One of the biggest surprises last season was the early play of the Buffalo Bills and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Bills won their first three games with the Amish rifle throwing nine (!) touchdowns along the way. Fitzpatrick was very effective for the following three weeks, but then suddenly his performance started to decline in the final 10 weeks of the season. What was the reason for this? Was it an injury to him or one of his weapons? Was it simply pressure? Was it his footwork? What about his decision making?

The truth is, it was a blend of all of these things, and especially his footwork. But let’s rewind back to the first six weeks when Fitzpatrick was at his best.

Head coach and play caller Chan Gailey did an excellent job of building the offense around the strength of Fitzpatrick, which is one reason he had success. I wrote about the design of Buffalo’s offense for the Boston Globe in a preview of the Bills’ game against the rival New England Patriots in week 3:

Fitzpatrick is surrounded by players that have the ability to do damage after the catch, which is why coach Chan Gailey is using a full-blown spread offense. Gailey is using a lot of Trips sets, along with Empty and Split Backs, out of 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) and 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end) personnel to get his athletes in space and do as much damage as they can after the catch. Running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are very dangerous both after the catch and in the running game.

Gailey uses a lot of quick game and five step drops to get the ball out of his quarterback’s hands as soon as possible. He relies on a lot of screen passes to his running backs and wide receivers. Commonly seen screens such as bubble and flanker are prevalent in the Bills offense, especially to wide receiver Steve Johnson and Spiller. He also likes to use a lot of Flood concepts as well as Hi-Lo’s, which put defenders in a bind by having to commit to a player either in front or behind.

Tendencies

  • When the Bills go to split backs, watch for screen passes and swings into the flats.
  • Scott Chandler is often motioned into the backfield. They will run from this formation.
  • They’ll use short passes to get defenses going downhill, then use double moves to take advantage.
  • The middle of the field is attacked with Post routes on double moves.
  • Backside slants are frequently used with Johnson.
  • They’ll go to Wildcat or trick plays with slash player Brad Smith in between the 25-35 in opponent’s territory, and sometimes around the 40 in their own territory.

As you can see, the offense was simple, yet still dynamic because players such as Johnson and Jackson (Ed note: not a lawn mower manufacturer) were able to do damage in space after receiving passes. The passes were short and quick, which made it more difficult for defenses to defend as they were in off-coverage (which would change later in the season) and it got the ball out of Fitzpatrick’s hands quickly, thus minimizing the chances of a mistake.

Because of the quality string of performances from the Harvard man, the Bills front office rewarded him with a grand contract that saw him receive $24 million guaranteed. That’s when Fitzpatrick started to slip up, making bad decisions and struggling with his technique. He threw 17 interceptions in the final 10 weeks, which was 11 more than he threw in the first six, and compiled a mediocre passer rating of 70.1.

Much of Fitzpatrick’s issues can be attributed to one specific fundamental skill: footwork. Fitzpatrick’s footwork was poor in many areas, ranging from his failure to step through his passes with his lead foot to the lack of rotation through his hips — both of which affected another aspect of his game: accuracy. When the domino effect began, Fitz’s balls started floating.

An example of Fitzpatrick’s struggles with accuracy and footwork came during a Week 17 game against the Patriots. Fourteen weeks earlier, Fitzpatrick put together multiple wonderful drives that helped the Bills beat their rivals 34-31, but this time it was different. He threw four interceptions, and Buffalo lost 49-21. One of the interceptions was particularly crushing, and it came with just less than four minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, with the Bills in their own territory and leading 21-20.

It was 2nd down with seven yards to go, and the Bills came out with a single back in the backfield and four pass catchers. One of them which was Ruvell Martin, who lined up wide to the left and was defended by cornerback Sterling Moore, against the Patriots three-man front.

Bills offensive set.

At the snap, Fitzpatrick dropped back and identified Martin, who was running a Curl route on the Curl-Flat concept, and immediately looked to get rid of the ball to him. The next sequence spelled trouble for Fitzpatrick because his footwork was very poor. Instead of stepping through his throw, he side-stepped with his left foot (his lead foot and the one directed at his target).

Fitzpatrick side-steps.

Once he side-stepped, he looked to release the ball and instead of rotating his hips to transfer his weight properly, he tried to throw all-arm — another problem.

All-arm.

When he went to throw it with only his arm strength, he straightened (“locking” it) out his left foot, nearly making his shoulders parallel to the ground and creating an inaccurate pass.

Lacking knee bend, shoulders nearly parallel to the ground.

Instead of throwing the pass high and only where his receiver can get it, it was placed inside and lower — where only Sterling Moore could get it.

Accuracy suffers from poor footwork.

These are the kinds of plays that led to a great start to the regular season going up in flames, which is why Fitzpatrick will have to improve his footwork. According to new quarterback coach David Lee, he is improving, but he’s not quite there yet.

 I’m really pleased with how quickly he’s taken to it but it’s not muscle memory yet, because we haven’t done it long enough.  You throw one way your whole life then somebody tries to adjust some things, it doesn’t just happen overnight.”

Lee’s right, it doesn’t happen over night, but footwork is very difficult to fix because of the repetitions it takes to make it “muscle memory”. I don’t claim to be an expert (never have, never will) but judging from past quarterbacks that have had this same issue, it’s unlikely that Fitzpatrick gets much better.

The reason for that is because when the bullets are flying on Sundays, he won’t have time to think about what Lee said. Fitzpatrick’s issues of knee bend and hip rotation are difficult to overcome and avoid consistently, which is why I expect him to improve some in 2012, but not enough to have consistent performances that avoid the big mistakes.