Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t intend to shed his scraggly beard or lose his large collection of T-shirts after signing a 6-year, $59 million contract on Friday that secures him as the Buffalo Bills franchise quarterback.
Given how much he’ll be making and his new high-profile status, Fitzpatrick might have a hard time sticking with the ”No-Name” label though.
The one-time journeyman, 2005 seventh-round draft pick and Harvard graduate has formally arrived as a bona fide NFL starter after being rewarded with what could potentially become the most lucrative contract in team history. It’s a bold move by a team that’s spent much of the past 15 years searching for someone to fill the quarterback role, and a reward for a player who as a first-time starter this season has led a revived offense that has Buffalo off to a surprising 4-2 start.
”It’s been a long road. There’s been a lot of hurdles and obstacles that I’ve had to overcome,” Fitzpatrick said. ”I think we’ve got this thing headed in the right direction. So to be a part of that, and to be able to continue to be a part of that for years to come, I’m really excited about it.”
Fitzpatrick becomes the first starting quarterback since Doug Flutie in 1999 to earn a contract extension with Buffalo. And Fitzpatrick’s deal includes $24 million in guaranteed money, according to a person familiar with negotiations, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the team does not release contract terms.
That’s a significant raise over the $3.22 million base salary he was making this season. Fitzpatrick was in the final year of the three-year contract – worth $7.405 million in base salary – he signed upon joining the Bills as a free agent in 2009.
”I’m excited about Ryan getting this done. He’ll be our quarterback for a long time,” general manager Buddy Nix said, who said the key to any team’s success depends on having a quarterback in place. ”It really makes everything easier for us. It’s easy to put good players around him if you’ve got that position that you feel good about. And we do.”
Nix had initially hoped to conduct contract talks with Fitzpatrick this offseason, but was delayed as a result of the lockout.
The deal was reached shortly after practice ended on Friday, as the Bills come out of their bye week to ”host” Washington (3-3) in Buffalo’s annual game at Toronto.
Until Fitzpatrick’s emergence, the quarterback position has been unsettled in Buffalo since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season. The Bills, over that stretch, have gone through the likes of Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb and, most recently, Trent Edwards.
Of all those players, Fitzpatrick has the unlikeliest pedigree.
The Bills are his third team since Fitzpatrick was selected 250th overall in the 2005 draft by St. Louis. He later spent two seasons with Cincinnati, including 2008, when he finished the season going 4-6-1 in taking over for injured starter Carson Palmer.
Last season, Fitzpatrick provided the offense some semblance of spark despite the team’s 4-12 finish. Going 4-9 as a starter, he finished with 3,000 yards passing – the first Bill with that many since Losman in 2006. And he threw 23 touchdowns, the most since Bledsoe had 24 in 2002.
With a 13-15 record in Buffalo, Fitzpatrick has been the quarterback for all but one victory over the past two-plus seasons.
With 1,477 yards passing and 12 touchdowns to go with just six interceptions this season, Fitzpatrick ranks in the top 10 in four statistical categories, including being tied for fifth in TDs. More important, he has a fuller command of coach Chan Gailey’s offensive approach after replacing Trent Edwards as the starter in Week 3 of last season. Edwards was then cut a week later.
Numbers aside, Fitzpatrick has established himself as a team leader. During the lockout, he helped organize several player workouts, including one at his native Arizona, where he had his teammates stay at his house.
The work has paid off given how the passing attack has remained productive despite a group of no-name receivers after Buffalo lost two regulars to season-ending injuries and traded its most proven threat, Lee Evans, to Baltimore in August. The Bills currently rank 10th in the NFL in yards gained, and third with 188 points scored.
Word of Fitzpatrick’s contract drew praise from his teammates, who posted notes on their respective Twitter accounts.
”Congrats to my Dawg FitzMagic on his deal. Good to have him locked back in Buff!!” wrote running back Fred Jackson.
Linebacker Danny Batten called the deal ”well deserved,” while receiver Stevie Johnson tweeted that Fitzpatrick – whose last name has been butchered in being referred to as ”Fitzgerald” and even ”Kilpatrick” on numerous occasions – might well be ”finally famous.”
The Bills had such confidence in Fitzpatrick’s potential that he essentially awarded him the starting job at the end of last year. The Bills backed up that trust by not selecting a quarterback in the draft, while adding journeyman Tyler Thigpen in free agency in July with the sole intention of using him as a backup.
Don’t expect him to change his easygoing demeanor, or suddenly start placing any additional pressure on himself.
”I’ve been a quarterback my whole life, and that’s what it’s been for me my whole life,” Fitzpatrick said. ”I welcome the challenge. It’s something that I feel like, throughout my career, I’ve excelled when the odds were stacked against me, and I’ve excelled when the pressure has been on me. And I’m looking forward to doing it some more.”