Here is the blunt truth: Buffalo is only as good as starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is this season. Nothing more. Nothing less.
If Fitzpatrick is a franchise quarterback, the Bills have a shot to make the postseason. If Fitzpatrick is a bust, which he certainly was Sunday, the Bills have no chance in 2012 to overcome his well-documented inconsistency.
His streakiness was on full display in Buffalo's 48-28 season-opening loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. He finished with 195 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. But the breakdown of the numbers is more telling.
Fitzpatrick threw for 80 yards, two interceptions and had a 38.9 passer rating in the first half. The Bills, with "Bad Fitzpatrick," trailed 27-7 at intermission. Fitzpatrick threw for 115 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in the second half. With "Good Fitzpatrick," Buffalo played the Jets even at 21 apiece.
There is not that much of a difference this year between Buffalo and New York. Both teams are expected to compete for second place in the AFC East behind the New England Patriots. But Fitzpatrick's turnovers were the difference in this game.
"I can't turn the ball over three times and have us expect to dig ourselves out," a sullen Fitzpatrick said afterward. "It's unacceptable. It's embarrassing. Unfortunately it happened in the first game."
Fitzpatrick's inconsistency is getting old. This is not a rookie quarterback making his first regular-season start. Fitzpatrick is a soon-to-be 30-year-old veteran who is being paid $59 million to lead the Bills. Fitzpatrick at times can look like a Pro Bowler and other times like a third-stringer. Sometimes it's game to game. On Sunday, it was half to half.
How much longer can the Bills afford to wait on Fitzpatrick to play like a veteran on a consistent basis?
I wrote the day Buffalo committed to Fitzpatrick long term last season that he must prove he's the next Matt Schaub, not Kevin Kolb. All three quarterbacks signed big contract extensions before proving anything. It was a risk by teams who put value on the premium position of quarterback and are willing to hand over big money before seeing big results.
So far, Fitzpatrick is leaning toward the Kolb territory. Fitzpatrick had an awful second half of 2011 and led the NFL in interceptions. He played through a rib injury late in the year, but there are no excuses now. Fitzpatrick started this season in good health and threw three picks against the Jets. He will be among the NFL leaders in interceptions again after Week 1 is over.
Fitzpatrick took the blame for all three turnovers Sunday, including an easy pick-six to Jets corner Antonio Cromartie that was the type of mistake you see in a high school game. At that point, the Jets took a 34-7 lead, killing any hopes of the Bills making a comeback.
"Point blank, period, we turned the ball over too many times on offense," said Bills receiver Donald Jones, who had five catches, 41 yards and a touchdown. "We didn't give our team a chance at all."
What also was striking was how much Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez outplayed Fitzpatrick.
It's a big year for both. Sanchez played well, completing 19-of-27 for 266 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Sanchez made good decisions and stayed in rhythm throughout the game.
"I haven't seen him that on-point in a while," defensive end Williams said of Sanchez. “He was getting back there and getting the ball out. They definitely had real good timing, as far as him and the receivers and even running backs. So hats off to [Sanchez] on that. It was a good performance.”
This may be the first sign of Buffalo needing to reconsider its quarterback position. Buffalo is standing fully behind Fitzpatrick, as the team should. But there is a lot on the line for the Bills this year. Head coach Chan Gailey is 10-23 in Buffalo and needs to win now. The front office put tons of resources into the roster this year. There is also a looming stadium issue in Buffalo, where a winning season would definitely provide some much-needed momentum.
Perhaps this was just one bad outing against a team that's had Buffalo’s number. The Jets have now won six straight against the Bills. Maybe Fitzpatrick will come back next week and play lights out at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. That's been Fitzpatrick's trend during his career.
"If we go out and win the next three games, this one doesn’t even matter," Jones said. "As long as you make the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter when you lose. We can’t get too low."
The Bills have playoff aspirations, but they looked a long way away from that in the first game. Much of those hopes rest on Fitzpatrick and his ability (or inability) to be more consistent.
This is Fitzpatrick's last chance in Buffalo. If he's the long-term solution, it's time to play that way. The Bills have their best roster in years and can no longer wait for Fitzpatrick to play consistently.