I don't need to remind Buffalo Bills fans about the Jekyll and Hyde-type performance of their quarterback in 2011, but let's bring the rest of the league's fans up to speed in case they weren't paying attention.
Ryan Fitzpatrick started last season on fire, throwing 14 touchdowns along with a manageable seven interceptions. Then, seemingly directly after signing a seven-year, $62.195 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus and $24 million guaranteed overall, Fitzpatrick spent the final nine games throwing 10 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
As always, there were plenty of mitigating circumstances at play when it came to Fitzpatrick's swoon, not the least of which was the fact that the veteran quarterback spent a good part of the season playing with cracked ribs. The offense also had to contend with the loss of its star running back Fred Jackson, though C.J. Spiller played surprisingly well in his place.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson apparently seems to think that the core that his team has assembled on offense is good enough to build around, following the Fitzpatrick extension with extensions for Jackson and wide receiver Stevie Johnson this offseason. While I tend to agree with this assessment, the Bills, even with a revamped defense, will only go as far as Fitzpatrick can take them.
The Bills undoubtedly have similar thoughts, which is one reason they hired veteran quarterbacks coach David Lee. Lee is a long time associate of Bill Parcells and has worked in the college ranks with Houston Nutt.
(An interesting side note here: While the New York Jets have made a ton of headlines around their hiring of Tony Sparano and their plans to have him install Miami's Wildcat package, Lee is the one who actually developed the Wildcat in Miami, which he brought with him from his days as offensive coordinator at Arkansas where he ran it with Darren McFadden.)
Lee has been busy breaking down tape of Fitzpatrick's performance last year and has already zeroed in on issues with his quarterback's footwork, which is apparently a new way of working for Fitzpatrick.
I just go out there and throw; that's what I've done my whole life. No one's really ever taught me how to do it. Now for a guy to come in and say, 'This is why you're missing that throw low,' for him to actually have evidence for me to look at and say, 'OK. It looks like that's something I really need to work on,' and for a guy to be as respected as he is, to be as knowledgeable as he is, that's somebody that I'm going to listen to every time.
I knew I had a long way to go with my mechanics, but I just didn't know how to find that person or how to improve at it. He's going to be a very big help for me this year.
You can see what Fitzpatrick is talking about in much of his play in the NFL (how he got to this point in his career and had not had someone breakdown his footwork is beyond me). The tape actually shows us a lot about his strengths and weaknesses and is a great place for Lee to work from when translating classroom work onto the field.
One thing that you see repeatedly, even prior to his late-season swoon, is Fitzpatrick's toughness and willingness to stand in the pocket and take a hit. Now, this may have played into the cause of his cracked ribs, but as you can see below, he is not afraid to sit in the pocket to allow a receiver time to complete a route (in this case, he is betrayed by a drop from his intended receiver).
Lee has identified a very technical flaw, via BuffaloNews.com, in Fitzpatrick's footwork, pointing out that he has a tendency to stay "too closed" while throwing to the opposite side of the field, which causes him to throw the ball across his body.
For Fitzpatrick, you can see why he would never think this is a problem—because he completes passes while doing it. Take a look below—this is exactly what Lee is talking about...and it results in a touchdown. How can that be a bad thing, right?
The issue is, when Fitzpatrick will look people off and then come back to the left, he has a tendency to under-throw guys beyond the 15-20-yard range. If he simply "opens up" or uses his weight correctly and steps into the throw, he can easily solve this problem—but this will only happen if he makes it second-nature and does it each and every throw.
These are just some of the technical things Fitzpatrick and Lee will be working on through OTAs and training camp. If they can translate this work into regular season games, the Bills offense has a chance to be even more potent than it was early on in 2011.