He hasn’t stopped me from longing for Stanford University’s Andrew Luck, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is growing on me. And I’m starting to wonder at least a little bit if the bearded, brainy, hard-nosed Harvard guy might be the answer to the Bills quarterback woes beyond this lost season.
I’m trying not to rush to judgment here. I’m well aware that Sunday’s riveting 49-31 come-from-behind victory was against an underachieving, error-prone Cincinnati Bengals team that appears to have quit on its beleaguered coach. And I also know that the previous week’s win occurred against a Detroit Lions team that is among the dregs of the NFL.
But even the most hardened cynic (and after a decade without a playoff appearance I realize there are many in Bills Nation) has to admit that Fitz is not only entertaining to watch, but has the kind of moxie you love to see in a quarterback.
The seven-year NFL journeyman was stinking up the joint during the first half of Sunday’s game, throwing two interceptions – including one that was returned for a touchdown by safety Johnathan Joseph – and accounting for just 48 yards as the Bills fell behind 31-14. But Fitz, though angry with his miscues, displayed the necessary amnesia. He refused to become gun-shy. He came out in the third quarter throwing the football and caution to the wind.
Capitalizing on injuries that sent both of Cincy’s starting safeties to the sidelines, Fitz had himself a brilliant second half, completing 18-of-26 passes for 268 yards and four touchdowns – including three to his favorite target Stevie Johnson. Fitzpatrick’s educated arm, as well as the rugged running of Fred Jackson (116 yards, 2 TDs) and three takeaways by the defense enabled the Bills to erase a 21-point deficit, equaling their largest comeback victory since beating the Indianapolis Colts, 37-35, on Sept. 21, 1997.
“He knows I’m not going to lose confidence in him,’’ Bills coach Chan Gailey said about his quarterback’s rough start. “It happens even to the great ones.”
Fitzpatrick admitted last week that he was looking forward to this game against the team he had played for in 2007 and ’08 before signing with the Bills. The adrenaline might have been surging a tad too much early on.
“You’ve got to shrug it off,’’ he said. “Quarterbacks have to have short memories.”
And it doesn’t hurt when the defense has your back for a change.
The Bills received the second-half kickoff and drove 86 yards in 9 plays, the march capped by a 28-yard touchdown pass to Johnson to cut the score to 31-21. On the Bengals next possession, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud stripped running back Cedric Benson of the ball and cornerback Florence Drayton scooped it up and sprinted 27 yards to reduce the gap to three points.
The game turned on the Bengals next possession. Carson Palmer connected on a 31-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens, but the score was negated by holding penalty against Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth, who couldn’t block hard-charging nose tackle Kyle Williams so he pulled him to the ground. A few plays later, safety George Wilson read Palmer’s eyes perfectly and intercepted a pass intended for T.O. in the end zone. Wilson raced 56 yards with the first pick by a Bills defensive back this season to give Buffalo fabulous field position at the Cincy 49. Fitzpatrick cashed in, rifling an 11-yard scoring pass to Johnson to put the Bills up 35-31.
Fitz would connect with Johnson again – on a 32-yard touchdown pass – to make it 42-31, and Jackson, who cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier a second straight week, completed the scoring barrage with a 30-yard touchdown run.
“Once you get that first win you start learning how to win, and everything starts falling into place,’’ said Fitzpatrick, who now has 18 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions.
While Fitz continues to impress, the man he caddied for in Cincinnati continues his downward spiral. Palmer was supposed to be the Bengals savior. A golden boy at USC, he was the NFL’s top pick in the 2002 draft. But Cincy still hasn’t won a playoff game with him at the helm and with a 2-8 start this season, including seven consecutive losses, that streak will remain intact. Palmer completed 19-of-34 passes for 230 yards and two TDs and was picked off twice. By game’s end, the few spectators remaining must have been longing for Fitzpatrick to return to Cincy.
It all underscores the uncertainties of drafting quarterbacks, even can’t-miss prospects such as Palmer, and, perhaps Andrew Luck.
I’m not ready to say the Bills should draft a position other than quarterback with their first pick next April. But Ryan Fitzpatrick is growing on me. Next week – at home vs. Pittsburgh – will be a much sterner test, but, hey, Fitz took the Baltimore Ravens vaunted defense to the limit on the road a few weeks ago, so who’s to say he won’t be up to the task? And the final two games of the season – at home against New England and on the road vs. the Jets – could have playoff implications, which means Fitz will be pressed again.
Without a legitimate quest for the post-season, this is going to be the drama for the remainder of this Bills season.
I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out, especially at quarterback.