Businesslike Fitzpatrick Guides Bills’ Stirring Start

That is not what most Harvard students do before their senior years. By then, Fitzpatrick’s friends were already lining up job interviews for their futures in finance. Until his coach, Tim Murphy, thought Fitzpatrick should spend a few days measuring himself against quarterbacks from the powerhouse college conferences, that is what Fitzpatrick imagined he would do, too. When Murphy broached the idea of the passing academy, Fitzpatrick was so surprised — “Kind of refreshing,” Murphy said — that he did not immediately understand why Murphy wanted him to go. Harvard had given Fitzpatrick insight into how he would hold up in capitalism’s crucible. The Manning camp, Murphy hoped, would give Fitzpatrick perspective on how he would rank among elites in an entirely different competition.

“I figured on the typical Ivy League route, go to Wall Street for two years, figure out your life, work crazy hours and then move on to somewhere else,” Fitzpatrick said last week. “I would have always loved to be in the N.F.L., that was always a dream, but I’m a realistic guy as well. So I don’t think I ever thought it was reality up to that point.”

But in the sweltering heat of a bayou summer in 2004, Fitzpatrick, who had not been widely recruited out of Gilbert, Ariz. — the state universities did not seem terribly interested — discovered that when he threw alongside quarterbacks from the Southeastern Conference and the N.F.L., he was not that different. Quarterbacking in the N.F.L., his current coach says, is about decision making and accuracy. Fitzpatrick excelled at both, completing 59.9 percent of his passes in college and leading Harvard to a 10-0 season as a senior. Goldman Sachs could wait. Fitzpatrick would prepare for the scouting combine, where he got a taste of the conventional wisdom about his career choice.

“When I would go and train at some of the combine training centers, those people were like: ‘What does this Harvard kid think he’s doing?’ ‘Why is he thinking he can do this?’ ” Fitzpatrick said.

That is how the most charming story of the N.F.L. season — Harvard quarterback, aware of the outsize attention his pedigree receives, becomes the emblematic leader of a 3-0 team whose talent and town have been overlooked — got its start.

“I’ve never seen the kid fail at anything,” Murphy said.

Fitzpatrick carved himself into a combine legend by completing the Wonderlic assessment test in nine minutes (players are allowed 12 minutes), and reportedly scoring an unconfirmed 48 of 50. But what Fitzpatrick, who was taken in the seventh round of the 2005 draft by the St. Louis Rams, and the Bills have accomplished in the first month of the season might be even more startling.

A team that has missed the playoffs for 11 years and had six straight losing seasons, that did not win its first game last year until Week 10, that is filled with undrafted players (receiver David Nelson), underappreciated contributors (running back Fred Jackson, who is outperforming two running backs the Bills have drafted in the last two years) and other teams’ castoffs (Fitzpatrick, who was let go by the Rams and Bengals, among others), now sits atop the A.F.C. East. Improbably, the Bills also lead the league in points a game, with 37.7, outgunning the New England Patriots last week to legitimize a stunning turnaround.

“Guys like that, you get a chip on your shoulder that you have to prove yourself, you may feel you have to do that more than a first-round draft pick or a name guy,” tight end Scott Chandler said. “I know I, personally, have felt that being cut from three other teams, you know you can play, so when you get the opportunity you want to prove to other teams and personnel people that you can play.”

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