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Ryan Fitzpatrick is Washington’s new life preserver, but the franchise is still treading water

Ryan Fitzpatrick could become Washington's 10th starting quarterback since 2018. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Look up the word “placeholder” in an NFL dictionary, and the accompanying graphic just might be Ryan Fitzpatrick’s full-on, fuzzy beard. Washington will be the ninth stop in an impossibly peripatetic career in which Fitzpatrick has only once remained with a team more than two seasons. He won’t outdo that here, and so the Washington Football Team is still treading water in regard to the sport’s most important position.

Waking up to the news Tuesday that Washington will sign Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal worth up to $12 million with incentives can bring competing thoughts that somehow coexist: “Makes complete sense,” and “What’s the endgame here?”

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick agrees to sign with the Washington Football Team

Take the “makes sense” part first. For Washington, stability at quarterback would mean the same person starting all 16 (or 17) games in a season, the lowest of bars. Fitzpatrick at least enters camp poised to do exactly that. Yeah, Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen are back, too, but their résumés are the opposite of Fitzpatrick’s, single stanzas as opposed to the entire Odyssey. Plus, the veteran is making eight figures, the other two fractions of that. Follow the money.

Fitzpatrick is a bona fide leader and an enormous personality who immediately ups the Q-rating in Washington’s QB room. Even his beard is interesting. (What does he store in there, anyway? A week’s worth of groceries? His seven children?) Alex Smith’s story was undeniably incredible. Alex Smith’s words were invariably vanilla. Fitzpatrick’s midweek media sessions have the potential to be must-see TV — not to mention the fact that he can still sling it.

The best argument to keep Smith around was his 5-1 record as a starter in 2020, and that shouldn’t be dismissed. But find another statistic — not to mention any visceral or visual evidence — that indicates Smith would be better than Fitzpatrick in 2021. It’s nearly impossible. One stat is enough for me: Last season, Smith ranked 30th of 35 passers in yards per pass attempt (6.3). He has a titanium rod in his leg. He looked limited. He was limited. So the offense was limited.

In that same category, playing for Miami, Fitzpatrick ranked seventh (7.7). Better than Josh Allen. Better than Tom Brady. Better than Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Drew Brees. He would rather throw downfield than check down to a back, so the offense is immediately more dynamic. Terry McLaurin ought to be pumping his fist and lacing up his track shoes.

There could be an element here of, “Wait, Washington moved on from a soon-to-be-37-year-old quarterback so it could turn to an already-38-year-old?” It’s a legitimate question. Smith and Fitzpatrick actually have something of a shared history. Smith was the Heisman Trophy finalist taken with the first pick in the 2005 draft out of Utah. Fitzpatrick was the Ivy League player of the year taken 249 picks later in the seventh round out of Harvard.

In between went a dozen other quarterbacks (including Jason Campbell to Washington). Only one of those joins Smith and Fitzpatrick as still intending to play in 2021: Aaron Rodgers. It takes talent and drive to keep a career alive this long. Fitzpatrick has both, paired with an underdog edge. Of the 13 quarterbacks with more passing yards than Fitzpatrick since his draft year, only two weren’t taken in the first round: Brees (the first pick of the second round in 2001) and, of course, Brady (famously selected 199th in 2000).

So welcome Fitzpatrick, because his personality will be magnetic and he might be able to get more out of McLaurin, Washington’s best offensive weapon, and running back Antonio Gibson. Washington still needs to provide him more options, so the rest of free agency bears watching. But all of the above is why this makes complete sense for 2021 — and 2021 alone.

Now, to the more important point: Fitzpatrick’s signing merely kicks the can that contains the franchise’s most important question down the road: What is the long-term solution at quarterback?

In fairness, that wasn’t going to come in free agency, not this year. And after Washington failed in an attempt to land Matthew Stafford from Detroit, it wasn’t going to come by trade. Unless Heinicke somehow bottled his five quarters of magic from late last season — keep in mind, he was an out-of-work math student in December — then the answer wasn’t coming internally, either. (Allen, to me, is a backup, no more.)

Washington Football Team free agency guide: Biggest needs, top targets, salary cap space

So two years after Washington took a quarterback in the first round of the draft, it heads to the draft in need of a quarterback for 2022. There are other draft needs, too — wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker. But taking one of those doesn’t address the question that both defines and dogs the franchise.

To be clear: Fitzpatrick’s presence doesn’t preclude Washington from taking a quarterback in the first round this year. To the contrary: Fitzpatrick was the incumbent quarterback when Miami selected Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick in last year’s draft. When he was eventually benched in favor of the rookie, Fitzpatrick perfectly walked the tightrope of expressing his pain but pledging his support to his successor. Even when he twice replaced Tagovailoa in the middle of games, he said he understood the job to be the rookie’s and he would help however he could. That’s a pro.

Could a similar scenario develop with Washington? If it does, it might require moving up from the 19th pick in the first round. Don’t do that just to take a quarterback. Do do that if the quarterback in consideration solves the problem in 2022 and beyond.

Why? Because the short-term solutions don’t stabilize anything. Should Fitzpatrick start a game this season, he’ll be the 24th quarterback to do so for Washington since 2000. Maybe next week we’ll have a quiz to name all two dozen. More than that, he’ll be the 10th quarterback to start a game here since 2018. Think it’s a coincidence that Washington’s total number of playoff victories in this century is one? Me neither.

This is a franchise with glory days tied to the three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s. Those titles, it’s worth remembering, came with three different starting quarterbacks. The coaches have changed. Even the name has changed. But as we get ready to learn more about the new signal caller for 2021, it serves only as a reminder that we don’t know who will man that position going forward, and that’s eternally unsettling.

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