-By Mark Ludwiczak (CBSSports.com)
There was something different about Ryan Fitzpatrick when the Bills convened for a series of informal workouts at the end of May.
Yes, his infamous beard -- which led to the endearing nickname the "Amish Rifle" -- was a little less scraggly. He appeared to be noticeably stronger after hitting the weights hard in his Arizona hometown.
But above all else, it was crystal clear that the usually reserved Fitzpatrick is willing and ready to take the next step as the unquestioned leader of the Buffalo Bills.
"This year it's his show and he knows that," wide receiver David Nelson said. "There's definitely a different feeling from him ... you can see a little different [spring] in his step."
After so many others have come up short, Fitzpatrick is trying to do the seemingly impossible and become the Bills' long-term answer at quarterback -- their first since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired in 1997.
He might be the most unlikely candidate yet.
Fitzpatrick was handed the starting job in a Hail Mary attempt by new coach Chan Gailey two weeks into the 2010 season, after the Trent Edwards era mercifully and abruptly came to an end.
Then, a funny thing happened: The journeyman backup didn't look like a backup any more. Fitzpatrick became the latest reclamation project for Gailey, who has a history of getting more out of less at quarterback (Jay Fiedler, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Tyler Thigpen all had their best years under Gailey's watch). His gunslinger approach was a fresh departure from that of Edwards, whose propensity to check the ball down was cringe-worthy.
Fitzpatrick finished with 3,000 yards passing, becoming the first Bills QB to reach the mark since J.P. Losman in 2006. He threw 23 touchdowns, the most by a Bill since Drew Bledsoe (24) in 2002. Including his final three starts from 2009, Fitzpatrick tossed a touchdown pass in 15 consecutive games -- the longest streak by a Bills quarterback since Kelly, back in 1986-87.
Not all was perfect; the Bills finished 4-12 and 25th in the league in total offense. There were some ill-timed interceptions that hurt the team in critical moments. But Fitzpatrick had clearly given his team some life, injecting a healthy dose of adrenaline into a passing game that had previously bottomed out.
Buffalo's offense, win or lose, was entertaining for the first time in years.
"We meshed well together towards the end of the season," Nelson said. "The offense continued to grow and that's what you want, you want your offense to get better every week and I think we did it last year."
That left the Bills with an interesting decision to make in April. With their highest draft pick since 1985 (when Buffalo chose Bruce Smith first overall), the Bills were in prime position to take a potential franchise quarterback.
Instead, they passed on a QB at No. 3, opting not to pick a quarterback in the entire draft -- leaving Fitzpatrick as the unchallenged starter moving forward.
"We've said all along how we feel about Fitz," said general manager Buddy Nix, who spoke highly of the quarterback throughout the spring.
After briefly celebrating the draft victory, Fitzpatrick quickly adjusted to his new role.
"People always say, 'I'm going to train and practice like I'm the starter,' but I promise there's a difference," he said. "It gives you that much more incentive to work hard, you've got a lot of guys counting on you. You have to become a leader of the guys to get them together. It's a big change but it's something that I love."
Fitzpatrick actually got a head start on his new leadership role shortly before the draft, when he invited some teammates out to Arizona for a passing camp. Seven other players showed up, with several even staying at Fitzpatrick's home.
His efforts didn't go unnoticed.
"He had the guys out in Arizona working out, no one knows that," veteran linebacker Reggie Torbor said. "But he doesn't care because he doesn't do it to get on ESPN or TV. He did it because he knows that he has a job to do. There are leaders here, but he is the quarterback and there's something to be said about that. ... When things get rough, even the leaders look at Fitz. That's where he is now and I think he's accepted that role; he's embraced it. We believe in him."
Fitzpatrick took it one step further in May, helping to organize a series of workouts in Elma, N.Y., a suburb east of Buffalo. More than 30 members of the Bills participated, with the quarterback calling most of the shots on offense with no coaches on hand. In recent weeks, Fitzpatrick has returned to Buffalo to continue lifting weights and working out with teammates.
His work has caught the eye of the man whose shoes he is hoping to fill. Fitzpatrick has spent several weeks tutoring Jim Kelly's nephew Chad, who recently committed to play college football at Clemson.
"I totally agree with sticking with Fitzpatrick," Jim Kelly said. "I am just so impressed with the knowledge he has of the offense, how he goes about with his leadership ... just watching how he communicates with the receivers and how they listen to every single word that comes out of his mouth, whether it's Lee Evans or whoever the case may be, the guys are really paying attention to what he's saying.
"You can see it. I've always been told about his leadership ability, but never really had seen it. Just listening to how he goes about running the practice with the receivers. ... I can relate to it being a quarterback and how he goes about it. It's exactly the same way."
Being a leader is one thing. Performing on the field is another. For everything Fitzpatrick has shown in the past year, it could all go out the window if he reverts back to his pre-2010 form. Is he a late bloomer, a la Jake Delhomme, Kurt Warner or Rich Gannon, who is just beginning to hit his stride? Or is he a flash in the pan who just happened to get hot when the right opportunity presented itself?
Only time will tell. But make no mistake about it -- the Bills have become his team, and he's going to have every opportunity to control his own destiny.
He wouldn't have it any other way.
"Yeah, I love it," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why I play quarterback."