After 16 depressing games, it's finally all over. The Bills missed the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year, and thus, begin another offseason of rebuilding. Head coach Chan Gailey has already been shown the door, and it appears the team will attempt to form a new identity going forward.
With Gailey already gone, the next step they need to take is to replace starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
For the past three years, the team has put all their faith into Fitzpatrick, and they have yet to get much of a return on their investment. Admittedly, he's not horrible, and he's certainly better than dreadful past Bills QB's like Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman, but he's not particularly good either, and he doesn't have the necessary talent to lead a team to the playoffs.
For one thing, he might be the single-worst clutch QB in the league. Yes, Tony Romo, even worse than you. There were numerous times this season when the Bills needed Fitzpatrick to come through in a close game, and he wasn't able to do it. He would either be unable to move the ball or throw an interception at the worst possible time.
The most memorable example of this came in an October game against the Tennessee Titans. The Bills were up 34-28, with a little more than two minutes to play and the ball close to midfield. It was 3rd-and-5. If the Bills pick up the first down, they win the game. If not, they punt, and Tennessee likely has to go a very long way to score the game-winning touchdown.
Instead, Fitzpatrick throws a horrific pick, setting up the Titans with excellent field position. They promptly score and defeat the Bills 35-34. While the Bills clung to hope for a month or so after that, you can make a good case that any notion of the Bills being playoff team died right there.
This wasn't the only time this happened, and by the time the season was over, it was beyond obvious that the team couldn't count on Fitzpatrick to come through when it mattered. Now, the Bills need to make a decision. Do they stick with Fitzpatrick and hope he somehow makes a major leap at the age of 30, or do they try to find their next quarterback this offseason?
As someone who watched nearly all of Fitzpatrick's performances this year, I strongly encourage them to go with option No. 2.
Granted, that might be easier said than done. Fitzpatrick has one of the largest albatross contracts in the league. If the Bills release him, they'll have to pay $10 million against the salary cap, while retaining him would cost them $10.5 million.
In a pickle like this, the Bills may keep Fitzpatrick just because it would hurt their wallet too much to let him go and because GM Buddy Nix might not yet be ready to admit he made an enormous mistake in giving Fitzpatrick such an exorbitant deal.
Still, there's a way to solve this problem: look to get a new QB as inexpensively as possible. This may sound dubious, but there's more ways to do it than you might think.
For one thing, Redskins backup Kirk Cousins would be an enticing option. As a fourth-round pick, his 2013 salary will be an astonishingly low $480,000, so the Bills could easily afford him. I would recommend trading a second- or third-round pick to the Redskins in exchange for Cousins. He's a young QB, with a ton of potential, and he's extremely cheap. What's the downside?
Admittedly, Cousins does have an extremely small sample size, but that would only be a problem if the Bills were offering him a major deal, like the ones awarded to Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn. For such a low price, Cousins is a low-risk, extremely high-reward situation.
The Bills should trade for him, keep Fitzpatrick on the roster and allow the two to battle it out for the starting job in camp. If Cousins is as good as he looked in his time with the Redskins this season, he should win the job without much trouble.
Of course, this is just one of many options. The Bills could decide to throw caution to the wind and take on another major contract like Alex Smith. That would be riskier than the move for Cousins, but it would still be a considerable upgrade. If they wanted to really roll the dice, they could go after Michael Vick. He has an albatross deal of his own that the Eagles are dying to get rid of.
If they release him, the Bills could likely sign him to a much cheaper deal than the one they have now. This might not be the right idea, since Vick is an oft-injured, inconsistent quarterback, and his presence would likely bring angry animal rights protesters to the entrance of Ralph Wilson Stadium. Still, complacency is not an option here, so all choices must be considered.
Fitzpatrick has shown over the past three years that he isn't a quality starting QB in the NFL. He's shown glimpses of greatness, but those are far overshadowed by the glaring flaws in his game. If the Bills want to show they are serious about improving, they can't go into another season without making a serious move at the quarterback position.
If they stay with Fitzpatrick, all they will be able to look forward to is more 6-10 seasons and more discontent among a fanbase that, quite frankly, has suffered more than enough already.