Published May 31, 2011
ELMA, N.Y. – It's nearing the end of practice, or what loosely resembles one in the limbo of the NFL lockout, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's job is far from complete as he begins working the room to ensure there are no loose ends.
One moment, he's sitting on the turf catching up with a group of Bills receivers. The next, he's wandered to the far end of the field to watch safety George Wilson holding an impromptu walkthrough for the team's younger players.
Before leaving the suburban Buffalo sports complex that served home to the Bills' player-organized workouts last week, Fitzpatrick then made sure to check in with a group of reporters to see what questions they might have.
"What's up?" he said, without quibble.
In an offseason like no other, with no playbook to study, plays to practice and without a coach offering guidance, Fitzpatrick has found himself playing a jack-of-all-trades role: from assistant coach to publicist, travel coordinator to even innkeeper, after putting up a handful of teammates at his home in Arizona during a series of workouts in April.
If these are among the leadership responsibilities that come with being a starting quarterback, Fitzpatrick has no trouble embracing them.
"I love it. That's why I play quarterback. I love being the guy that everybody looks up to," Fitzpatrick said. "The starting quarterback is the guy who is looked at as the natural leader. I think these offseason workouts allow me to continue to grow into that role."
One of these days, he might finally have the opportunity to show it on the field, too.
Fitzpatrick's place as the team's starter entering next season was essentially cemented during the NFL draft in April. That's when the Bills passed on a large crop of quarterback prospects, and instead focused on improving their porous defense.
That leaves Fitzpatrick as the team's most experienced starter, and the quarterback most familiar with the offensive system coach Chan Gailey introduced in his first year last season.
Once the first round was over, Fitzpatrick celebrated with a pair of what he called "little fist pumps."
The first was for the Bills selecting defensive lineman Marcell Dareus with the No. 3 pick because he has the chance to immediately improve the team. The second fist pump was personal, knowing that his role as starter was secure.
Though Gailey didn't rule out the potential of drafting a franchise quarterback, he made it no secret this offseason that he was comfortable sticking with Fitzpatrick. Gailey credited the quarterback for providing a spark and identity to a ragtag offense over the final half of what was an otherwise forgettable 4-12 season.
Despite a 4-9 record, Fitzpatrick had 3,000 yards passing, in becoming the first Bills quarterback to hit that mark since J.P. Losman in 2006. And his 23 touchdowns were the most since Drew Bledsoe had 24 in 2002.
Fitzpatrick reached those numbers despite playing fewer games than Losman or Bledsoe, while also running an offense that featured a patchwork line and a young, no-name group of receivers.
Entering his eighth NFL season and first with a legitimate chance at starting, Fitzpatrick is eager to deliver on Gailey's trust after the team held up its end of the bargain in the draft.
"That definitely helped just for the fact that this organization is behind me and I know my teammates are behind me," Fitzpatrick said. "It just helps that extra bit to know that they're not only talking about it, but showing it."
His teammates are behind him.
"It was a huge missed opportunity," Evans said. "This year, knowing that he's the No. 1 quarterback, it gives everybody a vote of confidence that this is a guy that we can move forward with."
Linebacker Reggie Torbor is among the defensive veterans who expressed their respect for Fitzpatrick as a team leader.
"Fitz doesn't have to put on a shirt that says, 'I'm a leader now.' ... He didn't have to fill out a leadership application or take a course. It's in him," Torbor said. "When things get going rough, even the leaders look to Fitz. That's the way he is now and I think he's accepted that role, embraced it. And we believe in him."