Commentary

The unforeseen: Ryan Fitzpatrick, star!

An Ivy League QB and a career journeyman in Buffalo … who'd have thunk it?

Originally Published: September 23, 2011
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Ryan Fitzpatrick had about as much chance of being considered a franchise quarterback in the NFL as most women have of being considered "the one" by Derek Jeter.

Many were drawn. None have been chosen.

Fitzpatrick was the St. Louis Rams' seventh-round pick (the 250th overall) out of Harvard in 2005, the first Crimson player drafted into the NFL since the Seahawks chose Isaiah Kacyvenski in the fourth round of the 2000 draft. In fact, until this year, the last time Fitzpatrick entered the season as the starting quarterback for any team, he was a senior at Harvard.

That was seven years ago.

Anyone who says they saw Fitzpatrick as someone other than a seat-filler until the Buffalo Bills, who signed him as a free agent in February 2009, could find a "real" quarterback must be related to him.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesRyan Fitzpatrick is enjoying the kind of start usually reserved for quarterbacks named Brady or Manning.

It's still early in the season, but a few conclusions can be drawn. The Bills, who face the New England Patriots on Sunday, are relevant again after a 2-0 start. And after enduring 10 starters at the position since legend Jim Kelly retired in 1997, Buffalo finally appears to have found a franchise quarterback.

A sixth-year quarterback with his third team -- just who everyone imagined, right?

"This is the first time he was able to come in and be named the starter," Bills running back Fred Jackson said Wednesday. "He's relishing that role. He's taking full advantage of making plays for his team, going in the right spots, and I love playing with him."

Fitzpatrick's rise to the role as an entrenched NFL starter is fascinating because it isn't exactly indicative of how things work in the league. Sure, the NFL is viewed -- rightfully -- as the ultimate meritocracy, but when it comes to quarterbacks, politics, prejudices and perceptions have their place.

Let's be honest. No one ever looked at Fitzpatrick and saw Aaron Rodgers.

Journeyman? Yes.

Career backup? Definitely.

People were never enamored with him like they were with Kevin Kolb, another backup who waited his turn until this season. Until now, it's arguable whether any of Fitzpatrick's previous teams even showed as much confidence in him as Pete Carroll exhibited in Tarvaris Jackson when he handpicked Jackson for Seattle.

To borrow a line from Phil Collins, Fitzpatrick now has the right to tell a bunch of people, "Take a look at me now."

"Is he capable of being a guy that can play for you and win for you a long time? Yes he is," Bills coach Chan Gailey said.

And Gailey isn't just being a supportive coach. According to various reports, Buffalo offered Fitzpatrick a contract extension last week.

On the surface, it might not look wise to secure a quarterback with a 12-23 record to a long-term contract, but this is a smart move. Fitzpatrick is not only good, he fits the identity of this team, which is filled with plenty of other almost-didn't-happens. Fred Jackson, the team's leading rusher, is from Division II Coe College. And the top receiver, Stevie Johnson, was a seventh-round pick, just like his quarterback.

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Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesIt's been a while since Bills fans could get behind their starting QB like this.

Fitzpatrick is their football soul mate.

"I know that you guys always love throwing labels and things in making sure that everybody's put in a box of what they are," Fitzpatrick said. "Franchise quarterback, a gunslinger, whatever it is. For me, I feel like right now that I'm the leader of this offense. I love the guys I'm playing with and I feel like we fit well together; so however you want to define that, that's what I feel like I am."

Considering how often teams are criticized for making poor personnel moves, it's only fair that we give the Bills credit for the move they didn't make regarding Fitzpatrick.

Buffalo had the third pick in this year's draft -- its highest since 1985 when it took Hall of Famer Bruce Smith with the No. 1 pick -- and it could have used the pick on a quality alternative to Fitzpatrick. Cam Newton was gone by the time the Bills' turn came in the first round, but they certainly could have drafted Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert. Picking any quarterback -- even someone as head-scratching as Christian Ponder -- would have created some buzz and perhaps bought the Bills more time to build a playoff-caliber team.

The Bills also could have gone with Option No. 2: aggressively pursuing a veteran quarterbacks such as Kolb, Vince Young or Donovan McNabb.

The pressure was on during the draft and the offseason to dazzle the fans and media with a new face. But instead, they used the draft pick on Marcell Dareus, a defensive lineman from Alabama, and chose a third option for their quarterback issue, which was to support the player who has six wins in his last nine starts.

Can you imagine the criticism the Bills would be taking had Fitzpatrick made them look like fools in the early going this fall?

It's refreshing to see a franchise show some backbone. One reason the situation in Denver has become complicated is that the Broncos seem fearful of informing their fans that Tim Tebow is buried so deep on the depth chart the team trainer might get starting snaps before he will.

Coincidentally, Denver starter Kyle Orton and Fitzpatrick are the same age. And if it's any consolation to Broncos fans, Fitzpatrick is an example of how people can be so blinded by a quarterback's journey -- not being a big name or having been labeled the franchise guy early -- that they overlook what he can offer.

Maybe beating Kansas City and Oakland in the first two weeks isn't the same as beating, say, the Jets and the Packers. But Fitzpatrick clearly has something special going right now. He was near flawless in the season opener against the Chiefs, throwing four touchdowns and completing 17 of 25 passes for 208 yards. And regardless of what you might think of the Chiefs, an eyebrow raises when a team that was 4-12 a year ago opens the next season with a 41-7 victory.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/Victoria ArochoHe was very good as a senior at Harvard, but the translation from the Ivy League to NFL stardom was too complex for most to grasp.

Things weren't so easy against the Raiders. Buffalo was booed at home after falling behind 21-3 at halftime. But Fitzpatrick apparently jumped into the phone booth in the locker room and quick-changed into a superhero. He lit Oakland up in the second half. The Bills scored on all five of their second-half possessions -- the first time that's been done in the NFL in 18 years -- and Fitzpatrick added a thrilling 38-35 comeback win to his resume. His three-touchdown day ties him for the league lead with Tom Brady and Matt Stafford.

Before this season's surprising start, Fitzpatrick had shown occasional signs that he could be a legitimate starter in this league. It's just that no one noticed. He has never been on a team that finished with more than eight wins, and he has always been considered the ultimate substitute teacher. In his NFL debut in St. Louis in 2005, Fitzpatrick came in for injured starter Jamie Martin and threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 33-27 overtime win over the Texans. St. Louis, by the way, was down 24-3 at halftime.

Sound familiar?

Fitzpatrick put up respectable numbers in Cincinnati (2007-08) -- in 12 starts, he threw for 1,905 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions -- filling in for an injured Carson Palmer. But the Bengals finished 4-11-1.

His role in Buffalo wasn't expected to be much different. But then Trent Edwards became the Bills' latest failed experiment at quarterback, joining an underwhelming class that includes J.P. Losman and Rob Johnson. Gailey named Fitzpatrick the starter in Week 3 last season, and even though Buffalo finished 28th in scoring, Fitzpatrick passed for more than 3,000 yards.

"If you play quarterback long enough -- if you play short enough, too -- there's going to be some rough games," Fitzpatrick said. "That's just the way that it goes. I know that I've had plenty of time for personal growth with some of the games that I've had over my career. "

Sunday's game against New England is a big test for Buffalo and Fitzpatrick. As encouraging as the Bills' start has been, their legitimacy hinges on how they measure up to the Patriots, who have won 15 straight games against Buffalo, including a 34-3 beatdown in the last meeting.

What's ironic is that the marquee matchup of this game is between two quarterbacks -- one chosen in the seventh round, the other in the sixth -- who came into the league with little fanfare and no expectations that they'd be franchise players.

Of course, I'm not crazy enough to put Fitzpatrick in Brady's class based on a couple games. But it's fair to say that, like Brady, Fitzpatrick is a reminder that you never know who or where a franchise quarterback might be.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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