Even Ryan Fitzpatrick acknowledges that his status as the Bills' franchise quarterback could be in jeopardy if things don't turn around very soon.
Chan Gailey, meanwhile, remains unwavering. That comes as no surprise at this point. Fitz can miss open men downfield, throw the ball directly to a defensive back, get a pass batted away at the line of scrimmage. No matter. Gailey believes in Fitz. He stands by his man.
“I think we've always said we're looking to develop a quarterback for the future, but I don't think it's the near future,” Gailey said Wednesday. “I think we're talking about Fitz being the guy for us. If we continue to get better, I think he's going to be the guy.”
As this week's Stevie Johnson fiasco proved, you can never take anything these people say at face value. But that sounded like a vote of confidence for Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback. By “near future,” I assume Gailey means next season, not next week or next month.
But that could change. The NFL is a volatile business, and business is not exactly flourishing these days at One Bills Drive. As of Tuesday, there were about 15,000 tickets remaining for Sunday's home game against Jacksonville, and a similar number yet unsold for both the Rams and Jets games.
That likely means blackouts for the last three games at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a regrettable turn of affairs in a season that began with such promise. I'm guessing the owner didn't give Mario Williams a $100 million contract to play in front of empty seats and blank TV sets in December.
Russ Brandon, the CEO and sales whiz, likes to remind us that home games have always been a tough sell late in the season. That's true. But the fact is, they have a huge problem on their hands, trying to sell a consistently underachieving product to an increasingly disaffected fan base.
Gailey can stick up for his quarterback. It's admirable. His bosses have to be wondering how they can continue to market Fitz as a franchise QB to a dubious, discerning public. They can see that Fitz is failing, reverting to form as an erratic passer who can't hit big throws or win the big games.
Fitz has had some memorable games, enough to entice the team to give him a six-year, $59 million contract extension. But the team's losing odyssey continues. The signature wins are very few – even fewer than you might imagine.
As a Bill, Fitzpatrick has a record of 18-30 as a starter. Just two of those 18 came against a team that finished the season with a winning record. Those were the home win over the Patriots a year ago and the last game of the 2009 season against the Colts, in which Indianapolis rested most of its starters. Fitz has never started and won a road game in his NFL career against a team that finished above .500.
This year's four victories came against teams with a current aggregate record of 13-31. Only Miami (5-6) has a realistic shot at finishing above .500. A win over the 2-9 Jaguars would be the latest uninspiring victim.
Regardless of the opposition, Fitzpatrick needs to have a strong finish to prop up his claim to the title of franchise QB.
“Yeah. It's like I said a few weeks ago,” Fitzpatrick said. “Especially as a quarterback, it's all about production. It's all about wins.”
How do you sell your fans on a quarterback who wins six games a year, can't throw the ball without any consistency down the field, and often misfires on routine throws underneath?
Of course, you could hold the head coach to the same standard. Fitzpatrick's record is mainly Gailey's record. The Bills are 14-29 under Chan. Like his quarterback, he has no signature road wins and his lone victory against a team with a winning record was last year against the Pats.
The fan base needs to have faith in the coach, too. Are Bills fans supposed to make a mad dash to the ticket office to get behind a coach who wins a third of the time and can't figure out how to get the football into the hands of the league's most dynamic running back?
Fitz and Gailey have been joined at the hip since the Bills cut Trent Edwards loose two games into Gailey's first season. They seemed of a like mind at times, and they had some success with Gailey's spread offense. Now they're a tired tandem, inextricably tied to one another.
FitzGailey has become a fragile pairing, like a marriage that had such promise in the early days but became tired over time. They reflexively defend each other to the world, unaware that they're careening inevitably toward separation.
Barring some miracle finish, the organization can't bring this act back for another year. Something has to give. It's hard to imagine another year of Gailey and Fitzpatrick explaining away their failures.
Maybe Gailey meant that Fitz would be his guy until the Bills drafted a quarterback next spring. It'll be Nix's fourth draft in Buffalo. He has to get a potential franchise quarterback. The question is whether they let Fitz start one more year while grooming the new guy.
Fitzpatrick is on the books for $7.45 million next season, counting bonuses. If they cut him, he would count $10 million against the salary cap. They still owe him $40.8 million through 2017. So if they keep him another year and then cut him, they'll wind up paying him about half the contract.
They could always sign a free agent and cut ties with Fitzpatrick, the way they did with Drew Bledsoe. When falling ticket sales and a failing quarterback intersect, change can become inevitable.
Gailey has Fitz's back for now, but the “near future” could be much closer than he realizes. The coach's immediate future is on the line here, too.