ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Having already changed coaches this offseason, the Buffalo Bills are starting from scratch at quarterback, too.
In their first move once the NFL’s free agency period opened Tuesday, the Bills released quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after two-plus inconsistent seasons as starter. The decision came after Fitzpatrick and the team were unable to reach an agreement to restructure the quarterback’s contract, and a day before the he was due a $3 million bonus.
“We kept every possible option open right down to the wire, when we had to make a decision on whether to keep Ryan,” general manager Buddy Nix said. “In the end, we had to do what we feel is best for our football team. And it was a difficult decision.”
That leaves new coach Doug Marrone with another hole to fill in what’s resembling another rebuilding project for a team that’s already gone through many during a 13-season playoff drought — the NFL’s longest active streak.
Marrone, who took over after Chan Gailey was fired in January, is the Bills sixth coach since 1999, when Buffalo last made the playoffs. And Buffalo’s had little success in filling the quarterback position. Including Fitzpatrick, the team’s gone through nine players who have started a minimum eight games since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season.
Fitzpatrick’s release leaves Buffalo with one experienced quarterback on its roster, Tarvaris Jackson, who signed a one-year contract last month. Nix has already expressed an intention to select a quarterback in the draft next month.
“Our focus remains on adding another quarterback to our roster,” Nix said, “and we will continue to explore every option available to us.”
Fitzpatrick wasn’t available for comment. He had spent the past two months with his family in Arizona.
Fitzpatrick’s up-and-down performance and his expensive contract were factors in his release. He went 20-33 as a starter over four seasons in Buffalo. And he was in the midst of a six-year, $59 million contract extension signed in October 2011.
That was regarded as too expensive for a player who wasn’t guaranteed to return as starter this season. The Bills had held out hope that Fitzpatrick would be open to restructuring his contract, and free up space under the salary cap to allow the team to pursue free agents, and re-sign its own players.
The Bills entered free agency with plenty of holes to fill, including needs at linebacker and receiver. And they added another one at guard on Tuesday after losing out on the chance to re-sign Andy Levitre. The four-year starter in Buffalo signed with Tennessee.
The Bills also allowed defensive linemen Spencer Johnson and Kyle Moore, and fullback Corey McIntyre to become free agents.
Fitzpatrick’s release didn’t come as a major shock. The Bills had sent mixed signals regarding the quarterback’s future over the past month.
His status appeared secure in mid-February, when Marrone announced he informed Fitzpatrick and Jackson that he intended to have both compete for the starting job this offseason. The Bills’ message was less definitive a little over a week later at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. That’s where both Nix and team president Russ Brandon were evasive when discussing Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick took over the starting job three weeks into the 2010 season, after Trent Edwards was benched and then released a week later. Fitzpatrick was rewarded with his current contract while helping the Bills get off to a surprising 5-2 start a year later.
The Bills, however, unraveled by losing nine of their final 10 games, and went 6-10 again last year.
Not all the blame could be laid on Fitzpatrick, the Harvard graduate, who was selected in the seventh round by St. Louis in the 2005 draft.
In Buffalo, he joined Kelly last year in becoming only the second Bills quarterback to throw 24 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons. Fitzpatrick, however, could never erase questions about his inconsistency. In 55 games in Buffalo, he’s thrown 80 touchdowns and 64 interceptions, including a career-worst 23 in 2011.
He finished his career in Buffalo ranking third on the team list in touchdowns, and fourth with 11,654 yards.