RYAN FITZPATRICK’S WILDEST The moment of the last four months, which sums up the entirety of what the hell he experienced, was certainly the most symbolically accurate: 19 seconds left, two seconds before the end of the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday night, playoff elimination for the Miami Dolphins in Sight Arden Key tore at his face mask like the brake on a runaway train. Receiver Mack Hollins revealed 34 yards behind the field as if he had just stepped off the sidelines. The ball somehow left Fitzpatrick’s hand with enough force and accuracy to overcome the extreme left torque applied to his body. A close, a 15-yard penalty, and ultimately a game-winning field goal.
Fitzpatrick has seen quite a few things this season. He has lifted his spirit and broken his heart and tested his determination. He lost his job to rookie Tua Tagovailoa through no fault of his own, and he went out of his way to get it back just to leave it to someone else. It was – and it seems safe to say from afar – an exciting and confusing time.
He started the season as a starter for an unexpectedly competitive team, and did so with a wild style – aggro, chin first – that contradicted the better angels whispering inside his 38-year-old body. He was fired (his word) during week 7 through week of the team, apparently without warning, and just as his team was finding some traction. He was called off the bench in week 11 against Denver after Tagovailoa struggled. He started in Week 12 while Tagovailoa sustained a thumb injury and won 24-39 with two touchdowns. He returned to the bench for three more weeks before leaving to claim victory on Saturday.
Obviously, Fitzpatrick knew that time would come. Tagovailoa was the fifth choice in the 2020 draft; He’s the photogenic and marketable quarterback for the Dolphins of the future. But by every available metric – statistical, mystical – Fitzpatrick gave Miami the best chance of winning every game this season. Instead, he was asked not only to quit his job, but to move to a new one. Not only Backup, the most expendable and unwelcoming of titles, however mentor. Do you remember the job you did so well? So here’s the deal: we need you to make this other one do it, and you need to help him get up to speed in a big hurry.
And now, after a miracle only became possible through him (182 yards in the final 9:47 after Tagovailoa had 94 in the first 50:13), Fitzpatrick is returning to the sidelines this Sunday as the 10-win Dolphins made it try Complete an unlikely playoff run.
“If there’s a hole in the wall in his house with one of his fists going through,” said former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in October after Fitzpatrick sat on a bench: “Let’s just say I wouldn’t blame him do.”
THE POSITION OF Quarterback is so burdened with reworked meaning and fantastic symbolism that it is barely recognizable as a sporting endeavor. Too often it is exalted to act more like a worldly deity. And yet, listen to this, the Fitzpatrick / Tagovailoa saga gets to the heart of one aspect of the position – maybe that just Position aspect – that could be undervalued: the dynamic between the starter and the backup. The job title – quarterback – stays the same, but the gap between the two is immeasurable.
Investigation of dynamics seems particularly relevant this season as quarterbacks and backups swap jobs fast enough to seem random. In Washington, Kyle Allen took over for Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith took over Kyle Allen, and now Taylor Heinicke could take over for Alex Smith (via Dwayne Haskins). Carson Wentz was used for Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. Taysom Hill, not Jameis Winston, replaced an injured Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Chicago sang the catchy Trubisky-Foles-Trubisky anthem all season long.
Some of the movements were out of necessity, others out of hope, others out of desperation between palm trees and sky. Everyone knew that they could change the fate of not only a season but also a franchise. And the remarkable thing is how many of them worked.
Hill had only made six passes in his first three NFL seasons, yet he was preferred over Winston – the 2015 number 1 who led the NFL with more than 5,000 yards of pass and 30 interceptions in 2019 – to replace Brees for four Games from mid-November.
Saints coach Sean Payton dismissed any concerns about Hill’s unrefined quarterback-as-bone-saw style by saying, “The job is to win.” The consequence in relation to the choice Payton made is obvious: the job is not to lose, and Hill’s skills – limited but predictable – gave the Saints a better chance not lose than Winstons. Payton was right; The Saints won three out of four games with Hill as a starter.
In Chicago, Mitchell Trubisky kicked off the season, was suspended for seven games and came back to play well enough to put the Bears in a playoff chase that would have been unthinkable a month ago. Seven weeks on the sidelines gave Trubisky – an avid reader of guide books – a more forceful stance on what the bears’ offense should do when he’s in charge.
“One of the greatest things is that he can stay positive in a negative situation,” Bears manager Matt Nagy told reporters last week. “He really took it over. He took it all upon himself.”
And in Miami, the Dolphins have been 8-2 since taking over Tagovailoa (with occasional support from Fitzpatrick). It’s definitely unconventional, and it goes against every known principle engraved in the quarterback canon. Is it a two-quarterback system, or is Fitzpatrick just the Dolphins’ trained first responder? “If we go to a relief pitcher in ninth, we will,” said coach Brian Flores after defeating the Raiders. “Fitz, he’s always ready to go.”
Perhaps the boldest move occurred in Philadelphia, where the Eagles’ outrage over Wentz peaked when he made six passes and took four sacks in a Week 13 loss to the Packers. He was replaced by the rookie Hurts, whose charisma and adaptability breathed life into a lifeless team and had a predictable effect on Wentz, who allegedly indicated that he wasn’t interested in staying in Philadelphia as a replacement.
There are a lot of crazy stories in this big world, stories of jealousy and pettiness and unselfishness and support. Games are won and lost, careers are started and destroyed. The quarterback room is either a serene, harmonious setting where the starter is worshiped and newcomers are barely visible, or it’s a pit of vipers.
(Whether it’s the emotional distance television creates, or the utopian view of sport as the world’s last great one-for-all meritocracy, the idea that there is a measure of Victorian decency in locker rooms and crowds there is absurd. “Once in Seattle I was used for Trent Dilfer,” says Hasselbeck, now an ESPN analyst. “The whole stadium cheered him on and booed me. I liked Trent – we were friends – but it was me in order to angry. At that moment I wanted to fight Trent with my fist. “)
Long-time NFL quarterback Charlie Batch, who started his 15-year career as a starter in Detroit and ended it as a backup in Pittsburgh, says, “Oh, I’ve heard stories. Some backups don’t want to help the starter because, in some cases, they the backups don’t pass on information, or they hold back information about Audibles – they don’t want the launcher to succeed. “
It is clear from Batch’s tone that he not only heard the stories, but was a character in them. He says, depressed, “At the time I was young and didn’t know what was going on. The older I got and the more I saw in the game, the more I looked back and thought: “Really?” Was that the matter?“He stops, the old bile rises and says,” I’m not going to blow anyone up, but … “
Batch could go on all day long with the craziness and politics. When his four-year run as a starter in Detroit came to an end, the team named Mike McMahon, a five-round goal from Rutgers, as his successor. To make it easier for McMahon to get started, the team decided to give him a predetermined streak in each game – usually the third or fourth. “It would be his turn, but if we started with our own 10, they’d scream, ‘Charlie, come in there,'” Batch says with a laugh. “Really? If this is his show, why isn’t he there? So I’m saying I understand Fitz’s frustration.”
“THERE IS FIRST To have confidence, “says Colt’s coach Frank Reich, who with Jim Kelly formed one of the most famous starter-backup combinations in NFL history.” You don’t want to feel tension in the meeting room. You don’t want anything to create a negative mood. If the backup isn’t to the the starter – and from to the I mean, celebrate your success – you can feel it. The players are so smart; Starters know when the backup is really for them and when they really aren’t. “
Reich spent his rookie year in Buffalo to endorse Vince Ferragamo and another man whose name he escapes. It was 1985, the bills were terrible, and Reich got a moment on the field: against the Jets during the second December game in freezing temperatures and over 20 mph winds. It was third place, another guy (not Ferragamo) was injured and Reich was called.
He took off his jacket, hopped around to loosen his viscous legs, swung his arm around a few times, blew on his hands, and ran to the group. He called the play, his frozen lips hiding the tremor in his voice, took the snapshot and cut an arrow through the wind to make Greg Bell walk back on a corner route for a 19 yard completion.
That’s what Reich had been waiting for. He felt fine. I can do this, he thought. Buffalo’s Rich Stadium came to life. Reich took a moment to look around before ducking into the group to call the next piece. “And just as I am ready to shout it, whatever its name was” – his name to posterity was Bruce Mathison – “sticks his head back into the group and just says, ‘I’m good – out of here.’ “
Rich is one of the few in NFL history for that Backup is an honor. He played 13 NFL seasons and only started 20 games, but his performance in a wild card game was in January 1993 when he got off the bench and led the Bills to a win after falling 35-3 an uppercase milestone in Buffalo: Coming back.
And the culmination of Reich’s experience that day in Buffalo and that decade in uniform is now in Indianapolis, where Jacoby Brissett, along with New Orleans’ Hill, is the most widely used backup in the NFL. (“Who says the starting quarterback has to play every day?” Reich asked an Indianapolis Star reporter earlier this season.) A starter last season after Andrew Luck retired and before Philip Rivers signed in the off-season Brissett has his own package of games that the Colts use near the goal line and in third and fourth loss situations.
“I feel deep down inside one of the most intrinsic motivators in life I want to make a contribution and have something to give“Says Reich.” As parents, my wife and I taught our children for a long time that it was about contributions, not loans. I appreciate a collaborative approach in which everyone is involved. Everyone works very hard and that’s why we spread the ball so far on our offensive. T.Y. Hilton is really good; we could toss it to him all the time and we’d look pretty smart, but everyone deserves a chance to be a part of it. Quarterback is not a very tweaking position, but I know Jacoby can help make this team better and that helps us all. “
The Steelers played the Colts last season in Pittsburgh, where Batch is on pre- and post-game shows. Reich ran across the field before the game to see Batch, who was supported by Reich in Detroit for two years. They hugged each other (This is How long has it been?) And Batch said to him, “It’s been 20 years, but I never took the opportunity to thank you. You showed me how to be a professional.”
How important is the relationship between the starter and the backup? Batch was a valued backup in Pittsburgh behind Kordell Stewart and then Ben Roethlisberger, and when I asked him how many of his 15 years in the NFL he credits Reich example, he says, “At least eight. I’ve played 15 and more than half I owe it to Frank’s professionalism. “
FITZPATRICK’S DEMOTION BACK October resulted in one of the most notable press conferences in recent times – part hostage video, part telemedicine therapy session (an extremely 2020 scene). Fitzpatrick, his beard an unkempt bush, sat in a stiff voice in front of a computer screen, stared into the huge electronic emptiness and exposed his humanity for 6 minutes and 48 seconds. “This profession is interesting in that I was basically fired yesterday and my day at work today has been listening to the man who fired me in Zoom meetings,” he said. “And then I was locked in a spacious room with my replacement for four hours. There aren’t many jobs like this.”
This wasn’t your typical panel discussion, this low-calorie exercise in verbal evasion and disguise. This was something else, something rare and fleeting: a free look into a man’s soul. “He had 24 hours to think about it and be calm and find out what he wanted to say,” says Hasselbeck. “That was the ‘all right, now I’m quiet’ version. That made it so remarkable.”
It had the potential for repercussions outside of the quarterback room. As Fitzpatrick said, there aren’t many jobs like this. The belief that these decisions are not always made for pure football reasons – or by pure footballers like Flores who have to wear them anyway – can lead to disagreements.
“You created a situation in which the guys in the locker room have the chance to get angry with Tua,” says Hasselbeck. “You can look at him and say, ‘This is a meritocracy and you don’t deserve it.’ For the guys in the locker room, loyalty to the sticker on our helmet is far less than loyalty to the guys next to you. Trainers understand that, but the owners don’t. You can misjudge the importance of this brotherhood.
The fact that it did not is a testament to Fitzpatrick’s professionalism and 22-year-old Tagovailoa’s sympathy. “I bet there’s no quarterback alive who doesn’t understand and empathize with everything Fitz has been through,” says Reich. “I don’t know him, but whatever I know about him, whatever frustration he felt when he and Tua started working together again, everything was fine.”
After leading the Dolphins to comeback at the last second over the Raiders, Fitzpatrick sounded like a different person than the one who spoke 24 hours after losing their job. “To me he was, ‘Hey, let’s go – get her,'” he told NFL Network when asked if he would like to replace Tagovailoa. “I thought it was a very mature thing. After the rides, I came to the sidelines and just talked to him. Hey, this is the kind of game it was. These are some of the throws I make and why. Still teaching and he’s sitting there studying. “
It affects the competitiveness of professional athletes assuming they are hardwired to accept a demotion and move on – hit a wall one day and make the transition from leader of many to teacher one the next. But in Fitzpatrick’s case, it could be true. After running for a touchdown against the Patriots, a mic tagovailoa sat on the bench and asked Fitzpatrick to criticize his ball safety, to which Fitzpatrick replied, “Anyway – you made it to the end zone, baby.” And after Fitzpatrick’s wonder throw at Hollins, Tagovailoa said, “In a way, it wasn’t really that shocking. They call him FitzMagic for a reason.”
Tagovailoa has gone so far as to describe his relationship with Fitzpatrick as that of a “father and son,” which is remarkable given the frequency with which one has been used for the other this season. Of course, anyone with even a glimpse of history (Montana-Young / Favre-Rodgers) knows that these situations don’t often play out like a special after school. Hasselbeck can’t count the number of times he’s been asked what Brett Favre taught him when they played together in Hasselbeck’s first two seasons. He would come up with an answer, harmless and impossible to verify, mostly out of courtesy. But the truth was, Hasselbeck was on the training team and Favre was an MVP. Favre hardly knew Hasselbeck was there.
“I was allowed to be in the room while Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren Favre trained,” says Hasselbeck. “It wasn’t Brett’s job to teach me.”
But learning from someone is not mutually exclusive, being tutored by them, and Hasselbeck can reel off a list of attributes given to him by Favre. How he speaks to people in a crowd. How important it is that he knows the name of everyone in the building. How he stands on the podium after a defeat and takes the blame on himself. How he intimidates the other team. “Whatever a quarterback experiences early on in the NFL, it will be normal,” said Hasselbeck, which was a great shock to him when he arrived in Tennessee as a 12-year veteran and entered and became his first Titans quarterback meeting greeted with: “Hey, thank you for coming. Thank you for being here on time.” “It blew me away,” says Hasselbeck. “Where I was from – Green Bay and Seattle – it was normal for my car to be there before anyone else in the morning. Thanks for being on time I’m your starting quarterback – when else would I come here? “
Two years later, Hasselbeck signed with Indianapolis to support Andrew Luck. Before a training session in the summer of 2013, Luck asked his receivers: “Are you all going to throw after we run and lift?” When the time came, Hasselbeck watched as a supplier sped to the field with a bag of soccer balls, a coach set up a water truck and two video workers lined up to film it. It was a routine that looked familiar to Hasselbeck, who had seen another Colts quarterback conduct the same exercise.
“Everyone on the same page,” says Hasselbeck. “It was like Peyton Manning had never left the building.”
BATCH HAS STORIES and this one could be his favorite:
Five years ago, in a mid-November game between the Steelers and the Browns, Landry Jones started at quarterback while Roethlisberger rested a wobbly ankle. Nine games in the game, Jones sustained an injury deemed worse than Roethlisberger’s, and so Roethlisberger took to the field and completed 22 of 33 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns in a Steelers win.
By then, Batch was retired and interviewed Roethlisberger on the set of the local post-game show. From the camera Roethlisberger said: “Charlie, I don’t know how you do it …”
Batch was rightly confused. He had just seen the man come off the bench with one ankle and throw for all these yards and all these touchdowns and win a game he wasn’t even supposed to play.
“What are you talking about?” Batch asked him.
At this point, Batch’s voice, evoking all those years of being dismissed only as a backup, takes on a new level of pride as Roethlisberger shook his head and told him:
“I don’t know when you’re going to play, but I always have to be ready. Right there? It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”