Ryan Fitzpatrick speaks with similar gleam about the Buffalo Bills’ success this season as he does about schooling his teammates in arcade games.
The Bills quarterback invited some teammates to his house in Arizona for a few days during the NFL lockout, filling their stay with not only pass-catching and weight-lifting, but pick-up basketball and hanging out at the local Dave & Buster’s.
“I owned them all in Pop-A-Shot [basketball],” a deadpan Fitzpatrick said. “I took those guys to the cleaners.”
The easy-going quarterback, who has led the Bills to a 4-2 record in 2011, has connected with fans, who sport T-shirts with his sandy-bearded likeness and nicknames like “The Amish Rifle” and “Fitzmagic.” His teammates say the former Harvard University signal-caller is known as much for pranks and laughs as he is for his smarts and razor-sharp ability to read defences.
Fitzpatrick completed a near-perfect Wonderlic test in a record nine minutes prior to the 2005 NFL college draft, and has obvious intelligence. Fascinated outsiders ask incessantly about his Ivy League brains, but many around 1 Bills Drive insist the economics grad is a real everyman, with a light-hearted ability to lead.
“He’s never big-headed or thinking about himself and how smart he is,” running back Fred Jackson said. “He’s actually a big goofball when you get to know him, and he has everyone in this locker room wanting to go to bat for him.”
The Bills started last season 0-8 and finished it 4-12 with Fitzpatrick taking over for the ousted Trent Edwards in Week 3. Buffalo considered taking a quarterback with the third pick in this year’s draft instead of relying on Fitzpatrick, who was mostly a backup in his time with the Cincinnati Bengals and St. Louis Rams.
The brainy quarterback is no stranger to doubters. The standout from Highland High School in Gilbert, Ariz., didn’t get any scholarship offers from National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 schools.
“It became pretty clear once he started playing for us that this was a major-college athlete, and a lot of big schools had totally missed the boat on this guy,” Harvard head coach Tim Murphy said.
“He was the natural, a great leader, and in a very unpretentious way, he was incredibly intelligent. He was so calm, you wanted to check his pulse.”
Fitzpatrick won 18 of the 20 games he started at Harvard, including an unbeaten 2004 season. Yet, he drew limited interest in the 2005 NFL draft. (“There are plenty of people that look better in shorts and in a combine setting than I do,” Fitzpatrick said with a laugh.)
Murphy says teams called about him, and the Green Bay Packers seemed particularly interested. But it was the Rams who took him 250th overall, five spots ahead of Mr. Irrelevant, the nickname bestowed upon the final selection.
“The biggest issue I’ve had is, ‘This kid comes from Harvard, so is football really his passion?’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “I have had to prove to people, rather than being given the benefit of the doubt, that I really want to play football.”
Fitzpatrick went all-out to host his Bills teammates this off-season. Parents of three young children, he and his wife, Liza, freed up their house to the players.
“We are more comfortable with each other now, and we really got to know each other on the field there, because Fitz directed us and we tried things we never had the time to experiment with here in Buffalo,” receiver David Nelson said. “Then, he came back and told coach [Chan Gailey] what he saw and liked.”
The Bills signified their confidence in Fitzpatrick by not drafting a quarterback this year and naming him a team captain. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Fitzpatrick has 1,477 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 95.3.
“He really understands how to handle guys, and they have a much better communication system now than they did at any point last year,” Gailey said. “This is as much freedom as I’ve ever given a quarterback, because I know he’s a lot smarter than I am.”