ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. Ralph Wilson might have been premature when the owner stated the team’s top priority was finding a starting quarterback this offseason.
A little more than a month later, the Bills just might already have one in Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The journeyman backup is playing so well that coach Chan Gailey on Wednesday said Fitzpatrick has earned the chance to be considered the team’s starter beyond this season.
“Oh sure. 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.”
Gailey then cautioned reporters not to read anything into his comments, saying he’s not focusing on anything beyond preparing the Bills (2-8) to host the (7-3) on Sunday.
And yet, his initial responses were a departure from the past, when Gailey previously 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 the starting job three weeks into the season. That’s when he replaced Trent Edwards, who was released a week later and is now 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’s expressed frustration over his team’s 0-5 start and called drafting a quarterback a priority.
Since then, Fitzpatrick has a 2-3 record while going 117 of 200 for 1,366 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. It’s a stretch in which he’s had two 300-yard passing games to become the first Bills player to have two in one season since J.P. Losman did it in 2006.
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 in rallying the Bills to overcome a 21-point deficit in a 49-31 win at Cincinnati last weekend.
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’s been in this position before.
Selected by St. Louis in the seventh round of the 2005 draft out of Harvard, Fitzpatrick is on his third team, and in his second year in Buffalo. His first true chance to prove himself came two years ago with Cincinnati, when he went 4-8-1 as a starter filling in after was hurt.
Signing with Buffalo last season, Fitzpatrick showed further progress in finishing the season as the starter after Edwards was benched in November. Fitzpatrick went 5-4 in games he had a majority of playing time on a team that only won 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 yards receiving, ranking among the NFL’s top 10 in both categories.
The passing attack hasn’t missed a beat after Roscoe Parrish sustained a season-ending broken wrist three weeks ago. Donald Jones, an undrafted rookie free agent, has filled in with six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
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.”