By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the unlikeliest of quarterback phenoms, a seventh-round draft choice from Harvard -- that noted football factory -- who had never thrown a pass in an NFL regular season game until Sunday afternoon. He came in throwing and kept throwing -- and he may be asked to throw again Sunday if he is called on to make the first start of his career against the Washington Redskins.
It's a charming story, but one that comes with a caveat at the moment. Joe Vitt, the Rams' interim coach, was not yet prepared to name Fitzpatrick his number one quarterback yesterday, saying that he will first assess the physical condition of starter Jamie Martin. Martin was knocked out of the game Sunday by a blow to the head on the second series of the game, giving Fitzpatrick the opportunity to come in and lead the Rams to a 33-27 overtime victory over the Houston Texans. Martin, who was taken to a Houston hospital with blurred vision, was scheduled to see an eye specialist today and Vitt said: "I'm not here to discuss [Fitzpatrick starting] right now. We'll wait and see."
The kid from Harvard certainly made a huge impression on teammates and coaches with a performance that brought plenty of highlight-show replays yesterday. Although Fitzpatrick had a slow start in the game, he led the Rams offense, ranked No. 1 in the league in passing yards, back from a 21-point halftime deficit. He completed 13 of 17 passes for 233 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a 56-yard wide receiver screen to Kevin Curtis for the winning score. He passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns.
"Going in and not being the starter, you kind of get thrown into the situation so you don't have too much time to think about it," Fitzpatrick said after the game. "Once I got that first ball out of my hands, I was fine."
Fitzpatrick, an economics major, spent the summer after his sophomore season working for a hedge fund and said his career goal was to be a financial adviser. That may have changed over the weekend, now that it appears there are opportunities at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Martin started against the Texans because Marc Bulger, the team's top quarterback, is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
"Anything managing other people's money would be nice," Fitzpatrick said. "Hopefully, I won't have to put it to use for a while."
The Rams became enamored with Fitzpatrick during training camp. "I've been an effort guy, sort of the underdog guy, my whole life," Fitzpatrick said. "The thing that got me here is hard work, and there's no way I'm going to stop doing that now."
He quickly grasped the complicated offense favored by the Rams' ailing coach, Mike Martz, and played well in four preseason games, completing 17 of his 32 throws for 324 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 106.8 passer rating.
"Mike thought this was the best young prospect he's ever had," said Vitt, who replaced Martz after the coach learned he had a bacterial infection in a heart valve. "He ran the scout team for us the last 10 weeks, and you see his arm strength and you see his mobility. What's impressive about him is when it breaks down, he knows where people are and where to go with the ball. I think he's the kind of guy when he goes into the game, everything is in slow motion for him.
"Fitz is a smart guy. I think you need more than a fishing license to get into Harvard."
Fitzpatrick, 23, and the starter at Harvard his last two seasons, said after the game that he had some experience engineering comeback victories in college -- in fact, the very first time he played against Princeton. In his next game, against Dartmouth, "we were down I think 21-0 at halftime and came back to win. . . . You've always got a chance. The biggest thing when you're in those situations you need to get everybody around you fired up."
A native of Gilbert, Ariz., he had only one scholarship offer to play football, from Eastern Washington. Instead, he decided to focus on academics and football at Harvard, where he was Ivy League player of the year last season.
On Sunday, the Rams scored 17 points in the last 6 minutes 37 seconds and Curtis said: "He acted like he'd been there before. He was phenomenal."
"He was running the show in the huddle, taking charge, doing what he had to do," center Andy McCollom said. "You saw the results."
Fitzpatrick's performance Sunday was a lift for a 5-6 team that lost its coach in early October. Martz, the mad-scientist offensive architect of what once was known as the Greatest Show on Turf, is undergoing treatment, but will not return to the sidelines this season.
Though the Rams are only 3-3 since Vitt took over, his players say they like his blunt, pull-no-punches style in practices and team meetings. He shows them motivational clips from movies like "Gladiator" during Saturday meetings and they haven't quit on him.
"He's a fiery guy, and players are feeding off that," said linebacker Dexter Coakley, a team captain. "Joe is a straight shooter. When you're doing something well, he'll tell you. If you're not, he's not worried about hurting your feelings. He coaches with a lot of positive reinforcement, and guys accept that even more."
The Rams trail Seattle (9-2) by four games in the NFC West, and the postseason is apparently out of reach. Still, the team has plenty of playmakers, including wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. All it needs to do is protect the quarterback.
Fitzpatrick, who had a 117.4 passer rating, was sacked five times by the Texans; the Rams have given up 39 sacks this season.
The larger problem is a defense that is ranked 29th in the league and on pace to allow 480 points, more than any team in Rams history. And despite the presence of Marshall Faulk, now a situational part-time player, and starter Steven Jackson, who had 110 yards rushing Sunday, the Rams have had difficulty running the ball, managing only six yards on the ground against the Cardinals, another club record.
Whether Fitzpatrick will be the Rams' quarterback of the future is uncertain. Unless you ask the Harvard guy.
"I'm sure I'll always have some doubters out there," he said. "But I have always been convinced of this, and [Sunday's game] was no shock to me."
Associated Press reports are included in this story.