When the Chiefs went to the playoffs with Cassel in 2010, they had the NFL's best rushing offense and ranked 11th in scoring defense. Dysfunction forced an overhaul since then. They fired head coach Todd Haley last year.
"But what happens when the run game isn't working or the defense has a bad day?" Madison said. "Those things happen all the time, and then guess what. You have to put the ball up. The defense knows it and they come after you, come after you, come after you.
"When you put [Fitzpatrick and Cassel] in that position, when you need them to chuck the ball all over the football field, I don't see those guys being able to do that."
The Bills and Chiefs have gone all-in with their quarterbacks, the last of 14 drafted in 2005. Bills General Manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have reaffirmed their belief - verbally, through the draft and on paper - Fitzpatrick will quarterback them to the playoffs.
They've chosen not to groom a young quarterback and gave Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract extension halfway into last season. The deal has $24 million in guarantees.
Fitzmagic fizzled shortly after the T-shirt phase last year. Folks loved the bushy beard, the guy who plays with his wedding ring on, the overachiever from Harvard.
Nowadays, he elicits as many groans as cheers. The Bills have one victory in their past 11 games. Fitzpatrick has thrown 13 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Cassel came to the Chiefs with an inspirational story of his own. He was a backup to Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer (who Fitzpatrick backed up with the Cincinnati Bengals) and Matt Leinart at football factory USC.
When Cassel took over the New England Patriots offense for an injured Tom Brady in 2008, Cassel hadn't started a game since high school nine years earlier.
Cassel has been considered a franchise quarterback twice, although the first time was in name only.
The Patriots placed their franchise tag on Cassel after his startling 2008 season. He helped the Patriots to an 11-5 record in the final year of his contract, forcing the club to use the tag to retain his rights.
The Patriots then traded him to the Chiefs, who then worked out a six-year, $63 million deal with $28 million in guarantees.
Cassel ranks 17th among NFL quarterbacks with a $10.5 million average salary. Fitzpatrick is 19th at $9.8 million.
That's not superstar money - for a reason. But that doesn't change fan expectations for two quarterbacks who might be in personal make-or-break campaigns.
"I would say take a step back, and let's let both those teams get through four or five games," Mayock said, "and we'll start to figure out what they really are going to be, what their identity is. It's way too early to panic right now, and I know we're a knee jerk reaction society, but we've got to have some patience."

email: tgraham@buffnews.com