EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Ryan Fitzpatrick is used to the doubts. He's dealt with them since his high school days in Arizona, when none of the state's Division I colleges came calling. The criticism followed him into the NFL. When he performed, well, he was a sensation. But as soon as he struggled, he was suspect again, the smart guy from Harvard.
So as we begin a new NFL season, Fitzpatrick is the rag-armed quarterback from Harvard again. He enters his second season as the Bills' unquestioned starter. That does not mean there aren't questions. From the grocery store to the corner bar to the family dinner table, Bills fans are asking the big question today: Can you trust him? It was one thing when Fitz was the underdog quarterback on a bad team, leading them back from an 0-8 start. The stakes are higher now. Management has invested heavily in the defense, most notably a $100 million deal for Mario Williams. A lot of people are predicting the Bills to finish above .500 and contend for their first playoff berth in 13 years.
But from what I can gather, most Bills fans are reluctant to open up their hearts to this team. It's because of the guy lining up under center. Really, if you can't trust the man at the game's most important position, how much belief can you have? Fitz has to prove it. Again.
"I think every year you go into, you have to prove who you are and what kind of player you are," Fitzpatrick said last Wednesday. "That's not just for me. That's for the elite guys, too. I am sure Aaron Rodgers feels like he has a lot to prove going into this year. Every season is new.
"For me, I probably have more to prove than the other guys. That's it as a quarterback. You have to be able to go out there and do it. I am looking forward to that challenge."
Sure, the top guys have to prove themselves. But no one questions whether Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have what it takes to win a Super Bowl. The lingering question, after the Bills' second-half collapse a year ago, is whether Fitzpatrick can lead a team to the playoffs, whether he's truly a franchise quarterback.
Which player is he: The guy who led the Bills to a 5-2 start last season, completing 67 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions; or the lost soul who completed 59 percent with 11 TDs and 16 picks, playing to a passer rating that ranked at the bottom of the league?
Bills coaches and management, I suspect, would accept a player somewhere in-between, a quarterback who puts up numbers around the middle of NFL starters, someone who makes the critical throws, limits turnovers and wins games. Coach Chan Gailey is unwavering, as usual, in his faith.
"He just needs to play," Gailey said. "He is good enough to take us where we need to go. You can go back and check how many times I've said this. But it's always the same. There is no question in my mind. We just need to make sure we protect him and let him go play.
"If he plays the way he is capable of playing and we get better as a football team, he will be just fine."
The bar has been raised for everyone, including the coach. Fitzpatrick isn't the only one who needs to meet heightened expectations. The league caught up to Gailey's spread attack in the second half last season. It's his job to refine the offense and help Fitz be better.
"That is life is the NFL," Gailey said. "It is a production business. If you do not produce, they try to find somebody who will."
Gailey trusts Fitzpatrick. Fitz, when he's on, is a deadly executor of Gailey's offensive plan. Over one 16-game stretch, from his first start in 2010 through the New England win here last year, he threw 32 TD passes. He threw four TDs three times in a span of six road games.
There's reason for Gailey's faith. There's also an element of necessity. The Bills have no one else, no succession plan. There's no quarterback on the roster whom they drafted, no young stud waiting in the wings. They kicked the tires on Vince Young and dumped him for Tarvaris Jackson, whose passing numbers were strikingly similar to Fitzpatrick's a year ago.
Ten NFL teams are starting a rookie or second-year quarterback. The Bills have no perceived young savior. That's why fans are ambivalent about Fitz. They see him as a caretaker at the position. It's hard to buy in when you don't believe your quarterback can win a Super Bowl. What's the realistic hope at this point? That the Bills can reach the playoffs? Isn't the idea to build a roster that can actually win the Super Bowl?
There was rising belief in the Bills when they started 5-2 last year. Fitz was a major reason. He got a six-year, $59 million contract extension. Then it all fell apart. Losing inspires doubt, and Fitzpatrick's brutal play in the second half rekindled doubts in his ability. The doubts linger, regardless of his cracked ribs during his slump.
"I think I have more to prove than other guys because I did some things last year that were good," Fitzpatrick said, "but I didn't put together a full, complete season. I have to be consistent all year."
He doesn't need to be great. If the defense is as good as advertised, Fitzpatrick will merely need to put up average numbers for an NFL starter. Baltimore's Joe Flacco had similar stats last year. He came within a dropped pass of the Super Bowl. The difference was interceptions: Fitz had 23 picks, Flacco 12.
Given a stout defense and better field position, Fitz can cut his interceptions by at least a third. He shouldn't have to throw as often. The Bills threw more often than all but one AFC team. They were 2-10 when Fitzpatrick threw 30 times, 4-0 when he threw fewer than 30 passes. It doesn't help to fall behind. Fitz threw eight picks when the Bills were trailing by more than 10 points during their losing streak.
Fitz can make big plays. He avoids sacks and gets rid of the ball quickly. The Bills use twice as many four-wideout sets as any other team in the NFL. Maybe Gailey would rather see Fitz make short, quick throws than go downfield. He's not a gunslinger. But Fitzpatrick forces the issue when the offense is struggling. Gailey has to be more flexible with his schemes and rely less on Fitz's suspect arm.
The heat is on. It begins today against a Jets team that has stifled the Buffalo offense in recent years. Last year in Orchard Park, they started the Bills' offensive demise, making the Gailey-Fitzpatrick tandem appear timid and tentative in the process.
This would be a great time for Fitzpatrick to remind people that he's a gamer, that he's healthy and improved and ready to regain his form of early last season. He's the franchise quarterback, the highest-paid quarterback in Buffalo history. It's about time he played like it.