ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson might have been premature when he said his team's top priority was finding a starting quarterback this offseason.
The journeyman backup is playing so well that first-year Bills coach Chan Gailey said Wednesday that Fitzpatrick has earned the chance to be considered the team's starter beyond this season.
"To be honest with you, that'd be kind of dumb to not think that the way the guy has played," Gailey said. "He's played extremely well. How would you not think that?"
Gailey stressed that he wasn't merely providing Fitzpatrick a mere vote of confidence.
"Hey, I don't give anything away," he said. "The guy's earned it."
But his initial responses were a departure from the past, when Gailey sidestepped questions about Fitzpatrick's future and the status of the team's quarterback position.
What's not up for debate is how far more productive the Bills' offense has been since Fitzpatrick took over as starter three weeks into the season. That's when he replaced Trent Edwards, who was released a week later and now is a backup in Jacksonville.
The Bills are 2-6 under Fitzpatrick, and their offense has been clicking since the team came out of its bye week -- shortly after Wilson expressed frustration over the 0-5 start and called drafting a quarterback a priority.
Since then, Fitzpatrick is 2-3 and has completed 117 of 200 passes for 1,366 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has posted two 300-yard passing games during the stretch, becoming the first Bills QB to have two in one season since J.P. Losman in 2006.
Wide receiver Lee Evans supports Fitzpatrick.
"His play speaks for itself. And it's hard to just discount that," Evans said. "If (Gailey) was to say, 'We'll be going in a different direction next year, quarterback-wise,' that would be surprising. I think he's earned the right."
Fitzpatrick is coming off a solid outing in which he shook off a terrible first half and rallied the Bills from a 21-point deficit in a 49-31 win last weekend at Cincinnati.
Fitzpatrick, not unexpectedly, had a deadpan response when relayed Gailey's comments.
"I'm getting ready for the Steelers -- you knew that was coming, huh?" Fitzpatrick said, smiling. "I don't know. Nothing is given. I know that, and I know that I have to perform these next six weeks."
Fitzpatrick is cautious because he has been in this position before.
Fitzpatrick signed with Buffalo last season and showed further progress in finishing the season as the starter after Edwards was benched in November. Fitzpatrick went 5-4 in games in which he had a majority of playing time on a team that won just six games.
This season, Fitzpatrick has been particularly adept at getting the most out of a patchwork, no-name receiving group that opened the season with one bona fide starter in Evans. Stevie Johnson, a former seventh-round pick, is enjoying a breakout season with nine touchdowns and 728 receiving yards, ranking among the NFL's top 10 in both categories.
Johnson doesn't see a reason why Fitzpatrick can't remain as starter.
"You know what they say: 'Don't fix it if it ain't broken,'" Johnson said. "I feel like he's one of those quarterbacks you can build a team around."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press