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Fitz, Gailey share common vision on evolving offense

So the beard comes off after the season. Thank goodness. How does Ryan Fitzpatrick manage to wedge a face mask over that pelt? You could hide a left tackle in there. Do you think his wife will recognize him when he finally checks down to a razor? Fitz will look like a different person.

Maybe he's kept the beard on all year because he didn't want to change his luck. Because if there's one thing certain about this odd Bills season, it's that Fitzpatrick has been an entirely different quarterback.

Go back to 2008, when Fitz was the Bengals' starting quarterback for 12 games. Compare it to this season and the change is striking. Entering today's game against the Dolphins, he has completed 221 passes -- the exact number as in '08. He has six more attempts, so his accuracy has been essentially the same.

The big difference is in the type of throws, and his production. Fitzpatrick has 621 more yards on those 221 completions, nearly three yards a throw. That's a remarkable jump by NFL standards, and a testament to Fitz's improvement.

Even more so, it reflects the willingness of his coach and offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, to unleash his QB and allow him to attack defenses down the field.

"I think it tells you how much more confident I am in throwing the ball," Fitzpatrick said. "I think it says something about the guys I'm throwing to. I've got a few more years of playing experience. So it shows how far I've come as a player.

"I don't want to say that the guys who coached me last year were bad, because I loved those guys," Fitz said. "But a big difference between this year and last has been Chan. It's the system he brought here and the ability to communicate every day. I haven't been in a meeting this year where he hasn't been in there. So I know exactly what he wants, and he's able to listen to me and allow me to do things that I want."

Once he came to his senses and yanked Trent Edwards for Fitzpatrick, Gailey established a trust with the Harvard graduate. They have the sort of relationship where two people have a common vision, a shared recognition of events.

"You just have to have it," Gailey said Friday. "To be successful, you have to have it."

It's rare for such a bond to occur so quickly. How long would it take to develop that with another quarterback, a rook?

"Oh, no, no," Gailey said before the question was out. "No, no, no, no. It takes awhile. It does take awhile. If you have a veteran quarterback and a veteran coach, it happens a lot quicker. If either one of those two are young, then it takes a long time."

You don't take what Fitz and Gailey have and toss it away after one season. It's hard to imagine anyone else under center at the start of next season. The Bills need to find a franchise QB fairly soon. But Gailey's offense is evolving with Fitz. Eventually, he'll want to build the same trust with a young guy, with Fitz as the conduit.

But in the meantime, Fitz is winning the admiration of Buffalo fans and proving he can play in the NFL. His season is reminiscent of Doug Flutie in 1998. Both were underestimated QBs with suspect arm strength and accuracy. They were fierce competitors who could run, avoid sacks, and make their offensive lines better.

Like Fitz, Flutie took chances down the field and had the self-belief to come back from mistakes. Fitzpatrick's current stats are very close to Flutie's in '98, when Flutie played 13 games. The completion percentage, yards and rushing are similar. Flutie had 20 TDs and 11 interceptions. Fitz has 21 and 11. He's third in rushing among QBs and first in yards per rush.

Of course, Flutie led the Bills to the playoffs that season. But he was surrounded by a terrific defense and a veteran offensive line. Given the same circumstances, is there any doubt Fitz could be the leader for a playoff team? Flutie was much older. He turned 36 in the '98 season. Fitzpatrick turned 28 last month.

Fitzpatrick's shortcomings are evident. He misfires badly on a few throws a game. He doesn't throw the deep out very well. But he's making the most of what he has. Today, his four wideouts will be a seventh-round draft pick (Stevie Johnson) and three undrafted free agents.

Maybe, like Flutie, Fitz will turn out to be a one-year wonder whose physical limitations catch up to him the following season. But he is just entering his prime. Considering how far he has come in two years, there's no reason Fitz can't keep improving.

"I'm confident of that," Fitzpatrick said. "You look back at the film and there's a lot I can improve on. Hopefully, the completion percentage is a little higher. Part of that involves making better decisions. I definitely trust myself more this year. I think part of it is just the playing experience, being out there and seeing things.

"It's not an easy thing to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore. When you start seeing these exotic defenses and the tough schemes, it makes everything easier for you in the sense of not being fooled."

The Bills' losing record hangs on his shoulders. But if not for a dropped TD pass in one overtime and a missed field goal in another, Fitz would have beaten the Steelers and Ravens. He'd be 5-6. But he and the Bills need a signature win or two.

Gailey has great trust in his QB right now. It'll grow even stronger if the Bills have a winning record in these last three games against AFC foes. I trust Fitz will resist the temptation to keep the beard.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com