Published July 27, 2011
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Ryan Fitzpatrick was the first player to walk into the Buffalo Bills practice facility when the doors opened Tuesday morning. When they closed later that night, he likely was the last one to leave.
For the first time in his career Fitzpatrick is entering a season as the starting quarterback, and he couldn't hide his enthusiasm for getting things rolling on the first day that players could congregate on NFL property.
"I've been antsy to get in here," he said after he was greeted in an empty Bills locker room by general manager Buddy Nix, coach Chan Gailey, and CEO Russ Brandon. "My wife was asking me why I was leaving so early. I've been dying to get in here."
The jumpiness seems ironic, especially since the seven-year veteran has done a lot of waiting since St. Louis took him in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. For the product out of Harvard, patience has always been his forte.
But after taking over a sputtering offense after two games last year, Fitzpatrick has put a stranglehold on the position. So much so that the Bills didn't draft a franchise-type quarterback in April.
Sensing the organization's commitment, he was the driving force in organizing offseason workouts for the Bills while the NFL lockout was in full swing, and he's steadily become Buffalo's leader.
"That doesn't surprise me in the least," Gailey said. "You would anticipate your quarterback being the guy that leads, if not completely. So, I'm not surprised and I fully expected it."
Fitzpatrick enjoyed a career year last season after he took over for Trent Edwards in Game 3. He completed nearly 58 percent of his throws for 3,000 yards. He also tossed 23 touchdowns, the most by a Bills quarterback since Drew Bledsoe threw 24 in 2002.
"He's done the same thing," receiver Stevie Johnson said. "I practiced with him when he wasn't the starting quarterback and he was still the same. The only thing now is he's getting everybody together because that's his role and his job. For the most part, going in the huddle and the classroom, he's been the same guy with that charisma that he has. I think that's good."
Fitzpatrick's emergence last year was even more impressive since plenty of his production came with a cast of no-name receivers that included Johnson, a 2008 seventh-round pick, and three undrafted rookies, who wound up getting additional playing time following season-ending injuries to Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans.
"I think it's always been hard for me, especially the longer I've gone in my career, to be the guy that's kind of had to sit back and watch somebody take the reins," Fitzpatrick said. "I feel it's an important step for me this year, but I think it's going to put us that much more ahead only because right now this is my show from the very beginning and we're able to build on some of the good things we did last year."
With Fitzpatrick firmly in place, the Bills solidified the backup spot by agreeing to terms on a three-year deal with free agent Tyler Thigpen. Thigpen's agent, Joel Turner, confirmed the deal Wednesday, saying that his client is looking forward to playing for Gailey again.
Gailey was Thigpen's offensive coordinator in Kansas City in 2008. Thigpen started 11 games with the Chiefs that season, completing 54.8 percent of his passes, and throwing 18 touchdowns before spending the last two season with the Miami Dolphins.
Fitzpatrick and Thigpen will be joined by No. 3 quarterback Levi Brown when the team opens training camp this weekend. Interestingly, it was Brown that had to pull Fitzpatrick away from a media session Tuesday as players began filtering in.
"Fitz are you kidding me?" Brown joked while walking into the press conference. "We've got meetings, let's go!"
Fitzpatrick obliged, and wrapped things up to join undoubtedly the last meeting he'll be late for this season.