Around the League will examine one key player under pressure on each team heading into the 2012 season. Next up: the Buffalo Bills.
Under Pressure: Ryan Fitzpatrick
With the ink just about dried on his $36.25 million contract, wide receiver Steve Johnson would have made a good candidate for the "Under Pressure" series. However, recent developments have put the spotlight squarely on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
1. The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999, a 12-year drought one could chalk up to having to play in the same division as the New England Patriots if it weren't for the Bills posting just one winning season (2004) during that span. Over these last 12 seasons, the Bills have changed head coaches four times which has led to nine different starting quarterbacks (Fitzpatrick was the eighth to start a game). Clearly, the Bills' upper management is not a patient group and with the Chan Gailey Era entering Year 3, six or seven wins is not going to cut it.
2. Under Gailey, the Bills offense has improved from 30th in total offense and 28th in scoring offense in 2009 to 14th in both categories in 2011. But statistically speaking, Fitzpatrick has been an average starting quarterback the last two seasons. Yes, he's thrown for 6,832 yards and 47 touchdowns, but with that has come 38 interceptions and passer ratings of 81.8 (2010) and 79.1 (2011). According to Football Outsiders, Fitzpatrick has ranked 27th and 25th in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which measures a player's value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive a number is, the better his performance was. Fitzpatrick's DVOA the last two seasons has been 2.9% (2010) and 0.0% (2011). After signing a six-year, $59 million contract extension in late October, Fitzpatrick's statistics plummeted. His completion percentage fell from over 66 percent to 59 percent, his interceptions spiked (seven in the first six games, 16 the rest of the way) and his passer rating went from 93.1 in the first six weeks to 71.3 over the 10.
3. Mr. Sandman is now looking over Fitzpatrick's shoulder. The Bills signed former Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Vince Young to a one-year contract earlier this month. Young is making backup money (only $350,000 of his contract is guaranteed) and the two-time Pro Bowler is saying all the right things in accepting a backup role, but Young is a 6-foot-5, 243-pound quarterback with a great arm, two Pro Bowls on his resume and more mobility than Fitzpatrick. If the Bills struggle on offense, and the heat gets turned up on Gailey, how long can he wait before making a switch?
4. Fitzpatrick's contract contained $24 million in guaranteed money, of which $15 million -- a $10 million signing bonus from last October and $5 million option bonus from March -- has already been paid. The $2.88 million in partially guaranteed base salary in 2012 is safe, but that's not the case for the remaining $6.2 million. Another average season while running in place in the win column could prompt the Bills to consider cutting ties with Fitzpatrick, whose cap number is set to jump from $6 million in 2012 to $10.45 million 2013. That decision would likely be made before a $3 million roster bonus comes due on the second day of the 2013 league year.
It's hard to not be excited about what Bills general manager Buddy Nix has done this offseason. Johnson and running back Fred Jackson received contract extensions, pass-rushing defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were added to a defensive line that will also get a healthy Kyle Williams back in the middle. Along with the addition of first round cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Bills defense should improve to the point where a winning season and playoff berth is a real possibility. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and to end that playoff drought, and maybe win a playoff game for the first time since 1995, the Bills will need a strong season from Fitzpatrick.