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Football Notes

Bills’ Fitzpatrick builds reputation

By Greg A. Bedard
September 18, 2011

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When Ryan Fitzpatrick was attending Harvard, the prospect of an NFL career was not exactly at the forefront of his mind.

“It was certainly not on my radar,’’ he said.

Seven years removed from his final snap for the Crimson, Fitzpatrick is becoming a household name in the league after helping to orchestrate one of the Week 1 shockers: Bills 41, Chiefs 7 at Arrowhead Stadium.

It was the most points the Bills had put up in a season opener since 1975.

“Yeah, it’s encouraging,’’ said Fitzpatrick, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 208 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. “I think we knew what we had and it’s only one game, but I think it probably surprised some people for us to score that much.’’

Fitzpatrick entered Harvard in 2001, and after starting a handful of games as a freshman and sophomore, he figured he was headed toward Wall Street with a degree in economics.

Fitzpatrick was being realistic about football. He had had no Division 1-A scholarship offers coming out of Glendale, Ariz. There hadn’t been a Harvard played drafted into the NFL since linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski was taken by the Seahawks in the fourth round in 2000.

But when Harvard coach Tim Murphy elevated Fitzpatrick to starter in 2003, he responded by showing the traits that would put him on the NFL’s radar: accuracy (60.1 completion percentage), mobility (430 rushing yards), and smarts.

Murphy told his quarterback he had a chance at the NFL.

“Heading into my senior season, I started getting calls from agents,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “And that’s the first time it hit me that maybe I did have a possibility of doing it.’’

After being named Ivy League MVP as a senior, Fitzpatrick performed well at two college all-star games. He also etched his name into combine lore by scoring a 48 on the Wonderlic test, completing the 50-question exam in just nine minutes.

Fitzpatrick was drafted in the seventh round by the Rams, was traded to the Bengals after two years, and landed with the Bills in ’09.

When Dick Jauron was fired as Buffalo coach, one of the first decisions made by interim coach Perry Fewell was to install Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. After two games as coach, Chan Gailey did the same last season.

After a solid season (57.8 completion percentage, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), Fitzpatrick received a huge boost of confidence when the Bills, who had the second overall pick in the draft this year, did not take a quarterback.

Despite receiver Lee Evans being traded to the Ravens before the season, Fitzpatrick said being in the second year of Gailey’s system has given the Bills a chance to succeed.

“The confidence level is way higher, even heading into the opener,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “Everything was so new last year. We had a new coach, new systems to learn, a lot of new faces, a lot of young guys that hadn’t really played in the NFL before. So there was so much newness and a lot of wide-eyed people trying to figure out why they’re even here and how they’re going to fit in.

“This year we go into the season and everybody has a defined role, they know what to do, they have a year more of experience, everybody has a year in this system. The confidence level with that and the experience, I think that helped us a lot.’’

With Evans gone, Fitzpatrick is throwing to guys, outside of Roscoe Parrish, who are not well-known: receivers Steve Johnson, Donald Jones, and David Nelson, and tight end Scott Chandler.

An offensive line that received a lot of criticism in the preseason had a good game against the Chiefs, only allowing one sack.

“They performed great that first game and they’re a tight unit,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “A few of them have played together for three years now and we think we have some good guys up front and we’re hoping the performance that we got out of them on Sunday carries over throughout the whole season. They did play really well, run and pass.’’

On defense, having outside linebacker Shawne Merriman around for training camp and signing inside linebacker Nick Barnett, who enjoyed success with the Packers, has brought a new attitude.

“They bring a ton of energy over there, and it’s not just how talented those guys are,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “Even in the locker room, those guys have been around and been around successful teams, so to have that and be able to draw from those experiences, that’s important to us and that’s really going to help us.’’

It was only one game, and regardless of what happens today against the Raiders, the Bills know they won’t be taken seriously in the AFC East until they knock off a team like the Patriots.

“Absolutely,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “I’m not looking ahead or anything, but in order to be good in this league and to get to the playoffs and be successful, you have to be successful within your division.

“That’s something that we haven’t been able to do in recent years. That’s going to be big for us, being able to show up and beat the teams in our division.’’

After seven years, Fitzpatrick may finally be replacing “former Harvard quarterback’’ with “NFL starter’’ next to his name, but Boston will always be close to his heart.

“It’s such a cool place,’’ he said. “Harvard, the campus, Cambridge . . . but then Boston in general, just with the amount of colleges that are there, the amount of college kids, it’s such a young, vibrant city in that regard. You get caught up in all the sports teams there as well, because of how crazy those fans are.

“Loved my time in Boston, but I like it here, too.’’

Not bad for a guy who never thought the NFL would happen for him.

A CHIEF CONCERN

Haley falls from throne right into the hot seat

How quickly things can change.

About nine months ago, Chiefs coach Todd Haley was the toast of Kansas City after guiding the team to a 10-6 record and an AFC West title in his second season.

After losing, 41-7, to the Bills last Sunday - the worst opening-day loss in franchise history - Haley could be in danger of being fired by the end of the season if the Chiefs continue to play poorly.

Haley, in the third year of a four-year contract, has taken a ton of heat for his approach in training camp, when he devoted more time to conditioning than football by limiting the playing time of his starters until the fourth preseason game.

If you polled Chiefs fans today, Haley would be gone, along with team president Scott Pioli.

The Chiefs have lost their last three games dating to last year (all at home) by a combined score of 102-24. Oakland won the regular-season finale, 31-10, then Baltimore beat the Chiefs, 30-7, in the AFC wild-card game.

“I said a number of times last year, even after some better games, we’re not a good team yet,’’ Pioli said. “We’re not there yet. We weren’t there last year, even though we did some good things. We weren’t really as good as we thought we were.’’

The Chiefs went 10-6 last season thanks to a favorable schedule and a lot of luck. They didn’t lose one starting player for more than one game. They’ve already lost underrated tight end Tony Moeaki and starting safety Eric Berry for the season with ACL injuries.

Quarterback Matt Cassel appears to have regressed since offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left after last season for the University of Florida.

“I don’t see any correlation in this year and last year,’’ Haley said. “There’s just too much time has passed to in any way, shape, or form tie the two things together.

“That game last week . . . one week does not form the identity of a team. I don’t think you’re able to draw a whole bunch out of that other than last week we didn’t play very good and we need to be better this week.’’

MOTOWN HITS

The streaking Lions are lambs no longer

The Lions have the hometown fans buzzing after last Sunday’s impressive road victory over the Buccaneers gave them their fifth straight win, including last season.

Only the Packers have a longer current win streak.

The franchise has been in the dumps since Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders suddenly retired just before training camp in 1999.

Detroit’s last winning season was in 2000, and the team won fewer than a quarter of its games from 2001-09. The Lions posted the league’s first 0-16 season just three years ago.

“I can’t wait to see what it will be like when we finally give the fans a winner,’’ said center Dominic Raiola, who was among former general manager Matt Millen’s first draft picks in 2001. “People have been desperate for a winner here.’’

The Lions have posted one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title.

“Our fans have been dying for us to be good for decades,’’ said kicker Jason Hanson, who will break a league record by playing his 297th game with the same team today against the Chiefs. “The buzz is back, and it’s our job to keep it. Right now, it’s just talk.’’

You know you’ve arrived when fans are talking about overconfidence, which is the worry since the Lions are favored by 8 to beat the Chiefs. It’s the largest point spread in favor of the Lions since 2000.

“[The fans] have persevered through a lot,’’ said Hanson. “Obviously, it is a passionate fan base and it has been for a long period of time.

“This is a football town. Our job is to give them good football to cheer for. They have been dormant for a little while.

“One good rain and the grass is green again, and that’s the way our fans are.’’

Etc.
Nickel package 1. OK, Cam Newton, we were duly impressed by your debut with Carolina. Approach that kind of performance today against the Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers (even minus cornerback Tramon Williams), and we’ll believe.

2. Speaking of the Packers, it wasn’t surprising that general manager Ted Thompson didn’t sign veteran guard Brian Waters - Thompson “likes his guys’’ - but left guard is Green Bay’s weakest position. Waters is now playing right guard for the Patriots, after almost exclusively playing left for the Chiefs. “I thought that was probably a pretty good move,’’ Thompson said of the Patriots’ signing. “The guy has been a solid, solid player.’’

3. Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said he didn’t rush back too soon from minor Achilles’ tendon surgery, but you really have to question the wisdom of Carolina’s medical staff to clear a player who had surgery Aug. 22. Beason tore the Achilles’ tendon last Sunday.

4. “Bill Belichick: A Football Life’’ was excellent. But how was there not one word about the Richard Seymour trade? Kind of a big moment in recent Patriots history. And it was only a snippet, but the exchanges between Belichick and Robert Kraft were awkward. Usually, employees answer their boss’s questions more readily.

5. Wake me up regarding Chad Ochocinco after Week 5. He was brought to New England to help against the Jets and in the playoffs. Sure, his assimilation into the offense has taken longer than even the Patriots thought it would, but after 517 passing yards, was this really the week to get on Ochocinco’s back?

By the numbers 2.8: Yards per pass play for the Chiefs against the Bills last week. Fourteen of Matt Cassel’s 22 completions went for 6 yards or less.

6: Consecutive losses for Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, after starting 2-1. In his last three games, against division rivals Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, McCoy is 54 of 110 for 571 yards with 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His passer rating in those games is 47.19.

236: Yards rushing by the Eagles in their opener against the Rams. “You can’t look at that,’’ said Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. “I don’t want to take anything away from [Michael] Vick [who had 97 of those yards] and what he did, but it’s a tad bit easier to get rushing yardage as a running quarterback than it is as a running back.’’

Short yardage Bears players were grumpy when the team let former center Olin Kreutz sign with the Saints. But nobody is talking much after the Bears thumped the Falcons in their opener, and the Saints were beaten by the Packers. “To be perfectly honest and perfectly fair, they made me a fair offer to go back and I didn’t go back,’’ Kreutz said. “So there’s no hard feelings.’’ The Bears play the Saints today . . . With Chris Harris doubtful with a hamstring injury, former Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather will likely start for the Bears . . . The Giants signed Brandon Stokely to help at wide receiver, but offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride couldn’t hide his disappointment that the team allowed Steve Smith to sign with the Eagles. “We had wanted all along Steve Smith back, and that was the objective, that was the hope and the expectation,’’ said Gilbride. “But when that didn’t happen, then we have two young guys that we think can do it [Victor Cruz and Domenik Hixon]. How fast will they be able to evolve into the experienced receiver that you need at that spot where everything is happening so quickly inside? The powers above me made that decision and we needed to add this additional receiver.’’ . . . The Browns may lead the league in punters signed. They lost Reggie Hodges in training camp with a blown Achilles’ tendon. Now they’ve lost replacement Richmond McGee with a herniated disk. Next up is 37-year-old Brad Maynard . . . The omission of speedy defensive end Robert Quinn, the Rams’ first-round draft pick, from the 46-man active roster against the Eagles was surprising. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said he decided to dress eight defensive linemen, four tackles, and four ends. The ends were starters James Hall and Chris Long, plus C.J. Ah You and Eugene Sims. “I think the four ends that are in front of [Quinn] are pretty good,’’ said Spagnuolo, who pointed out that Quinn has had “basically five weeks of football’’ since December 2009, when the NCAA suspended him permanently for accepting illegal benefits. “He didn’t play at all last year, didn’t have the OTAs [in the spring],’’ Spagnuolo said. “It’s not an indictment on him at all.’’ Quinn brushed it off. “Of course everybody wants to play,’’ he said. “All I could really do was support my teammates. It’s a team sport, and that’s the way you have to look at it.’’ . . . The Bengals’ last victory in Denver, where they play today, came on Nov. 9, 1975, by the score of 17-16. Cincinnati has lost eight straight there . . . The NFL received a grade of B for diversity hiring practices from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The total number of diverse employees at or above the vice president level increased by 30 percent in 2011, and the number of female employees increased by 36 percent in 2011 . . . Bianca and Vince Wilfork are teaming up with the Joslin Diabetes Center for a “Tackling Diabetes’’ campaign. Fans can pledge $7.50 or $75, in honor of Wilfork’s jersey number (75), for each tackle Wilfork makes during the regular season. Fans who participate have the opportunity to meet Vince at a VIP reception and win prizes throughout the season. Go to events.joslin.org/wilfork for more information.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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