One thing I’ll say for Ryan Fitzpatrick, he never lacked for confidence.
From the minute he arrived in the NFL, as a seventh-round draft pick out of Harvard, Fitzpatrick believed he was good enough to start in the NFL. All he asked for was a chance to prove it.
That’s why Fitz chose the Bills in the first place. As a free agent in 2009, he saw Buffalo as a place where the quarterback competition was soft enough to give him that one big shot.
Fitz ultimately became the quarterback by default, because the Bills had nobody better. The fact that he held the job for 50 games says more about the prolonged dysfunction of the franchise than Fitzpatrick’s abilities as an NFL starter.
But he still thinks he can start in the NFL, which is probably why he and the Bills parted company Tuesday. The Bills offered Fitzpatrick $3 million a year to remain in Buffalo and compete for a job, likely the backup job. For a man of his pride, the offer had to come as an insult.
Still, it was difficult for Fitzpatrick to say goodbye to Buffalo, where he got his chance to be a starting NFL quarterback.
“It’s a really hard day for me, as a husband and father,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday night from his home in Arizona, “because we loved Buffalo so much. We were very fond of the area and the people. It was a special place to me because of the fans and lifelong friends we made in four years there.
“That organization gave me my first shot,” he said. “It’s hard leaving the people in the locker room and in that building. They deserve a winner.”
The new coach, Doug Marrone, talked about an open competition at quarterback in camp this summer. The Bills signed Tarvaris Jackson, who somehow wasn’t deemed worthy of playing a down last season. They will almost surely take their future franchise QB in the draft.
Presumably, Fitzpatrick would have been part of a three-man fight for the starting job. The problem was, he might have won it. I don’t believe the Bills relished the idea of selling Fitz as the starting quarterback to a dubious fan base that was only too familiar with his limitations.
Management’s intentions came out in humiliating fashion Tuesday, when the website Deadspin.com released a conversation that had been illegally recorded between Bills general manager Buddy Nix and his Tampa Bay counterpart, Mark Dominik.
Nix characterized Fitzpatrick as “a guy that’s fighting for probably a backup job.”
That comment made it pretty clear that Nix and Co. didn’t want Fitz to line up under center on opening day next season. And Fitzpatrick couldn’t have been amused when he heard the general manager talk about him like some scrub who would be fortunate to make it as the backup.
“I’m a very competitive guy,” Fitzpatrick said. “I want to be out there playing. I wanted to finish what I started there. I had so many guys helped me in my career. I learned from some great ones. They weren’t maybe Brady or Manning, but they helped me a tremendous amount.
“I see myself being a very valuable guy in that regard,” he said. “For me, pride is never going to get in the way. But respect and pride can maybe go hand-in-hand. It’s probably more respect than pride.”
Fitzpatrick said Nix’s comments on Deadspin.com didn’t influence his decision. But it sounds as if he knew that the Bills wanted him to compete to be the backup. So while he would have been willing to help out a rookie, Fitz would have at least wanted a chance to compete for No. 1.
That’s too bad, because you could do worse than having a player of Fitz’s ability and character grooming your rookie quarterback. He’ll make some team a decent backup.
I’ll miss Fitzpatrick, off the field, anyway. He was a good guy who never uttered a harsh word about a teammate and went out of his way to support Stevie Johnson during Stevie’s more juvenile moments.
Fitz had an easy, engaging way with the media and the community. He knew what it meant to be the quarterback in Buffalo. People rooted for him, despite his shortcomings as a passer. He was a family man and father of four who wore his wedding ring in games, which went over well with women.
People accused me of being easy on him, and there was some truth to that.
You develop a soft spot for the good guys, the ones who can usually be counted on for a smile or a helpful quote. Some of the best have gone out the door lately: Fitzpatrick, George Wilson, Nick Barnett, Chris Kelsay.
I’ll never forget Fitz coming to the post-game interview room on Dec. 4, 2011. He began his remarks by expressing his condolences on the death of Allen Wilson the day before. He couldn’t imagine how much that decent gesture meant to all of us at The News.
Before and during the 2011 season, I pushed for the Bills to give him a new contract. It was the right thing at the time. A respectable NFL team doesn’t send its starting QB out as a lame duck in the last year of his contract. It would have cost a lot less if they’d done it in the summer.
Fitzpatrick had his finest run in the first seven weeks that season. The Bills gave him a six-year, $59 million deal. He had thrown 32 touchdowns in a 16-game stretch over two seasons. He’d beaten the Patriots and Eagles at home, giving Bills fans some of their finest moments in years.
Even then, you figured he would never see the bulk of that money.
Fitzpatrick wound up collecting $21 million, barely one-third. That’s roughly one year’s salary for the Ravens’ Joe Flacco in his new contract.
It’s not as if the deal bankrupted Ralph Wilson.
Fitz was holding down the position while the Bills waited for a better idea to come along. That’s been the case since Jim Kelly retired in 1996. The problem with the contract was it gave the Bills a false sense of security.
It prevented them from finding an immediate successor.
I spoke with Fitzpatrick by phone moments after the Bills drafted cornerback Aaron Williams with the 34th pick of the 2011 draft. He was elated that the Bills hadn’t taken a QB in the first two rounds. It meant he would enter camp as a team’s starter for the first time ever.
“Wait,” he said a few minutes into our talk. “San Francisco just took Colin Kaepernick.” Look at the two of them now.
You always wanted Fitzpatrick to be better. We used to joke that he had the qualities of a top quarterback, except passing a football. If only he had Drew Bledoe’s arm strength, or Jim Kelly’s accuracy.
He had his moments. There were big games on the road, when he threw four TD passes. There was the Oakland game here, when the whole FitzMagic thing was at its peak. But soon enough, opposing coaches caught up with him. He couldn’t throw the deep ball, and he made too many bad decisions late in games.
For all that, he still might have been their best option this season.
Fitzpatrick was hardly the only problem with the Bills. During his three years as the starter, they had perhaps the worst three-year stretch of defense in the history of the franchise.
Too often, they asked Fitz to be something that he’s not: An elite quarterback who can carry a team with his arm, who can lift a team beyond its own modest possibilities.
He had an inflated sense of himself as a gunslinger, which only exacerbated the problem when he insisted on attempting tough throws that were beyond his capabilities.
So he’s gone now. After the final home game last Dec. 30, Fitzpatrick brought his children onto the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium to run around.
He suspected it would be his last game here. It was his way of saying goodbye to the place where he enjoyed his finest moments as a pro.
His biggest flaw might have been his own enormous self-confidence, a belief that far exceeded his talent. Fitzpatrick never thought of himself as a career backup. He refused to settle, to accept low expectations.
It’s too bad he fell short, because Buffalo can surely use more of that.