Unheralded Fitzpatrick off to fast start

As the Oakland Raiders brought one blitz after another, trying everything possible to hang onto a late four-point lead, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) kept waiting for the inevitable:

A brilliant play call from Bills coach Chan Gailey.

The Bills improved to 2-0 after a wild 38-35 victory over Oakland when Fitzpatrick hit wide-open tight end David Nelson(notes) with a 6-yard score on fourth-and-1 with 14 seconds remaining. That ended a 14-play, 66-yard drive that featured two fourth-down conversions and one dink-and-dunk pass after another (the longest gain of the drive was 11 yards and none of the others were more than 9 yards).

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 264 yards and 3 TDs.
(Getty Images)

It was another example of the magic that Gailey has worked over the course of his career with quarterbacks who aren’t exactly from the Waterford catalogue. The question now is whether Fitzpatrick is the guy who will stick and take his combination of supreme smarts and marry them with Gailey’s extraordinary sense of timing.

“He has an incredible ability to call the right play at the right time,” said Fitzpatrick, who through two games has parlayed the situation into seven touchdown passes against only one interception. Pretty remarkable for a guy who is with his third organization after being a seventh-round draft pick from Harvard.

Anybody who has seen Fitzpatrick play knows that his arm strength is average, at best, his mobility is OK and his accuracy is above average. But that’s enough for Gailey, who has made it to the playoffs with plenty of suspect quarterbacks, including another one from the Ivy League. That was Jay Fiedler with the Miami Dolphins in both 2000 and 2001. Fiedler was a tough guy from Dartmouth who was smart, but slightly wild. Gailey, Miami’s offensive coordinator, was extraordinary at covering up his deficiencies, even while Fiedler was supported by little or no great talent. The Dolphins had guys like Lamar Smith at running back and Oronde Gadsden and Leslie Shepherd at wide receiver.

In other stops along the way, Gailey has made the playoffs with guys like Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart. In fact, the only quarterback he didn’t work well with was Troy Aikman when the two were in Dallas. But everything in Dallas was falling apart by then and tempers were decidedly short.

Right now, things couldn’t be happier in Buffalo as the Bills have hope. Like the Dolphins of a decade ago, the Bills have an Ivy League quarterback and a collection of guys from nowhere. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson(notes) was also a seventh-round pick while Nelson and running back Fred Jackson(notes) were undrafted.

None of that matters to a guy like Fitzpatrick, who calmly executed the offense because, well, that’s what he does with everything.

“I’m a guy who doesn’t have too much emotion in moments like that,” said Fitzpatrick, who went from Ivy League MVP in 2004 to leading St. Louis to a 33-27 overtime win as a rookie in 2005 after starter Jamie Martin(notes) got hurt. “I never have been that emotional, that’s how I always am. You have to keep your confidence in situations like that and believe in what you’ve worked on.”

[*Yahoo! Sports Radio: Listen to Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick on big win]

Fitzpatrick clearly has that belief in Gailey.

“It’s not just about drawing up plays on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s the timing of making a call and knowing when the exact right time is to pull out a play. I never get nervous in a situation like that.”

Never? Isn’t there some point when things have gotten a little out of control?

“Oh yeah, when my first child was born,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to 4-year-old son Brady, the oldest of his three children. “You’re just sitting there helpless in the room, looking at your wife and trying to stay calm.

“That was nerve-racking. This? No, not at all.”

On to this week’s other winners and losers …

WINNERS

Kenny Britt is in his third season with the Titans.
(Getty Images)

Big props to Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt(notes), who has opened the season with two 100-yard receiving games. Overall, Britt has 14 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns this season, leading the Titans to a shockingly easy win over the Baltimore Ravens and nearly bringing the Titans back in the opening week of the season at Jacksonville. Pretty impressive stuff after his offseason of idiocy: a car chase from police in April and resisting arrest in June (which also happened the day after he pled guilty to a lesser charge from the April incident). Britt was lucky to avoid a suspension from the NFL, which gave him a stern warning in the process. The shame is that Britt has all-world talent and could be one of the five or six best receivers in the league if he puts his mind to it. So far, he’s on the way this season.

For the second straight week, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton put up ridiculous numbers, throwing for 432 yards in the loss to the Green Bay Packers. That included a pretty 3-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell(notes) in the first half as the Panthers jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Newton also rushed for a team-high 53 yards against a really good pass defense. Newton had his issues, as three interceptions and four sacks will attest. But again, this is Game 2 of his career and Carolina is already more than willing to put the entire game plan on Newton’s back. Considering everything else, such as the three offenses he played in during college and no offseason to work with coaches, this is mind-blowing stuff.

It wasn’t the biggest play of the game, but give Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders(notes) credit for a really nice pass on a 15-yard completion to fellow wide receiver Hines Ward(notes) in the win over the Seattle Seahawks. This wasn’t your typical completion where a non-quarterback throws to a wide-open guy downfield. Sanders put the ball in a good spot against decent coverage (there were two defenders in the area). Not great coverage, but tougher than most plays like this one.

Yeah, yeah, there are no moral victories in the NFL, but give the Oakland Raiders credit for an effort that easily could have been a win if not for Fitzpatrick’s late work. This was not the easiest situation for the Raiders, who opened the season Monday night in Denver and then turned around and traveled to the East Coast for a game. Normally, teams that play on the road on a Monday night get a home game the following Sunday. Staying on the West Coast would have been nice.

• Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor(notes) had a nice move for a pressure in the first quarter and made a great move for a sack in the second half in the loss against the Houston Texans, showing plenty of quickness at age 37 and in his 15 seasons. Taylor said in training camp that this is the best he has felt in four years and a big reason was the decision in the offseason to have his right shoulder reconstructed. Not only did Taylor get to shed the harness he has been wearing for years, he can now play catch with his kids again.

Josh Freeman (R) led a 61-yard game winning drive against the Vikings.
(Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) posted the eighth fourth-quarter comeback of his career, leading the Bucs to all 24 of their points in the second half, when the Minnesota Vikings’ defense essentially collapsed. While Fitzpatrick gets a lot of credit for what he did in Buffalo, Freeman has turned the comeback into an art form.

Meanwhile, fellow 2009 first-round draft pick and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) continued his early season work. Most important, Stafford continues to eliminate mistakes from his game in short order. On Sunday, Stafford threw a brutal interception. Detroit was fortunate to get the ball back when Kansas City Chiefs safety Jon McGraw(notes) then fumbled on the return. Instead of losing his poise, Stafford seemed to gain it after the mistake en route to the franchise’s biggest blowout. That’s really intriguing.


LOSERS

Bill Belichick (L) shakes hands with Chargers coach Norv Turner winning 35-21.
(AP)

New England coach Bill Belichick is a brilliant strategist, and I’m one of the few people who give him slack for the decision to go on fourth-and-2 against Indianapolis in 2009. However, I can’t buy this move on fourth-and-4 at midfield in the fourth quarter against San Diego, even with punter Zoltan Mesko injured. Use a maximum protection and have someone else like Stephen Gostklowski or Wes Welker punt. The Patriots had a chance to pin the Chargers deep. Sure, it all worked out because the Chargers didn’t score, eventually fumbling, but still …

Along those lines, I love Mike Tomlin as a coach, particularly as a manager of people. However, the way that he burned two timeouts on Pittsburgh’s first possession of the game after it got to the goal line is inexcusable. Tomlin called a timeout on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in a scoreless game. Regardless of whether you go for it or take the field goal, it’s the job of a head coach to have thought through situations like this one, so there shouldn’t be a lot of thinking at this point. Fact is, this situation comes up so often that it’s ridiculous to have wasted the timeout. Personally, I’m not a fan of going for it in this situation. When you’re at home against a team you should beat, just take the points and get ahead. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because the Steelers are just plain better. However, Tomlin followed up this mistake by then challenging the play on the goal line, a challenge that was a waste of time (and a timeout) because Rashard Mendenhall(notes) didn’t come close to scoring.

Jamaal Charlesis driven off the field after being injured against the Lions.
(Getty Images)

Dear Kansas City Chiefs fans: Sorry, but it’s over. Not only are the Chiefs 0-2 after getting blown out for the second straight game (they have been outscored 89-10 so far), but the team now appears to have lost its best two players in the first two games with running back Jamaal Charles(notes) having to be carted off with a knee injury. That follows the loss of safety Eric Berry(notes) for the season in the opener, not to mention a preseason injury to promising young tight end Tony Moeaki(notes). The bigger issue is that the Chiefs were a team that largely just got by last season because of good health and a run of weak opponents who couldn’t stop the Chiefs’ conservative offense. Basically, the Chiefs last year did the same thing that the New York Jets did in 2006 and what Miami did in 2008. Both those teams made the playoffs, but those seasons weren’t an indication of better play to come. Instead, both teams regressed drastically the following seasons.

Roary, the Lions’ mascot.
(Getty Images)

Speaking of Charles, it’s not just bad enough he was lost with an injury, but he also ran into the Lions’ mascot in the process, which makes his injury a running gag now.

Final thought on the Chiefs: With Chan Gailey doing such a good job in Buffalo, that adds fuel to the thinking by some that Kansas City coach Todd Haley is in trouble. Haley couldn’t get along with Gailey in 2009 and couldn’t get along with former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis last season. If Haley doesn’t do something promising the rest of the season, there could be a lot of fingers pointed at him.

I’m on record as having said multiple times that Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Luke McCown(notes) is awful, but I didn’t think anybody could be so awful as to have a 1.8 quarterback rating (the max is 158.3). McCown sunk that far on the strength of four interceptions in 19 attempts in the loss to the Jets. If Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was greasing the wheels for Blaine Gabbert(notes) to take over, he made a good move. Gabbert mopped up by completing five of six passes for 52 yards. Nothing great, but he was at least competent.

• The Dolphins’ offensive line, particularly on the right side, is in serious trouble. Twice in the first half, the line got beat on critical plays. The first ended with a strip of quarterback Chad Henne(notes) when right tackle Mark Colombo was destroyed by Mario Williams(notes). Next, on an important third-down play, Houston defensive tackle Antonio Smith deflected Henne’s pass. Smith almost appeared to get a running start before jumping to deflect the throw. A good offensive line would have had somebody hit Smith low so that he couldn’t get in the air.

 

THE SUNDAY 10

(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)

Ben Tate has rushed for 219 yards and one TD in the past two games.
(Getty Images)

Loved: The hard running of Houston backup Ben Tate(notes), who once again was featured by the Texans. When starter Arian Foster(notes) aggravated his hamstring injury in the second half, Tate put in work, eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark for a second straight week.

Loathed: The same week after Miami coach Tony Sparano said running back Reggie Bush(notes) would touch the ball 20 times a game, Bush had only seven carries for a total of 21 yards. Worse, the Dolphins didn’t even try to use Bush as a decoy. Instead, after a few early carries, Bush sat on the bench most of the game. Bush is never going to be an every-down back, but as Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) said last month, “Whenever he’s on the field, you have to know where he is. It’s that simple.”

Loved: The patience that the Cleveland Browns showed as they pounded away at Indianapolis after getting behind early. After a frustrating opening-game loss to Cincinnati, the Browns went on the road and still played with poise, grinding away with running back Peyton Hillis(notes) for 27 carries, 94 yards and two touchdowns.

Loathed: The Texans fan who showed up approximately an hour early to the game at Miami in full uniform, including helmet and pants with the name “Old School” on the back of his jersey. I’m all for supporting your team, but when you dip into the mental state of some Raiders fans by wearing full regalia, it’s disturbing.

Loved: Watching New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork(notes) run with the ball. Nothing says football quite like a 340-pound (or so) man trying to outrun the rest of the crowd. It’s almost magical.

Loathed: Watching how impotent the Colts have become without Peyton Manning(notes). Throughout the first half, Indianapolis toyed with the idea of scoring, but ultimately couldn’t do more than tease the home crowd. It is shocking just how ineffective the Colts have been in two games.

Loved: Watching Tom Brady(notes) the few times I got to switch to that game. In two games, Brady has completed 63 of 88 passes for 940 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. Observers will absurdly point out that Brady is on pace for 7,520 yards. That’s not happening, but Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 yards in 1984 is in Brady’s sights with just a moderately good pace the rest of the season.

Loathed: The sloppy play of the Chargers in a big game. Four turnovers against a really good team, particularly two interceptions from Philip Rivers(notes), are inexcusable. Once again, the Chargers are an incredibly talented team that can’t do the little things to win important games. This is the stuff that hurts a team so much over the long run.

Cowboys QB Tony Romo lays on the ground after being hit on a blindside cornerback blitz by the 49ers’ Carlos Rogers.
(AP)

Loved: The effort from Dallas quarterback Tony Romo(notes). Yeah, Romo has his issues and the comeback win over San Francisco didn’t do anything to solve those issues in the grand scheme of things. However, Romo showed guts. Maybe he should have been sitting with a fractured rib, but this is why the NFL is a gladiator sport.

Loathed: The inability of San Francisco’s offense to support a good defensive performance. Aside from a 29-yard touchdown pass that came after a Dallas turnover and a field goal that came without getting a first down, the 49ers couldn’t control the game’s tempo in the second half on six possessions. That does nothing to help a defense that finally gave up the critical points on the final drive.

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Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Sep 18, 2011