The Bills were concerned enough about Fitzpatrick's mechanics that they decided to hire quarterback coach guru David Lee in the 2012 offseason. Lee was asked to break down Fitzpatrick's form and see what areas he could identify to improve Fitzpatrick's performance.
How has Fitzpatrick's form changed this year now that he has been working with Coach Lee since OTA's?
The Bills are now in their bye week this week in Week 8. So, this is a good time to review the 2012 season to date and determine if Fitzpatrick has actually improved. Or if he is still playing at the same level.
In 2011, Fitzpatrick led the NFL with 23 interceptions. Coach Lee broke down all of Fitzpatrick's interceptions and proved to Fitzpatrick in film sessions that his mistakes could be corrected with proper mechanics. The issues ranged from throwing off of his back foot, not stepping in the direction of where he was passing and staring down his receivers too often.
One of Fitzpatrick's characteristics is that he approaches the job like a gunslinger. He is not afraid to take a chance or make a mistake. While his teammates appreciate that aspect of his play, there is a downside to being a gunslinger with a weaker arm.
You think you can lay the ball out there for your wide receiver to make a play on the ball. But if your arm isn't strong enough to get it there, you wind up giving the defense an easy interception. The passes fall so short that the receivers don't even have the chance to break the pass up.
Fitzpatrick admitted that he had never had a coach work on his mechanics before and that he has operated all this time by instinct and playing with that gunslinger mentality.
Buffalo's front-office personnel were high on Fitzpatrick coming into the 2012 season based on some of his accomplishments in 2011. In this article by Chris Brown at Buffalo Bills.com, we learned the following:
He finished the 2011 season sixth in the NFL in completions, ninth in completion percentage, 10th in touchdown passes, 11th in passing yards and he was the least sacked quarterback in the NFL. But his league-leading 23 interceptions still leave Bills fans with some trepidation as to just how much faith they can put in Ryan Fitzpatrick. For those inside the walls of One Bills Drive it isn’t even a question.
If the Bills are ever going to break their 12-year playoff drought, they will need Fitzpatrick to step up his game to a higher level. In a story on Buffalo Bills.com, Lee was asked to assess Fitzpatrick's chances of becoming an elite quarterback.
Lee said he respects Fitz’s toughness. Seeing him get back up after the hit he took from London Fletcher and stay in the game is what sold him. But he also likes Fitz’s demeanor when things aren’t going right.
“I think the biggest thing is in his eyes when he does something good and he does something bad and when he has a bad day, how does he react,” said Lee. ”In his eyes is he shook a little? Does it bother him or does he know he’s good and know he’ll get it corrected. I see that (sense of calm) in him. His eyes just tell me a lot about when things go bad. That’s what I like about him right now.”
The other major issue with Fitzpatrick is the lack of arm strength. A number of his interceptions are a result of trying to throw the ball out to the sidelines or underthrowing an open receiver going down the sidelines.
So in OTA's, minicamp and training camp this summer, Lee spent countless hours breaking down Fitzpatrick's mechanics. With constant repetition, the hope was that proper form would become automatic for Fitzpatrick whenever he threw a pass.
So how did all of Lee's personal attention work on Fitzpatrick's performance?
Fitzpatrick opened up the 2012 season on the road at the New York Jets. On his first drive of the regular season, Fitzpatrick threw an out pattern to Steve Johnson, only to have Darrelle Revis jump the route and intercept the pass. Fitzpatrick was late in delivering the pass, as the Bills passing offense is based on timing issues. It didn't help that Fitzpatrick made an unnecessary hitch in his delivery.
On the second drive, Fitzpatrick was inaccurate with a pass to Scott Chandler on a crossing pattern. Fitzpatrick threw it behind Chandler instead of leading him, and Kyle Wilson was able to make an easy interception. Two drives and two interceptions to open the season. So much for mechanics.
On the opening drive of the second half, Fitzpatrick attempted to throw to the sidelines, but he never saw CB Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie promptly raced in from 40 yards out for a pick-six. Just like that Fitzpatrick had opened up the 2012 season with three more interceptions.
Let's re-visit Fitzpatrick's progress since he initially joined the Bills in 2009. In that time period, Fitzpatrick has started 44 games for Buffalo, and his overall record as a starter is 17-27.
Here is a progression of how Fitzpatrick has fared as the Bills quarterback in most key passing categories, year by year.
QBR Rating (and rank): 2009: 29.0 (No. 30), 2010: 48.4 (No. 17), 2011: 50.5 (No. 19) and 2012: 48.2 (No. 22).
QB Passer Rating (and rank): 2009: 69.7 (No. 26), 2010: 81.8 (No. 22), 2011: 79.1 (No. 22) and 2012: 86.1 (No. 15).
Completion Accuracy: 2009: 55.9 percent, 2010: 57.8 percent, 2011: 62.0 percent and 2012: 61.0 percent.
Passing Yards Season: 2009: 1,422 yards, 2010: 3,000 yards, 2011: 3,832 yards and 2012: 1,435 yards.
TD to INT Ratio: 2009: 9:10, 2010: 23:15, 2011: 24:23 and 2012: 15:9
Number of times sacked: 2009: 21 sacks, 2010: 24 sacks, 2011: 22 sacks and 2012: 8 sacks
Average passing yards per game: 2009: 142 yards, 2010: 231 yards, 2011: 240 yards and 2012: 205 yards.
Average yards per pass: 2009: 6.26 ave., 2010 - 6.8 ave., 2011 - 6.74 ave. and 2012 - 6.58 ave.
In reviewing the above numbers, Fitzpatrick typically falls in the 15-22 range when it comes to QBR and QB Passer Rating, suggesting that he is an average NFL starting quarterback. He has been completing over 60 percent of his passes since 2011, but the TD:INT ratio of 71:57 is far from ideal, as your goal is at least 2:1.
As for his midseason form, Fitzpatrick continues to have difficulty throwing out to the sidelines. The Bills were hanging on to a 34-28 lead against the Tennessee Titans in Week 7, with 3:00 left, trying to run out the clock. Fitzpatrick misjudged how CB Jason McCourty was going to react to the third-down play, and the poor decision led to an interception and a 35-34 loss.
There are positives about Fitzpatrick. He makes quick decisions and knows how to run Gailey's complicated offense due to being one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. Fitzpatrick is tough and is willing to stand there and deliver the pass, even when he knows he is going to take a big hit. Fitzpatrick is more than willing to throw a block to help spring C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson.
On plays where Fitzpatrick is forced to scramble, you will usually see him leading with his helmet as he prefers to attack the defender rather than reverting to the quarterback slide, a la Tom Brady. Fitzpatrick is well-liked by teammates, and the team believes in him.
Despite all those positives, the Bills are only going to able to go as far as Fitzpatrick can take them. There are limitations to his game, which is why it is imperative that the Bills running attack with Spiller and Jackson continues to produce big numbers. Relying mostly on Fitzpatrick to move the offense by passing the ball winds up with mixed results.
As the 2012 season unfolds, Gailey has to decide if he can still live with Fitzpatrick and his limitations or not. Gailey can get Tarvaris Jackson some work during the bye week to prepare him for relief of Fitzpatrick on the days that he doesn't bring his A-game.
At 3-4, the Bills need to go on a winning steak if they want to make the playoffs. Coming out of the bye week, the Bills go on the road at Houston and New England, which will be two tough games for Fitzpatrick. How he performs in the next few weeks could very well determine his future in Buffalo beyond the 2012 season.