Pasquarelli: The AFC East's Egghead

The smartest man in the NFL comes from the AFC East, writes TSX's Len Pasquarelli.

He may unwittingly be in the one and only profession in the whole world, Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick joked earlier this week, in which his otherwise much respected Harvard degree could actually be regarded as a negative.

When you walk into a job interview almost anywhere else and announce that you are a Harvard graduate, it pretty much has some weight," Fitzpatrick told The Sports Xchange from his home in Gilbert, Ariz. "But when you walk into the NFL and say, 'Harvard,' well ..."

Well, indeed.

With apologies to Donovan McNabb -- a six-time Pro Bowl performer who has been unofficially dissed by the Washington Redskins, is essentially a man without a team until the lockout and trade moratorium end, and figures to be playing for his third different NFL franchise in three seasons in 2011 -- Fitzpatrick is arguably the least appreciated quarterback in the league to have thrown for 3,000 yards last year.

Maybe in the last 10 years or so.

Fitzpatrick, 28, started 13 games for the Bills in 2010, passed for exactly 3,000 yards, and had 23 touchdown passes, all career bests. The 3,000 yards were more than were registered by David Garrard, Brett Favre, and Jason Campbell. As unlikely as some might consider it, Fitzpatrick's 23 touchdown passes were more than 14 quarterbacks who started at least 10 regular-season games last year. His 81.8 passer rating was better than that of a half-dozen starters.

Yet Fitzpatrick, a five-year veteran who is with his third different team since 2005, and who might have the dread "journeyman" label unfortunately and unfairly dogging him, can probably stroll down the middle of Genesee Street in Buffalo anonymously.

Heck, for that matter, Fitzpatrick can likely go to the grocery store in Gilbert to pick up a few items, or take his three kids to the playground, and go unnoticed.

Which, apparently, isn't all that bad relative to the paparazzi following most starting quarterbacks generate when they take to the streets.

"There's something to be said for being (unrecognized)," said Fitzpatrick, who can get on with his daily life without being hounded by whatever nettlesome paparazzi there really are in Gilbert. "It's not all so bad."

Before one begins to assign all those hackneyed Rodney Dangerfield tags, though, to Fitzpatrick, know this: The Bills' quarterback commands great respect among his Buffalo teammates. And general manager Buddy Nix told The Buffalo News that his quarterback is a "smart guy," and "tough guy," and that Fitzpatrick "has a lot of the qualities you need" at the position. At the NFL meetings in New Orleans two months ago, coach Chan Gailey reiterated his regard for Fitzpatrick, and noted to the media surrounding him at the annual coaches' breakfast that the quarterback "is a whole heck of a lot better" than he is credited with being.

"The man can play," said tailback Fred Jackson.

That didn't stop Nix and Gailey from examining the quarterback options in the draft -- the organization was incredibly forthright in acknowledging it could select a passer if a franchise foundation-type prospect was available and deemed worthy of the slot in which Buffalo was picking -- but the Bills didn't tab one with any of their nine picks. Nix has likewise conceded that the Bills will probably sign a veteran backup when the lockout ends.

But Nix has also made it clear that Fitzpatrick is the starter for 2011. And Gailey thought enough of Fitzpatrick to have phoned him before the lockout and advised him the Bills might choose a quarterback in the draft.

Neither that candid admission, nor the relative lack of profile, seemed to concern Fitzpatrick very much.

The heads-up call by Gailey to Fitzpatrick, who watched the entire draft with a vested interest, as he typically does ("You always want to see if your team is going to take a quarterback," he said), was appreciated. So is the absence of celebrity. His impressive 2010 numbers aside, it's hardly hyperbole to suggest that Fitzpatrick might be the NFL's least-known incumbent starting quarterback.

Then again, for a guy from Harvard, chosen by St. Louis in the seventh round in '05, the latter is to be expected, it seems. After all, Fitzpatrick played college football for the Crimson, not The Crimson Tide.

This has been a bit of an uneven offseason for Fitzpatrick.

Less than an hour after the lockout was imposed by owners, he and wife Liza welcomed their third child, daughter Lucy Violet. There has been the lockout, though, and that has precluded Fitzpatrick from minicamps and OTAs, although it has permitted him quality family time. On the flip side, the fact Buffalo didn't take a quarterback in the draft, and actually selected defensive players with each of its first three picks, validated the regard in which Fitzpatrick is held.

Said wide receiver Stevie Johnson, in an appearance on The NFL Network earlier this month: "He's the guy for the job."

A longtime Arizona State fan, Fitzpatrick went to Harvard after he received little interest from big-time Division I programs, and the Ivy League school reached out to him. A two-year starter, Fitzpatrick won the Asa A. Bushnell Cup as the league's top player in 2004, became the first Harvard quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a career, and was the first quarterback from the school chosen in the draft since 1981, and he is one of just two Harvard players selected overall in the past 20 years.

The 250th player chosen in the 2005 draft, there were only five prospects taken after him. But he has certainly made himself relevant.

In the spring of 2005, Fitzpatrick garnered some recognition when he scored either a 48 or 49 on the Wonderlic exam administered by league teams, and completed the 12-minute test in only nine minutes. Still, there was the matter of confirming to teams and to himself that he possessed the requisite brawn, not just brains, to play at the NFL level.

"Probably when I made the (Rams') roster as a rookie, even though I was only the third-string guy (beating out the more heralded Jeff Smoker for the job) ... that's when I knew I could play in the league," Fitzpatrick said. "I mean, playing for Mike Martz, I had a lot thrown at me, and found out I could handle it. And then with Scott Linehan, another tremendous offensive mind (who replaced Martz in '06), I learned a lot. But it didn't (overwhelm) me. I felt I could play. I felt like I was more than just 'the Harvard guy,' trying to make it."

With 36 career starts -- he also started 12 contests in 2008 in Cincinnati, when Carson Palmer was sidelined by a right elbow injury -- Fitzpatrick has established himself as a more than simply a curiosity item. And with his numbers in 2010, and his command of the huddle after replacing the highly-touted Trent Edwards as starter, Fitzpatrick is definitely more than some a Harvard "egghead."

Then again, the economics degree he earned from Harvard might come in handy after the 2011 season, given his situation. Fitzpatrick is in the final season of the three-year deal he signed with the Bills as a free agent in 2009, scheduled to make $3.195 million in base salary, but eligible for unrestricted free agency after the year, even under the '10 rules.

Yet he likes the city of Buffalo, the fans there, and the food, and the team. And he would like, if possible, to stay with the Bills for a while longer.

Even if very few people, the estimable Harvard diploma notwithstanding, really know who he is.

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