Ryan Fitzpatrick is nobody’s idea of a franchise quarterback. He is a 35-year-old father of six who rubs beards with offensive linemen, graduated from Harvard, got picked in the seventh round and, in the words of friend and former teammate Scott Chandler, “runs like a duck a little.” He spent his first 13 years in the NFL on a circular pattern: land a backup job, win the starting spot, play well enough to earn a contract, crash back to Earth, repeat.
Seven teams have acquired Fitzpatrick, always with the idea of making him a backup. He has ended up starting for all of them. Fitzpatrick ascended to his current starting role because Jameis Winston, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ presumed franchise QB, got suspended three games for allegedly groping an Uber driver. The Bucs finished 5-11 last year and faced dim prospects, along with a brutal opening schedule, this season. Nobody, again, expected anything out of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Through two games, Fitzpatrick is the most improbable figure in football. He leads the NFL in passing yards (819), yards per pass attempt (13.4) and quarterback rating (151.5). He has completed 78.7 percent of his passes (third in the NFL) while throwing eight touchdown passes (second) and just one interception.
He claimed the NFC offensive player of the week award after outdueling Drew Brees in New Orleans in Week 1, and then again after toppling the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in Tampa. Branded a backup and presumed to be a placeholder, Fitzpatrick has stunned the league for two weeks at the start of his 14th season.
How does a bushy-faced journeyman become the most prolific quarterback in the NFL? Supernatural intervention may the most reasonable explanation, so, sure — chalk it up to FitzMagic. But there may be earthly reasons for Fitzpatrick’s breakout. His supporters insist he possessed the qualities to lead an NFL team all these years, and he finally landed in an ideal situation after a career of crummy circumstances. At the most basic level, Fitzpatrick’s staggering two weeks were made possible by something simple: He never viewed himself the way the rest of the world did.
“He believes he’s as good as the top 10 or 15 quarterbacks on the planet,” Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. “He does not lack confidence.”
Over the summer, when Murphy spoke with Fitzpatrick, he sensed his old quarterback knew he’d have a chance to be successful. As the rest of the NFL dismissed Tampa Bay, Fitzpatrick saw potential. “Coach,” Fitzpatrick told him, “we’ve got some real good receivers.”
Last Sunday, after beating the Eagles, Fitzpatrick swiped the clothes from wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s locker — flashy windbreaker zipped down to the navel, aviator shades and two gold chains — and wore them to his postgame news conference. He first told reporters, stone-faced, the threads were his. “Game day wear,” he said. When Jackson barged into the room shirtless, Fitzpatrick cracked up laughing. A reporter asked if any of the clothes belonged to him.
“The chest hair,” he said, “is mine.”
In Buffalo, he wore a T-shirt every day, and when teammates teased him about how small they were, he started showing up in even smaller shirts. When he grew out his beard, some nicknamed him the Amish Rifle. The high jinks carried purpose — a way to keep teammates loose and pull the locker room together.
“He’s got a rare ability to find common ground with nearly everyone,” Chandler said. “I don’t think there’s too many guys who have played with him and don’t feel like they’re pretty good friends with him. I don’t think he’s ever made an enemy.”
Fitzpatrick has refreshed Tampa Bay following the rocky tenure of Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft who has played inconsistent on the field and behaved erratically off. Fitzpatrick assumed the job on a presumed-to-be temporary basis. When Winston’s suspension ends after Tampa Bay hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, Coach Dirk Koetter may have no choice but to stick with Fitzpatrick.
“With the way the team is rallying behind him and just playing lights-out football, you have to kind of honor it,” Jackson said this week on NFL Network. “You can’t take the hot man out.”
Fitzpatrick has faced doubt since he entered the NFL, chosen by the St. Louis Rams in 2005. Midway through the 2004 season, Rams Coach Mike Martz studied video of Fitzpatrick after quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell told him he needed to see this Ivy League quarterback. Martz looks for three qualities in quarterbacks: accuracy, intelligence and toughness.
“He was off the charts in all three of them,” Martz said.
Fitzpatrick could put the ball where he wanted, always hitting his receiver in stride. He was obviously smart — he scored a 48 on the Wonderlic test and, you know, Harvard — but his football acuity showed in how he made quick, correct decisions. He could take hits and didn’t even change his expression following interceptions. They graded Fitzpatrick as a second- or third-round talent.
“We were amazed we drafted him where we did,” Martz said. “He was exactly what I was looking for as a quarterback.”
The Rams correctly believed the rest of the league would overlook Fitzpatrick, owing to his 6-foot-2 frame and Ivy League competition, so they waited until the seventh round to take him. Martz believed he had found another passer in the category of Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger, an ideal quarterback for his system. But he fell ill midway through the 2005 season and left football. He called one player: Fitzpatrick.
“Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t play,” Martz said he told him. “You’re a starter in this league.”
The league didn’t necessarily agree. His draft position became a stigma. “The first thing personnel guys will say is, ‘Well, he’s a good backup,’ ” Martz said. “Right away, you get branded with that.” Fitzpatrick has continually landed in suboptimal situations, with organizations who have either regarded him lightly, failed to surround him with adequate talent, or both.
Fitzpatrick won the starting job in Buffalo, and in 2011, the Bills signed Fitzpatrick to a six-year, $59 million contract with $24 million guaranteed. Before the season ended, he took a hit in the chest and played through cracked ribs. Surrounded by a suboptimal supporting cast, his performance waned, and after two seasons, the contract had become so onerous the Bills cut him.
Fitzpatrick led the New York Jets to a 10-6 record in 2015, but the Jets played contract hardball with him after the season, causing him to miss all offseason activities and leading to a disaster the next year. Again, his chance to establish himself in one place had fizzled, and the perception of his ability had been reaffirmed.
“They don’t realize he really is part of the solution,” Martz said. “Nobody was really committed to him.”
Tampa Bay has yet to commit, either, but the Bucs have at least given Fitzpatrick fertile conditions. Fitzpatrick’s greatest strength has always been throwing deep accurately and fearlessly, and Jackson may be the most dangerous deep threat of the era. Mike Evans, one of the NFL’s best young wide receivers, demands double teams on the other side. And 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard has seven touchdown catches from the tight end position in his young career.
“It’s such a great feeling,” Fitzpatrick said Sunday. “It’s a quarterback’s dream to be in that huddle with those guys.”
Fitzpatrick has had prior spasms of greatness. Koetter expressed reasonable surprise that Fitzpatrick had been named offensive player of the week in a conference four times before this season. It has never lasted in the past, and even now, Winston’s presence threatens to complicate matters.
Fitzpatrick has learned, in a unique career, how not to worry. He’ll keep slinging passes to Jackson and rubbing beards with offensive lineman Evan Smith on the sideline. Fitzpatrick believes he’s here on merit, because he can play with any quarterback in football. He also knows the best of times, for him, do not last.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride,” Fitzpatrick said Sunday. “I’ve had so many ups and downs in my career. When it’s going good, you learn to enjoy the ride.”
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