#9 - Can Fitzpatrick be an upper echelon QB?


Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.

He was a big part of Buffalo's second half swoon. The Bills offense took a mighty dip during the back half of the schedule from the level it had been operating at in the first half of the season and Ryan Fitzpatrick was in the middle of it. His completion percentage went down almost 10 percent. His yards per attempt down almost a yard and a half, and his 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio in the first half was almost flipped in the second half of the year.

Despite the across the board slide in production, Fitzpatrick still finished sixth in the NFL in completions, ninth in completion percentage, 10th in touchdown passes and 11th in passing yards, all while being the least sacked quarterback in the league. That's why Buffalo's head coach believes Fitzpatrick can be an upper echelon signal caller in 2012.

"I think Fitz can certainly play to the level that he played at last year when we were 5-2," Chan Gailey told Buffalobills.com. "That's what I expect him to be for the entire season. I think he can do that. I think he will do that. We've got to keep him healthy and make sure we're hitting on all cylinders on offense. I think there's no question that we can achieve lofty goals if we just play the way we're supposed to play."

In an effort to ensure that Fitzpatrick maintains the success he enjoyed in the first half of the 2011 season through an entire 16-game slate, he hired David Lee as the team's new quarterbacks coach. Coaching quarterbacks for 38 years, Lee has no equal when it comes to drilling the proper body mechanics for throwing a football.

Working mostly on Fitzpatrick's lower body mechanics Lee has already made a big difference in the quarterback's passing accuracy.

"My accuracy this offseason is higher than it's been in my whole NFL career," Fitzpatrick said. "He charts everything. He charts when we're throwing one-on-one, team and even on air. He's making sure that I'm getting the most out of everything. You see it in the numbers now and hopefully it translates to on the field as well."

Lee was impressed with how quickly Fitzpatrick picked up on the new delivery mechanics and effectively applied them to his game.

"I didn't anticipate him hitting the back shoulder throw until the middle of camp and he just nailed that in the spring practices," said Lee. "He hit the go route too, which bothered him last year especially to his left. I'm really pleased with how quickly he's taken to it, but it's not muscle memory yet because we haven't done it long enough. You throw one way your whole life and then when someone tries to adjust some things it doesn't just happen overnight, but a pro athlete if they're smart and they have talent they'll improve fast. He's doing that, but he's not yet where he's going to be."

Fitzpatrick believes the combination of the results-oriented Gailey and purely fundamental Lee puts him in a great position to elevate his game to new heights.

"It's nice to have both aspects," said Fitzpatrick. "To have David Lee over my shoulder and on me all the time about fundamentals has been a big help I think. I knew at the end of last season that I wasn't where I needed to be, but I didn't think there were a few simple things that I was doing wrong that would be able to fix it. That's been really eye-opening for me and something that should really help me improve this year."

Another factor that figures to aid Fitzpatrick's play is a much improved defensive unit. There's little question that with a porous run defense and limited opportunities with the football that Buffalo's signal caller took a few added risks with the football in an effort to make things happen when they were down on the scoreboard. It's not the only reason, but certainly a factor in why Fitzpatrick threw a league-leading 23 interceptions last season.

With a defensive unit that figures to be more effective in stopping the run, getting after the opposing quarterback, keeping the opponent off the scoreboard and getting the ball back to Buffalo's offense more often, it could all translate into less gambling by Fitzpatrick.

"I think it allows you to limit the risks you take," he said. "I think if you're in games all the time and not falling behind whether it's from a poor performance or whatever it is, you certainly have to be a smarter and more reserved quarterback. With our offense there are going to be times where we take chances because that's what makes us good as well. But there's a balance we have to find there in terms of when we're taking those chances and when to take the checkdown."

With all the offseason developments and Fitz's play in the spring, one can only be encouraged that his chances of sustaining his play throughout the season in 2012 are much improved from that of last year. And that kind of play would put him among the league leaders at quarterback.

"You've got to be a pressure player," said Lee of the quarterback position. "What he did out there against Oakland last year we need him do it four or five times this year because that's what's required at our position right now. Eli Manning brought the Giants back seven times last year. That's what our game is coming down to because everybody is so good. Everybody has great quarterbacks and receivers and running backs. It's coming down to that last series or two of a game is going to determine whether you go to the playoffs or not."

Said Fitzpatrick.

"There's been a big difference for me in my confidence level and my thought process and trying to play winning football."

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