- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Bills and Jets have playoff aspirations. But both teams will crash and burn if Fitzpatrick and Sanchez cannot produce.
You heard all the excuses. Fitzpatrick had a rib injury last season. Sanchez had a fractured locker room. Fitzpatrick had injured teammates. Sanchez had poor pass protection.
But this is a no-excuses year for both Sanchez and Fitzpatrick. If they don't prove to be franchise quarterbacks in 2012, it's time for the Jets and Bills move on. Both players had ample time to prove their worth with their respective teams.
Will they produce?
The 29-year old Fitzpatrick is on his third team and fourth year in Buffalo. If Fitzpatrick is not ready now, he never will be.
The Bills made a risky investment last season by giving Fitzpatrick a $59 million contract extension. At the time, Fitzpatrick was rolling. But he is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the NFL. Fitzpatrick lost eight of his final nine starts and had six multi-interception games in that span. Much of the blame was put on his rib injury he suffered around midseason.
There are reasons to question Fitzpatrick in this pivotal 2012 season. He's too inconsistent, and I’m not sure that changes in his eighth season. Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger in the mold of Brett Favre, but without the same arm strength and talent. Fitzpatrick is fearless and likes to take chances, but often it results in interceptions. Fitzpatrick led the NFL with 23 interceptions last season. He had one game with four interceptions and two games with three interceptions. Fitzpatrick has been working on his fundamentals and mechanics a lot to reduce turnovers.
The Bills also acquired veteran quarterback Vince Young to push Fitzpatrick. Young has 30 career wins -- 13 more than Fitzpatrick -- and is capable of taking over. Young first has to beat out incumbent Tyler Thigpen for the backup quarterback role in training camp.
The good news is Fitzpatrick plays in a system that fits him. This also is the best Buffalo team Fitzpatrick has played on. He has a dual threat at running back with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, and budding receiver Stevie Johnson. The Bills also have a much-improved defense, led by $100 million free-agent acquisition Mario Williams, which should create more turnovers and better field position.
Everything is in place for Fitzpatrick to be successful this year. If Fitzpatrick cannot make this work, the blame falls on him. I project a decent, but not great, year from Fitzpatrick. He should make fewer mistakes in 2012, which is enough to put Buffalo in playoff contention.
Sanchez is an even more curious case. On paper, he had his best year statistically in 2011. But in reality, Sanchez took a step backward. Sanchez lost control of the offense and struggled down the stretch. He lost his final three games and committed nine combined turnovers in that span.
I'm not confident in Sanchez's prospects for 2012. Sanchez has a lot of holes in his game. He's inaccurate. He makes bad reads and doesn't throw well outside the hashes. Sanchez also is known to get rattled and lacks ball security. He fumbles too often when hit and had five multi-interception games last season.
The Jets know Sanchez better than anyone. That is why they want to protect Sanchez and get back to a safe, ground-and-pound style under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. New York will be a run-first team. Sanchez probably will throw 20-25 times per game, which is the best formula. Last year, he threw 35 times or more in seven contests, and the Jets were 2-5 in those games.
Then there is the Tim Tebow factor. Sanchez never had a backup to push him in New York until now. Tebow will not only push Sanchez, Tebow will push Sanchez out if he struggles. The leash on Sanchez has never been shorter. Two or three bad games in a row could lead to a quarterback change in New York. This is a unique kind of pressure Sanchez must learn to handle.
I expect Sanchez to hit rough patches this year but not enough to get benched. New York will do all it can to protect Sanchez by running the football a ton and playing great defense. Fewer turnovers and renewed focus on the running game mean Sanchez's numbers will dip this season. But it could lead to more team success.
Last year, the AFC East blog did the "Sanchez-Fitz-Moore Watch." It turned out Matt Moore of the Miami Dolphins won the competition and was the second-best quarterback in the AFC East behind Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
If the Dolphins still have the second-best quarterback in the AFC East by the end of this season, it's time for the Bills and Jets to make wholesale changes at the position.