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Pitoniak: Fitz woes contnue

 ORCHARD PARK - Maybe it's time to Shear the Beard rather than Fear the Beard.

Maybe all that foliage on Ryan Fitzpatrick's chinny, chin, chin is weighing down the Bills quarterback and throwing off his balance and causing those passes to sail long and short and every place but where they should be sailing - consistently into his receivers' hands.

The bearded wonder had another rough day at the office in Sunday's 30-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins at a Ralph Wilson Stadium that at times resembled a snow globe.

Oh, Fitzpatrick did manage to complete 31-of-47 passes for 316 yards and two scores. And he did engineer a couple of nifty drives in the fourth quarter to turn a rout into a relatively close game.

But he also threw three interceptions (it would have been four, but one was dropped). And he misfired on several other passes, not only costing Buffalo a score or two, but also putting his receivers in precarious positions.

Fitz's judgment occasionally leaves much to be desired. On one of the picks he fired into triple coverage. On another he was pressured and instead of just throwing it away he decided to drill it toward the flat and it wound up in the hands of a Dolphins defender.

Fitz is an eminently likable chap, an overachieving football player from Harvard you can't help but root for. A really good guy.

But he is in a highly competitive, results-driven business, and for nearly two months now, he and his teammates have been lousy.

During the Bills 5-2 start, Fitzpatrick threw 14 touchdown passes and just seven picks. A very respectable ratio. A winning ratio. But since that time, he has thrown eight touchdown passes and 12 picks. And that's contributed to a painful seven-game losing streak that likely will be nine before all is said-and-done.

In his defense, Fitz has been plagued by a depleted supporting cast. Losing running back Fred Jackson, center Eric Wood and several receivers to injuries has made his job infinitely more difficult. And I also wonder if, maybe, just maybe, that shot he took from London Fletcher during the Washington Redskins game eight weeks ago might have jolted him both physically and mentally. If so, that would be eerily reminiscent of the hit Trent Edwards took during the Bills scintillating start three years ago. And we all know what happened to Edwards after that smack - he became Captain Checkdown; he was never the same.

After the Bills recently were eliminated from playoff contention, some of their followers were hoping they would lose out to enhance their draft position. I, though, was hoping Fitz would snap out of this funk and elevate his team and allay concerns about the future of the quarterback position.

Sadly, that has not happened. Fitz has continued to be consistently inconsistent, a shadow of the quarterback we witnessed the first seven weeks of the season. And the fans have grown weary of the QB they've seen during this seven-game losing streak. They made that abundantly clear Sunday, booing Fitz lustily after a handful of errant throws and questionable decisions.

His teammates continue to support him. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson says no one is pointing fingers at Fitz, that there's plenty of blame to go around. That may be true, but do they still believe in him?

Fitz's timing for this slump couldn't have been worse. Its genesis can be traced to his signing of that $59-million contract extension. I don't believe for a minute that it is the cause of his problems. I've seen some athletes go on cruise control after landing the big money. But Fitz is not like that. He is a fierce competitor. He has continued to work and play as hard as, if not harder than he did before. But he clearly hasn't been the QB he was during that auspicious start to the season.

And now we are left to wonder if his woes are caused mostly by a weakened supporting cast or an undisclosed injury or flawed throwing mechanics. Or all three.

Or could it be a case that the real Fitz is just consistently inconsistent performer, and what we've seen over the course of the past two seasons is the best we can expect. Namely, a QB who has thrown several more TDs than picks while leading the Bills to a 9-18 record as a starter.

Chan Gailey has given his quarterback a public vote of confidence and has said he doesn't believe the Bills need to use a first-round pick on a quarterback. The coach reiterated that Sunday saying, "I've lost zero confidence in him."

But I think the Bills deep thinkers need to take a hard look at this decision. They have outs with Fitz's contract. And even if they decided to go with him another season, it won't be onerous, money-wise. I think they need to seriously consider one of the quarterbacks coming out in April. If they are in love with one of them and they are in a position to move up to draft him, they should.

I wish they weren't in this position because they have so many holes to fill.

But the way Fitz is playing may leave them little choice.

Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the mid-1960s and covered them since 1985, writing five books about the team along the way. His 14th book overall, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, has just been published by Triumph Books and is available both in print and digital editions. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com .
 
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD

                COACHING: Chan Gailey and his staff still don't have any answers. Eleven penalties, three interceptions, nearly 500 yards yielded and no third-down conversions in 11 attempts. Again, Chan had a hot thing going early with C.J. Spiller running the ball and he mysteriously went away from him. Grade: D   

                OFFENSE: Spiller had the most productive day of his two-year career (167 yards from scrimmage, 2 touchdowns) and Stevie Johnson had five catches for 82 yards, but Fitzpatrick's errant passing and some costly penalties prevented the Bills from finding any rhythm again. Grade: D   

                DEFENSE: Buffalo allowed 448 yards, including 254 on the ground. The Bills did force and recover three fumbles, but yielded too many big plays, including a 76-yard run by Reggie Bush and a 65-yard pass to Brandon Marshall. Grade: C-minus    

                SPECIAL TEAMS:  Justin Rogers averaged 33.5 yards per kickoff return and had one return for 54 yards. Brian Moorman boomed a 62-yard punt and pinned two kicks inside the 20, but the punt coverage was weak overall as Devone Bess averaged 16.8 yards on six returns. Buffalo also was hurt by Dave Rayner's miss of a 26-yard field goal at the end of the first half. The miss came back to haunt the Bills when they were staging a furious comeback at the end. Grade: C   

                OVERALL: This was the Bills last, best chance to end their losing streak. With Tim Tebrow coming to town nest week and a season finale in New England against the Patriots the following week, it appears Buffalo is destined to end its season on a nine-game losing streak. Grade: D                 
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