Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's second-half swoon in 2011 was mystifying to fans and media who concluded the front office badly miscalculated in handing the career journeyman a 10-year, $60 million contract extension.
But now it appears Fitzpatrick played the final nine games last season with cracked ribs.
If there's a legitimate reason for Fitzpatrick's poor play during Buffalo's 1-8 finish, then perhaps the offense that set the NFL on fire during the first two months of the season is legitimate and can pick up where it left off with a healthy quarterback.
"A lot of people don't know, but Fitz, during the Washington game, actually cracked a couple of ribs," wide receiver David Nelson told NBC Sports during a national TV interview, confirming a suspicion among reporters that Fitzpatrick was seriously hurt by a hit delivered by Redskins linebacker London Fletcher on Oct. 30. "So after that he was playing hurt."
In Fitzpatrick's first seven games of the year, he threw for 1,739 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. After the injury, he had 2,093 yards, 10 touchdowns and 16 thefts. He finished the year with a league-high 23 interceptions.
As a good team leader, Fitzpatrick won't confirm or deny he played hurt, only to say that injuries are never an excuse. He's excited about the direction his offense is headed in.
"It's hard to find the silver lining but as we evaluate the season and what went right and what went wrong I'm sure we'll find a lot of positives and a lot of things that we can carry into next year hopefully and continue to get better at it," Fitzpatrick said.
Coach Chan Gailey feels the same.
An offense that improved from 28th in points and 25th in yards to rank 14th in both categories has the potential to return entirely intact if the team can bring back No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson, starting left tackle Demetrius Bell and tight end Scott Chandler, all unrestricted free agents.
General manager Buddy Nix has pinpointed obtaining another "big-time receiver" and another tackle as personnel priorities for the offense. Buffalo picks 10th overall in the draft.
"I think as we continue to get better as a football team, Ryan will continue to get extremely proficient at his job," said Gailey, who has remodeled his offensive staff. "I have a great deal of confidence in Ryan and what he was going to be able to do at quarterback for us in the future. I know the statistics, you can look at statistics and you can turn them anyway you want to turn them but he'll play just fine as we continue to be a good football team."
Helping Fitzpatrick would be a continued effort to develop a running game that made great strides behind a line that was among the NFL's best until center Eric Wood went down midyear with a torn ACL.
The Bills led the NFL in yards-per-carry on first down, averaging a hefty 5.46 yards on 192 tries not counting quarterback scrambles. Gailey favored spreading opponents out with four and five receivers and running the ball out of those formations. On the year, Fred Jackson led the league with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average and C.J. Spiller finished at 5.2.
Jackson is fully recovered from a broken fibula and is in line for a contract extension. He turns 31 on Feb. 20.
As for passing the ball, the Bills aim to bring the controversial Jackson back but talks won't be easy. Jackson, the first Buffalo receiver with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, is expected to test the market come March 13. The Bills, meanwhile, have made it clear his antics for touchdown celebrating that have cost the team dearly in the past must end.
"He fits in," Nix said. "We do want him back, and I know that you think about the antics, penalties and obviously we're not happy about that. I don't think Stevie is either, but we are around him a lot. I know the things he does in practice. He practices hurt. I think he's a team guy. Yeah, we want him back."
It's doubtful Buffalo would place the franchise tag (about $9 million a year for wide receivers) on Jackson. Nix would not elaborate.
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