By Tim Graham
If Pete Metzelaars had the chance to improve the Buffalo Bills, then he would begin by replacing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"I don't want to throw Fitz under the bus, but you've got to get an answer at quarterback," Metzelaars told me. "That's got to be the No. 1 priority."
Metzelaars has intimate knowledge of Buffalo's offense as the tight ends coach. He was dismissed along with the rest of the staff when the team fired head coach Chan Gailey.
Metzelaars' opinion always will carry weight among Bills fans. He was an important player on all four Super Bowl teams and still holds several club records for tight ends.
He didn't dither when I asked him what the Bills' biggest problem is.
"If you have a dominating defense, you can get by with an average to below-average quarterback," Metzelaars said. "If you don't have a dominating defense, you need a winning quarterback in the NFL.
"Fitz is an average to below-average kind of guy, and unfortunately he made some bad decisions at the end of games and then didn't make plays at the ends of other games we had chances to win. So it's got to start there."
Fitzpatrick completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. His 83.3 passer rating ranked 20th among regulars. He fumbled eight times, losing six.
His performances weren't nearly enough to carry a team, especially with a defense that faltered routinely.
"I thought we would have a dominating defense," Metzelaars said. "Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. It was disappointing. The expectations of how much money was spent and who it was spent on, we thought things would be different going into the season.
"I thought we needed to dominate on defense to let the offense work because when you don't have a great signal caller, there's going to be times when you can't be explosive on offense, when you'll have to go three plays and punt. Too many games we had to score every time we had the ball because of how the defense was."
Metzelaars conceded Fitzpatrick could've used a little help in the receiving game, but added the other parts are in place for whomever quarterbacks Buffalo in 2013.
"You need to give the quarterback some weapons," Metzelaars said. "You've got to get another receiver. You need continued improvement from T.J. Graham. Hopefully Scott Chandler comes back healthy.
"The offensive line is solid. Stevie Johnson is good. The running backs are really good. It's just got to start with the quarterback."
Metzelaars referenced heartbreaking losses to the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams as the types of close outcomes that could have changed the franchise's fortunes.
The Bills could have been 8-8 with a couple of plays. Then the coaching staff might be back. Then the season could be justified as progress.
"You want to be positive about it," Metzelaars said, "and think 'We're close. Give us another year.' If Fitz gets better or we get better at the quarterback position or get another wideout, then we really could get this thing going. But we're not going to be there to see that happen now.
"Somebody's got to make a play, and we didn't make the plays. I think we put players in position to make plays, but it just didn't happen. The good teams make it happen -- somehow, someway -- with the mindset of the team, the peer pressure, the holding each other accountable. Those guys get into the playoffs."
Metzelaars has been unable to latch on with another team as a tight ends or an offensive line coach. He was the Indianapolis Colts' O-line coach before joining the Bills and won a Super Bowl ring as their offensive quality control coach.
He said he inquired about interviewing for new head coach Doug Marrone's tight ends or offensive-line job but that nobody at One Bills Drive returned his call.
"It's part of the business," Metzelaars said. "You know what's going to happen. With Marrone coming in there, he's got all these guys he's worked with and they helped him get to that position. There's loyalty. You understand that.
"I was hoping that with my history with the Bills, someone in the organization would say 'We want to keep this guy around.' But it didn't happen, and that goes with the territory in the coaching world."
taggedChan Gailey | Doug Marrone | Pete Metzelaars | Ryan Fitzpatrick | Scott Chandler | Stevie Johnson | T.J. Graham