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Fitzpatrick makes the Bills better and kills the chatter

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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The Bills decided Fitzpatrick just needed better talent around him. (Getty Images)  
The Bills decided Fitzpatrick just needed better talent around him. (Getty Images)  

It's not so much what the Buffalo Bills did before this season that I admire. It's what they didn't do.

They didn't draft a quarterback. They didn't trade for a quarterback. And they didn't sign a veteran free-agent quarterback to replace the guy they already had. Nope, they stood by Ryan Fitzpatrick, figuring that if they can improve the team around him he would improve, too.

Two games into the season, they look like geniuses.

Not only are the Bills undefeated, but Fitzpatrick -- yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick -- is one of the league's highest-rated quarterbacks, with as many touchdown passes as anyone out there and a magnificent second-half vs. Oakland that has fans wondering if the Bills are legit.

My guess is that we find out Sunday. Buffalo plays New England, and the Patriots have won their last 15 starts against these guys. Nevertheless, the Bills already accomplished something few thought possible, which is to perform better -- much better -- without changing their quarterback.

First, they hammered Kansas City in the opener. One week later, they scored touchdowns on all five second-half series to catch Oakland -- with Fitzpatrick launching the winning pass with 14 seconds left.

Few saw that coming. But then few saw the Bills sticking with Fitzpatrick this season.

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Remember, they had the third pick of the draft, which meant they had a chance to choose any quarterback outside of Cam Newton. But they passed. Then, with the second pick of the second round, they had a chance to draft Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick or Ryan Mallett. They passed again.

"We told Ryan up front," said general manager Buddy Nix, "that if there's a guy up there we think is a 'can't-miss,' one that for 10 years can be a franchise guy, we'll draft a quarterback for you to tutor and play behind you. We wouldn't pass him up. You'd never forgive yourself if there was one there.

"There's nothing wrong with having two. But we had the confidence in [Fitzpatrick], and we told him that. He's our quarterback, and he would've been even if we drafted one."

But that's the point. They didn't. Then they passed on Kevin Kolb. And Donovan McNabb. And Matt Hasselbeck, Vince Young and David Garrard and every veteran quarterback waiting for the next crack at a starting job.

"To tell you the truth," said Nix, "a year ago when we had Trent Edwards we did look at it [acquiring a veteran at the position], but we didn't consider it. I just don't think that's the way to go. We felt we had one as good here in Ryan, and that's a decision we made.

"A lot of times the biggest, hardest, thing about this job is not listening to the fans and the media when they're trying to goad you into doing something you know is not the best thing for you. We fought that off and kind of ignored it, went with the information we had and made the decision."

Well, good for them. Fitzpatrick may not have the strongest arm or be the most accurate quarterback in the business, but people who know him and who played with him tell me he has the quality you most cherish in the position -- which is leadership.

That was apparent when he led the Bills back from a 21-3 halftime deficit against Oakland and apparent when he drove them 80 yards on their last possession, clinching a victory with a fourth-down pass to wide receiver David Nelson.

Fitzpatrick pumped his fists when the touchdown was scored, and the crowd roared. Fans stood, cheering for Nelson, but they might just as well have been applauding the Bills for making the tough decision.

They had a chance to replace Fitzpatrick but didn't. And now their conviction has been rewarded.

"You've got to be a leader," said Nix, "and the team has to believe in you, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has all that. He's like everybody. He's going to have some bad days and make mistakes, but, for the most part, if we put people around him, when we lose it won't be because of him.

"Our team believes in the guy. He will spread the ball around, and he will stand in the pocket and deliver, knowing that he's going to get run over. Players respect that, and they will follow him. And that's really important."

I'll tell you what's important, too: The Buffalo Bills are a factor again. Maybe it lasts, maybe it doesn't. All I know is that it's good for the NFL to have Buffalo back on the map. And it's good for Buffalo to have a quarterback to believe in.

"People say [you must have a] strong arm, accuracy and anticipation," said Nix, "and all that is important. But there are a lot of people with those qualities who don't have the other that can’t play the game.

"Our team believes in this guy. He takes some awful licks, and he keeps coming back. And he'll go down field and block. He's a blue-collar guy. He's a Buffalo Bills type. And he's the kind we look for."

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