|Brace Hemmelgarn/US Presswire|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 3,832 yards and 24 TDs last season, but his 23 interceptions led all NFL quarterbacks.|
Ryan Fitzpatrick has never met Jeremy Lin. Their Harvard careers didn't overlap. But that didn't stop Fitzpatrick from enjoying a unique perspective on "Linsanity," when it captured the sports landscape, and beyond, for eight winter weeks.
"That was very cool," Fitzpatrick said, "to see a fellow Harvard athlete do something great."
Fitzpatrick could relate to the then-New York Knicks point guard. With a string of standout performances, the Buffalo Bills quarterback led his team to a 5-2 record through Week 8 of the 2011 season.
"You saw magical throws," linebacker Nick Barnett said.
That, of course, wasn't enough. The good feelings ended with a thud as the Bills, ravaged by injuries, lost eight of their final nine games.
It is now, in every way, a new year for the Bills. The ailing are healthy, including Fitzpatrick. (He played the second half of the season with injured ribs.) Free agent Mario Williams bolsters a defense from which much more is expected. (Only Tampa Bay and Minnesota gave up more points.)
Now, there's the business of recapturing the magic.
"We've got to be able to put together a whole season," Fitzpatrick said. "That falls on everybody doing their job."
Actually, much of that responsibility falls on Fitzpatrick, who says he doesn't feel pressure but embraces the extra burden.
Apparently, Buffalo believes. The Bills, who haven't made the playoffs since 1999 (the league's longest current drought), report a 15 percent increase in season ticket sales over a year ago. They've sold out their first three home games.
Seeking their first winning season since 2004, the Bills don't run from the responsibility of rewarding their fan base.
"There's no doubt in my mind about it, we will contend," Bills GM Buddy Nix said. "I wouldn't think we'd accept anything else. We expect to."
Who is the cornerstone? That's easy.
"I would say if (Fitzpatrick) plays good, we'll be good," Nix said. "If he doesn't, then we'll be suspect.
"Obviously we're better on defense and that'll help him. He'll get the ball more. He won't have to score every time he gets it. But it's vital that he play good and doesn't turn the ball over."
Oh yes, turnovers. Fitzpatrick offset his 24 touchdowns with a league-leading 23 interceptions in 2011. The correlation to results was apparent: He had seven picks through six games, 16 thereafter. During the seven-game losing streak, Fitzpatrick threw 12 interceptions.
"Consistency is something we talk about around here," he said. "It is something that needs to get better."
In his eighth season, Fitzpatrick has worked extensively with new quarterbacks coach David Lee on the fundamentals of footwork and mechanics. When the NFL becomes a thinking man's game, Fitzpatrick aces that test.
As a new teammate, Williams marveled at Fitzpatrick's ability to read the defense during practice.
"A lot of times we have to disguise what we're doing because he picks up everything we say," Williams said. "Half the time, we say (the offense is) cheating because they know everything we do. It shows how intelligent he is."
Added Williams: "And you can't say, 'Well, all quarterbacks should be intelligent,' because they're not. They're not."
The guy is from Harvard. Said a smiling Fitzpatrick: "I've been called worse than a Harvard kid."
Center Eric Wood believes the ability to instantly process what he sees enables Fitzpatrick's quick release.
"And that allowed us to lead the league in least amount of sacks last year," Wood said. "It's his smart nature."
Fitzpatrick is incredibly popular among his teammates because he relates so well to them all, from a group of young receivers to the offensive line and the defense.
"And that is not an easy character trait to have," coach Chan Gailey said. "I do not have it. So he is amazing in that respect."
At dinner, Fitzpatrick picks up every tab. He makes his teammates laugh, even in the huddle. He puts on no airs. He favors an inevitably scraggly beard that defensive tackle Kyle Williams admiringly calls "disgusting."
Running back Fred Jackson continues to be impressed by Fitzpatrick's knack for calling just the right audible.
"That's the fun part about being on the field with a guy who's that smart," Jackson said.
Then there's Fitzpatrick's relationship with receiver Stevie Johnson. Each trusts the other implicitly on the field. They text regularly. They're a long way from their days together on the scout team, now a couple of former seventh-round draft picks who've made it.
"Look where we came from," Johnson said. "We've got a respect for each other."
"I would let him babysit my kids," Fitzpatrick said, "and I can't say that about all the receivers on our team."
The quarterback knows what he seeks. For Ryan Fitzpatrick, the ball's in his court. Just how he wants it.
Follow Kim Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports