There were the highest of highs and lowest of lows for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Buffalo's offense in 2011. Unfortunately the lows lasted for the better part of a seven week stretch that took the Bills out of playoff contention. And though the numbers at season's end don't look all that impressive for Buffalo's quarterback, it's the fact that he excelled for half of 2011 that has the team's brass convinced he can take the team where they want to go.
"I've got no reservations about Ryan," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "He had some bad games. The thing we know for sure is that we've seen him do it. We've seen him have the good games. He's what we thought he'd be. If we put good people around him we can get to the dance with Ryan."
A strong statement by Buffalo's head personnel man knowing the chore getting to the postseason has been for the past dozen years. Nevertheless the Bills hierarchy is firm in their belief that the talent around Fitzpatrick must be improved to get their quarterback's play to remain at the high level it was in the first half of last season.
Through the first half of 2011 Fitzpatrick was among the leaders at quarterback in touchdown passes, completion percentage, red zone touchdown efficiency and passer rating. By the end of the regular season, despite his slump in play, he still ranked in the top 10 among quarterbacks in completion percentage (9th), touchdown passes (10th) and was largely responsible for being the least sacked starting quarterback in the league (22 sacks).
"For me this is the first time I went into the season as the starter as the guy and it was up and down 16 games for me obviously, but I learned a lot," said Fitzpatrick. "As a quarterback you continue to just take those lessons from game to game and from season to season and you have to learn and get better. For me I think the season was great for me to be able to be the guy from day one. We didn't have an offseason, but to carry that into a year, to take that role as a leader and as a guy that people look to I just need to continue to grow in that aspect and become a better player. I think I will and I'm excited for next year already."
Fitz was also 11th in the league in passing yards (3,832) and 11th in pass plays of 25 yards or more with 29 on the year. The ugly number that sticks out is the interception figure of 23, which was a league high.
"Turnovers are not good and that's far too many interceptions for sure," he said. "It's something I'm really going to have to take a look at and focus on cutting that down next year. I think that's obvious. Turnovers really hurt us this year and a lot of that is me. To be honest I feel like that's something I can fix."
As far as Fitzpatrick's head coach was concerned a lot of the interceptions were the byproduct of losing a lot of capable talent around him on offense as well as being behind on the scoreboard for a good portion of the season.
"If we can continue to build our defense and keep our running game going like it did then we don't have to (rely on him so much)," said Chan Gailey. "We were playing from behind more than I would like to and so you end up having to sling it out there a bunch. When you throw it that much bad things happen unless you're one of those polished offenses like New Orleans or New England, which we're not. We're not there yet."
Fitzpatrick ranked sixth in the NFL in pass attempts this past season with a career-high 569. Only Drew Bledsoe (610) in 2002 threw more in a season in team history. In his 36 starts for the Bills from 2009-2011 when Fitzpatrick attempts 30 or more passes Buffalo is 3-16. When he attempts fewer than 30 passes in a game the Bills are 11-5.
In those 16 games where he has attempted less than 30 passes he's thrown 12 interceptions. In the 20 when he's attempted more than 30 he's thrown 34.
Nix saw a quarterback trying to make up for the loss of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball during Buffalo's slide out of contention like Fred Jackson, who went on injured reserve, and Scott Chandler, who missed three games down the stretch with a high-ankle sprain.
"I think when we started losing players and losing weapons for him he compensated by trying to carry the load some and playing with different receivers each week," said Nix. "It sounds like excuses, but they're reasons."
"I think if we catch the balls we're supposed to catch and we are not having to heave ho at the end of games to get back in them I think we'll cut back on our interceptions tremendously," he said.
As far as Gailey sees it, Fitzpatrick's play will improve if less of the burden is on him to win every week. That means continuing to solidify a defense that gave up the most yards in a season in team history, could not pressure the passer and finished 30th in points allowed.
"As we continue to get better as a football team I think Ryan will continue to get extremely proficient at his job," Gailey said. "I have a great deal of confidence in Ryan and what he is going to be able to do at quarterback for us in the future. Everything that was bad about Ryan's play the second half is totally fixable and easy if we can just keep building what we're doing on offense and keep some people healthy. I think that we can be a good offense."
Buffalo did improve from 26th in offense in 2010 to 14th this past season. Whether the Bills can take the next step and crack the top 10 will hinge on what pieces return and what new pieces are added to the offensive puzzle. An improved defense will factor in as well, but Fitzpatrick wholeheartedly believes that his play will continue to arc upward once preparations for the 2012 campaign ensue.
"I feel like (reducing turnovers) is something I'm going to get better at and I guess that's why I'm excited for next year and the prospects of going out and playing and getting some of our guys back in here," he said. "If it's just dependent on me getting better and that's going to make us better then I feel good about next year."