It was a feel-good story while it lasted: Harvard quarterback gets the Buffalo Bills off to a surprising start and is rewarded with lucrative contract extension.
A year later, Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to only look at his inconsistent production and losing record to understand why the national attention and colorful "Fitz-Magic" references have disappeared, replaced instead by questions about his immediate future.
And general manager Buddy Nix didn't need to go public last week in expressing a desire to draft a "franchise quarterback" in order to get Fitzpatrick's attention.
"I understand what happens in the NFL. I understand that it's a performance-based business," Fitzpatrick said Wednesday, noting the two had a long chat in the GM's office. "For quarterbacks, you have to win games or else."
That now becomes the challenge for the eighth-year NFL journeyman and former seventh-round draft pick, who remains upbeat even while appreciating that he's running out of chances to prove himself.
"I'm confident. I know there's a lot of doubt outside," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm the guy. I'm the guy that's supposed to turn this thing around. And you know, we've still got eight games to do it."
The Bills (3-5) and Fitzpatrick find themselves at a crossroad in preparing to play at AFC East rival New England (5-3), where Buffalo's lost 11 straight.
Buffalo finds itself in the familiar position of falling out of the playoff race entirely, and potentially extending its postseason drought to 13 seasons.
As for Fitzpatrick, he's lacked the swagger he possessed in getting the Bills off to a 5-2 start last year. It was a run that included the quarterback rallying the team from double-digit deficits to beat Oakland and New England on consecutive weekends.
Since signing a six-year, $59 million contract extension last October, he's gone 4-13 while throwing 25 touchdowns and 25 interceptions and losing three fumbles.
Not all of the blame falls on him. Injuries have taken a toll. Fitzpatrick showed perseverance in playing with a severe chest injury for much of the final half of last season. It hasn't helped that the burden has been placed on the offense to score in bunches to offset a defense that's allowed an average 31 points over its past 17 games.
And yet, Fitzpatrick is being faulted for a growing string of inefficient outings that have carried over into this year.
His three interceptions against the Jets all led to touchdowns in a 48-28 season-opening loss. And then there was Fitzpatrick's underthrown pass that was picked off at midfield with 1:54 left that set up the decisive touchdown in a 35-34 loss to Tennessee three weeks ago.
Though he's been far more efficient in his past four games (two interceptions and two lost fumbles), the Bills have gone 1-3 and combined for just 65 points.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I've played great by any stretch of the imagination," Fitzpatrick said. "I think I've just got to continue to stick with it. I do think I feel more comfortable."
Coach Chan Gailey said Fitzpatrick's inconsistencies have mirrored those of his entire team. As for assessing whether Fitzpatrick's long-term future is in question, Gailey said that's something to discuss after the season.
"That's not even right to talk about," he said. "Everybody goes out and does the best they can, and then you evaluate everything when you get to the end of the year."
Tight end Scott Chandler has no doubt Fitzpatrick has what it takes.
"We're not worried about him. We're behind him 100 percent," Chandler said. "We believe in him. And we believe we're going to turn this thing around, get it going in the right direction and finish this season strong."
Fitzpatrick is 18-28 in three-plus seasons with the Bills. He took over the starting job three weeks into the 2010 season after Trent Edwards was benched and then cut the following week.
After splitting his first four seasons between St. Louis and Cincinnati, Fitzpatrick understands starting opportunities such as these don't come along often — and many times never for seventh-round draft picks.
This could well be now or never for him.
"For me, it's not like I get a shot at this, and if it doesn't work out I can go somewhere else and do the same thing," Fitzpatrick said. "This is my shot. This is everything that I've worked for. And I know that it's either going to work here or that's going to be it in terms of being able to be the guy."
NOTES: WR Stevie Johnson (bruised thigh) was held out of practice Wednesday, but said he expects to be ready to play on Sunday. ... CB Leodis McKelvin will start in place of Aaron Williams, who's expected to miss two weeks with a right knee injury. ... Mary Wilson, wife of Bills owner Ralph Wilson, has been selected to receive the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Community Leadership award for her work in founding the Western New York Girls in Sports program in 2004.
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