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Next_Stop_Fitzmagic


The golden sun was rising over the well-tended fields at the Washington Football Team's training camp facility, and the air of excitement surrounding Richmond, Virginia, was so thick that it almost overpowered the sweltering heat that came with it. Fans, most of whom hadn't even been to a game in 19 months, lined the fences like a burgundy wall waiting to see their favorite players. You could say the scene was...magical.

Out came Ryan Fitzpatrick in all his bearded glory, having a chat with former undrafted rookie Steven Montez. Did he look like Conor McGregor, as he joked during his introductory press conference? Not quite, although he did carry a unique mystique about him as he strolled to the practice field and started warming up with the rest of the quarterbacks.

You might not expect it from a 38-year-old former seventh-round pick, but the NFL's unofficial vagabond is actually part of the reason why there's so much hype for Washington in 2021. In some ways, he's never been a hotter commodity at any other point in his career. The numbers certainly point to that being true; his completion rate (68.5%) and his QBR (76.9) have never been better than they were in 2020. And now here he is, ready to help Washington attempt to get back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1984.

As the offense rolled through its script in team drills, just about every part of Fitzpatrick's reputation was on display. Some moments were great, others not so much. Either way, it was coming at you fast and fun to watch. It's the playing style that created the swagger that is now legendary around the league. It's "Fitzmagic," and there's no other way to describe it.

Where does "Fitzmagic" come from, anyway? We've all appreciated the bravado, but have we ever stopped and wondered what the ingredients were, if we wanted to make a formula? You start with a Harvard education, mix that with being a seventh-round pick, then a dash of being a backup with nothing to lose, a couple cups of being traded along with a pair of sunglasses and a gold chain and

boom! You have your very own vial of "Ryan's Secret Stuff" for anytime you need to be the guy to inject a little unpredictability into a franchise.

The side effects are more than just a sweet forest of facial hair, too. Of course they include being a winner on the field, but you get to be a leader off of it. You become a mentor, someone who possesses an infectious personality and can lead men, regardless of personality, with your dry sense of humor. And no matter where you go in your career, you're known as an intelligent player who can unite a team.

That's what Fitzpatrick has to show for his time in the NFL, and after 17 years, he's perfected the recipe.

A Clean-Shaven Active Listener



It was 2005, and Jamie Martin was entering his 10th season in the league. He was actually on his second stint in St. Louis, and for the past three years, there had been a rotating cast of characters at quarterbacks.

Kurt Warner, the man who helped place "The Greatest Show On Turf" firmly in the conversation of the most influential offenses in NFL history, was on his way out and only started seven games in his final two seasons because of injury and poor play. Marc Bulger was always the constant; he even took over for Warner after the 2003 opener and kept the job for seven seasons.

Martin got more playing time than most signal-callers from 2002-05, although there were other names who managed to get on the active roster from time to time. There was Scott Covington, who played just two seasons before calling it quits, in 2002; and then Chris Chandler -- a third-round pick who finished an 18-year career with one season in St. Louis -- in 2004; and who could forget Jeff Smoker, the sixth-round pick from Michigan State in 2004 who stayed with the Rams for two seasons before moving on to Philadelphia?

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By the time the Rams had used their last 2005 draft pick on some guy from Harvard named Ryan Fitzpatrick, Martin had seen his share of players come and go in that quarterback room.

"There was no beard," Martin said with a laugh. "I don't even think he could grow a mustache at that point."

It's important to note exactly how big a deal Fitzpatrick was for the Crimson. The Ivy League isn't known for churning out NFL stars, but Fitzpatrick wasn't a slouch, either. He was the Ivy League Player of the Year, and on top of throwing for 1,986 yards, he led Harvard to a 10-0 record and the Ivy League Championship.

Martin saw Fitzpatrick as a nice kid. Not the outgoing cult of personality he eventually became, but a good guy. Fitzpatrick was not one to go out of his way to point out how smart he was, but he didn't need to, either. Sometimes that relates to football, Martin said; sometimes it doesn't. In Fitzpatrick's case, it was the former.

Like most rookies, Fitzpatrick was a quiet player. He mostly sat and listened in meetings, and who could blame him with all the football knowledge in the room? Bulger and Martin had 14 years of experience between them. Then there was Mike Martz, the maestro of "The Greatest Show On Turf." To Martin, it seemed like Fitzpatrick was taking on the role of being an active listener.

"He had a maturity and an intelligence where in the right spots, he would say the right things," Martin said.

Being put in Martz's offense, Fitzpatrick said, was a great learning experience for him. The plays were wordy and required "a ton" of studying. Martz demanded excellence, too; he would throw quarterbacks out of the huddle if they messed up the verbiage.

"The pressure was on," Fitzpatrick said, "and [Martz] applied that. Even if it was fake pressure, he was applying that pressure every single day, and it really made study and work hard."

“He had a maturity and an intelligence where in the right spots, he would say the right things." Former Rams quarterback Jamie Martin

And of course there was some rookie hazing. Martin or Bulger turned off the lights in the windowless bathroom closest to their meeting room while the rookie was in there, leaving Fitzpatrick to grope back to the door through a pitch black maze. Even in his second season, Fitzpatrick had to deal with Gus Frerotte giving him smaller sized pants every week of the preseason -- they were eventually unwearable after a size 30 -- and telling a reporter that he played the trumpet on Harvard's marching band (for those wondering, he wasn't a member of the band).

On the field, Martin did whatever he could to help Fitzpatrick along, but he could tell the rookie was a quick study and would be ready to go if the time came. He had the foresight to recognize that he didn't know everything yet, so he sat back and learned as much as possible for his eventual debut.

On Nov. 27, 2005, that moment finally arrived as Martin was out with a concussion against the Houston Texans. The Rams were down 14-0 when Fitzpatrick stepped into the game and later faced a 24-3 deficit at halftime. That's when the comeback started. Fitzpatrick delivered his first touchdown pass to Torry Holt, which led to the Rams outscoring the Texans 30-3 in the second half for a 33-27 overtime win. Fitzpatrick even supplied the game-winning score on a 56-yard screen pass to Kevin Curtis.

"He was never overwhelmed in practices and even through training camp and minicamp," Martin said." He was prepared mentally for what was going on … He never shied away from anything."

It was a turning point in more ways than one for Fitzpatrick. Not only did he get three starts following the victory, he also got a boost in confidence. And while he still wasn't as outspoken as he would become, he wasn't as quiet anymore. He wasn't going to step on anyone's toes, but when it came time to be the guy, speak up and show his personality, he would.

The Same Guy, No Matter What



Take a moment and think back to what you were doing in 2007. It was actually kind of a big year. If you took a minute to look up from reading an article on Barack Obama announcing his presidential campaign, you would notice that Fitzpatrick was on the move for the first time in his career.

Fitzpatrick's 2006 season was relatively uneventful; he was inactive for all but one game -- the regular season finale against the Vikings -- and he didn't even play. At the end of training camp in 2007, he was traded to the Bengals for a seventh-round pick.

On paper, there were a lot of similarities between the Rams and Bengals' offense. The Rams were 10th in scoring offense in 2006; the Bengals were 8th. Both teams had quarterbacks coming off Pro Bowl seasons -- Bulger for St. Louis and Carson Palmer for Cincinnati -- and both finished 8-8 in addition to running a version of the Air Coryell system.

Fitzpatrick was a little different, though. Based on the four games he played in 2005, he had proven he could compete on some level, and he was no longer the quiet rookie. It didn't take long for his personality and consistently positive attitude to be appreciated by his new teammates.

"Ryan is like the best guy you could ever want in your locker room," former Bengals center Dan Santucci said. "So very welcoming and excited to be there, and just grateful for his opportunity."

Fitzpatrick understood a lot of what Santucci was going through. A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Santucci was drafted 230th overall in the seventh round. Santucci had earned himself a roster spot by the time Fitzpatrick was traded to the Bengals on Sept. 1 of that year, but he was always fighting to keep it. Seeing as they were both backups, it was a chance for the quarterback to take Santucci under his wing.

Santucci was one of the better guards in college football at Notre Dame; Sporting News ranked him in the Top 10 at his position for the 2006 season. The Bengals had moved him to center, and Fitzpatrick tried to take any extra pressure off of him. If the snap ended up being a little wobbly, for example, Fitzpatrick would take the blame.

"I'll never forget that," Santucci said. "Ryan would say, 'Ah, it's my fault,' and I'm like, 'That was awesome.' The little things like that, you never forget."

“Ryan is like the best guy you could ever want in your locker room. So very welcoming and excited to be there, and just grateful for his opportunity.” Former Bengals center Dan Santucci

Fitzpatrick had a way of making practice fun. He had the smarts of one of the top quarterbacks, but he played like a linebacker. He and Palmer would have throwing competitions with the loser having to wear embarrassing costumes for the team's Halloween party (one of Fitzpatrick's punishments was to wear a cow suit). His notoriously dry and sarcastic sense of humor always inspired laughs from teammates.

Fitzpatrick was himself in the most unashamed way possible. He wasn't rude, although he would say things that made Santucci think, "Holy s*, did that just come out of his mouth?" He knew how to get under people's skin and stir the pot, but he always meant well. Having a guy like that, Santucci said, helps manage the stress of the season.

"I was one of those 'Type A' guys," Santucci said. "So every play counted, but he was kind of able to bring it back down to reality."

At the same time, though, Fitzpatrick would work just as hard as anyone. His work ethic and film study was on par with the best players on the roster. And that paid off in 2008, when Palmer was taken out for the remainder of the season with a partially torn ligament and tendon in his elbow. Once Fitzpatrick was named the starter, he completed 60% of his passes in five straight games. The Bengals finished the year 4-11-1, but Fitzpatrick closed things out with wins against Washington, Cleveland and Kansas City.

Santucci said Fitzpatrick surprised everyone by how well he handled the situation. His mental fortitude was never in doubt, but his teammates hadn't seen how he would handle a starter's responsibilities. Fitzpatrick stepped up, though, and proved it wasn't beyond him.

The best part about it: he didn't let being "the guy" change him. In fact, nothing about him changed at all.

"He was the same Ryan in the locker room, which is so cool to see," Santucci said. "I'm sure he put in even more time...preparing, but as far as his personality, he was the same Ryan."

A “Matter-Of-Fact” Type Of Leader



Stevie Johnson was on a plane heading to New York to prepare for the 2009 season. He didn't know it at the time, but amid the endless sea of strangers you tend to see on a flight, he was about to meet someone he would come to know very well.

For those keeping count, Fitzpatrick was working on his third team in five years. He was fresh off signing a three-year deal with the Bills, which wound up being the longest stop of his career. He had booked the same flight as Johnson, and by some bizarre coincidence, he and Johnson sat close to each other.

It's easy to imagine what would be going through Fitzpatrick's head. The Bills red socks were a sign, and Johnson looked like an NFL player, but so what? That could mean absolutely nothing. Still, it's worth a shot, though, so Johnson remembers Fitzpatrick finally asking: "Hey, I'm just going out on a limb here, but are you going to Buffalo?"

That's how their friendship started. It wasn't quite what Johnson expected. Up to that point, he saw the NFL as "full gladiator mode" with people fighting for roster spots. But this guy? He was just a person who just happened to throw the ball well. There was no big haughty NFL persona to him. It was simple: "My name is Ryan. Let's make something happen."

Fitzpatrick and Johnson would end up playing a big role in what made Buffalo's offense go for the next three years, but their relationship started as backups. They had a shared aspiration of being more impactful players, so they didn't allow themselves to go through the motions of their situation.

"We didn't know we were building chemistry," Johnson said. "But that's what we were doing."

It was during those practices that Johnson got a true look into how Fitzpatrick operated. Most people will say Fitzpatrick is a risk-taker; Johnson doesn't see it that way. If they were in the red zone, he would give the receiver a signal that basically meant "you do you." Fitzpatrick would then read Johnson's set-up move and react to how the defensive back played it. That wasn't something the coaches told him to do. Fitzpatrick did it on his own, Johnson said, and he always appreciated that.

Once Fitzpatrick became the starter following an 0-2 start in 2010 and Johnson was more active on offense, he got a better look at what the quarterback was like as a leader. He's not really a "rah-rah" guy like other players. It's more like a matter-of-fact way of looking at things. It was a callback to their first conversation. There was no fake energy, no "in your face" personality; just someone with a goal who would put his teammates in the best position to accomplish it.

Johnson got his best dose of that on Nov. 21, 2010, when the Bills were facing a 31-14 halftime deficit to the Bengals.

"Have you ever had a comeback?" Johnson asked his QB during a TV timeout.

Fitzpatrick, thinking back to his NFL debut, replied, "Yeah, I had one in St. Louis. It's time for a new one. Let's do it."

The Bills scored 35 unanswered points and won 49-31. Johnson had 137 yards and three touchdowns in that game, all in the second half.

From a statistical perspective, Fitzpatrick's time in Buffalo was a definitive high point. He had three straight 3,000-yard season -- a feat he hasn't repeated at any other point in his career -- and threw for 80 touchdowns. One of those scores became the longest play in Bills history; it was a 98-yard pass to future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009. Owens only spent a year with Fitzpatrick -- he caught 55 passes for 829 yards that season -- but it was enough time to convince him that Fitzpatrick had a unique skillset.

"He's...no doubt one of the top two or three quarterbacks that I've ever played with," Owens said. "I've played with a number of quarterbacks, a Hall of Famer in Steve Young ... Not to discredit what I did or didn't do with Steve, but you think about the quarterbacks that I've played a longer tenure with outside of him. You think about the Tony Romos, you think about the Donovan McNabbs, the Jeff Garcias. Ryan Fitzpatrick was one of those guys that I loved to play with, and I had a lot of success with."

Johnson was one of the main benefactors of Fitzpatrick prowess. From 2010-12 -- the height of Fitzpatrick success in Buffalo -- he had 3,123 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the Bills in receiving yards in each of those season, and that wasn't because Fitzpatrick was trying to be something he's not, nor was it because he was trying to tweak Johnson's game. It was two teammates letting each other be themselves and playing off of whatever came their way.

"It's the 'opportunity' part of him," Johnson said. "He's just putting the ball into place and letting the elite athletes do what they do."

“He Took Time To Learn And Know You.”



Fitz's former teammates, and there are many, describe him in countless ways. One specifically leaned on scripture as a reference point. The verse is 1 Corinthians 9:22 in the New Testament, and it reads, "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."

The message, said former Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, is to humble oneself in order to understand different perspectives so they can be receptive to a central message. And in many ways, that's how Fitzpatrick relates to his teammates.

"He took time to learn and know you," Locker said.

Tennessee was one of the shortest stops in Fitzpatrick's career. He was not brought in to be "the guy" after three years in that role with the Bills, although he did end up with nine starts; instead, he was the primary backup for Locker, the team's first-round draft pick in 2011.

“He wasn’t a guy that held those things tight. It was a free invitation to engage with him and get to watch him do it and learn from him as he did it.” Former Titans quarterback Jake Locker

Locker quickly picked up on particular aspects of Fitzpatrick's personality. He can flip the switch between being funny and serious whenever the situation calls for it, and whether he wants to admit it or not, Fitzpatrick spends a lot of time learning about his teammates and motivating them in a way that speaks to them.

For Locker, that came through Fitzpatrick in film study. He would always ask, "On this clip, what do you see? What do you see that matters?" It was a way to challenge Locker in a more constructive fashion, and it helped him learn how to read defenses in a different way and place value in things he had never considered before.

"He wasn't a guy that held those things tight," Locker said. "It was a free invitation to engage with him and get to watch him do it and learn from him as he did it."

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That method wasn't a catch-all for everyone, which is why Locker views Fitzpatrick as an effective leader. It was about conforming to his teammates' preferences, and not the other way around. There were some who he would pull to the side and encourage them quietly. For others, he would call them out publicly in practice. The interactions were unique to everyone on the roster. The way Locker sees it, those were calculated decisions.

"He could relate to the guy that was coming in at fall camp going into the third preseason game wondering if he was going to be there next week or not," Locker said. "He could relate to the guy that signed a big contract and made a bunch of money. He had those experiences that he carried with him."

Those who know Fitzpatrick will say that he's more than what people see on the field, so it only makes sense that his desire to build relationships goes beyond that boundary as well. And sometimes, like Fitzpatrick's playing style, it involves something unconventional.

Fitzpatrick's next stop was with the Houston Texans. This time, he was "the guy," which meant he was spending a chunk of his time with center Chris Myers and the rest of the starting offensive line. The team was on the road to face the New York Giants in Week 3, and since the team had some rare free time, Fitzpatrick decided to treat some of the linemen to some New York style pizza.

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As they were riding to a restaurant in an Uber, Fitzpatrick was on a FaceTime call with one of his sons. "Brady," Fitzpatrick said. "Tell them about coding." Brady had just started learning binary code, which Myers said was "way over all our heads."

"No, Dad, come on," Myers recalls Brady saying. "I don't want to do this."

"No, tell them what's forty-two in binary code," Fitzpatrick responded. After a while, Fitzpatrick started to spout off the code himself. If anyone is wondering how or why Fitzpatrick knows such a niche skill, it's because he taught himself during OTAs that year.

By the time they were done with their food, Fitzpatrick had taught the entire offensive line binary code, proving that he doesn't need to talk about offensive schemes to build a bond with teammates. Sometimes, all it takes is a napkin, a pen and a lesson on computer coding in a New York pizzeria.

"It's just ingrained in him," Myers said. "His ability to make impressions on people is one thing, but to keep those relationships going after so many years of so many teammates that he's played with and to keep it the same...is amazing."

The Brother You Never Had



Anyone willing to search the depths of the internet will find a flowchart that Fitzpatrick and former New York Jets center and owner of 74 BBQ sauce Nick Mangold joke about. He gets signed as a backup, elevated to the starting role, plays well, followed by a steady decline that leads to his release, which starts the whole process over. 

In the first year of Fitzpatrick's sixth stop, the arrow was pointed squarely at the best statistical season of his career.

"When he does have all those weapons around him and they're all clicking, he can shine," Mangold said.

Much of what the Jets had to offer in 2015 worked in Fitzpatrick's favor. He was reunited with Chan Gailey, his former offensive coordinator with the Bills who led him to one of the most successful stretches of his career. His weapons included the likes of Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Chris Ivory. It was the most stable position he had been in as a starter up to that point, and that allowed some of his best characteristics to shine.

"You're always evaluated on your ability to execute," former Jets quarterback Bryce Petty said. "And when he gets in there, he executes."

There are two sides to Fitzpatrick that Mangold, Petty and his other Jets teammates got to know well, the first of which involved his competitive nature on the field. It's what helped him give the team a 4-1 record to start the season, complete at least 60% of his passes in eight games where he had double-digit attempts and win five straight in November and December.

Chalk part of that up to his intelligence. He had such a strong grasp on the intricacies of Gailey's scheme, Petty said, and he paired that with an impressive photographic memory. There were times when Fitzpatrick would tell Petty to look at specific plays, along with the exact formation and quarter, from his days in Buffalo that related to the game plan for that week. Sure enough, the details would be exactly how Fitzpatrick described them.

"You either have that or you don't," Petty said. "So having somebody like that as a mentor when you're first in the league, you're like, 'Holy smokes.'"

In Mangold's experience, most quarterbacks possess a general football knowledge. Fitzpatrick took things to a different level, though. He had an acute ability to decipher coverages and understand theories of route combinations for receivers to get open. The extent to which he would go to understand the most minute details was more intense than most quarterbacks can boast.

"He got past the knowing, the 'what to do,' to 'why is he doing it?" Mangold said. "Why is that route being cut off at seven yards instead of being cut off at five yards?"

“There’s a brother aspect to it. There’s a friend aspect to it. There’s a mentor aspect to it. They’re kind of all in one." Former Jets quarterback Bryce Petty

Those things didn't get Fitzpatrick to the playoffs -- the Jets lost a win-and-in Week 17 matchup against the Bills -- which still elude him, but it did result in some of the best numbers of his career. He threw for 3,905 yards with 31 touchdowns to just 15 interceptions. He also started for the entire season and finished it with a 10-6 record.

The other side of Fitzpatrick was the brother players like Petty always wanted. He was the persib Petty could spend an hour at Dunkin Donuts with just going over the playbook without any prior notice. Even when they didn't schedule some time together, Petty would find notes in the margin of his playbook from Fitzpatrick on which plays were great against Cover 3 looks or suggestions on what to call in two-minute drills.

"Just things that you don't even think about," Petty said. "I didn't even have to ask the question."

Fitzpatrick was the guy who made an effort to hang out with the offensive line, which Mangold joked partly stems from his jealousy that he's not a lineman himself. In a group that is more tight-knit than most on a team, he found a way to be part of the pack, even going so far as to include his name on their fine board.

Finding the right blend of being a strong competitor and a genuinely good person is not a common trait, Mangold said, but it's something Fitzpatrick has organically. And no matter what kind of interaction his teammates had with him, they knew they were going to get the full Fitzpatrick experience.

"There's a brother aspect to it," Petty said. "There's a friend aspect to it. There's a mentor aspect to it. They're kind of all in one."

Fitzmagic’s Next Trick

It's early August, and Fitzpatrick is on the move again in Richmond. He saw his chance to run in the ball himself and sprinted for the end zone. He hollers in front of the crowd and celebrates with a teammate before jogging back to the huddle. He's 38 years old and looking as spry as ever.

The past four years, which included stops with the Dolphins and Buccaneers, have now become the epitome of Fitzpatrick's legend. Everything you need to know about the quarterback can be found in that span. He knows how to operate as a backup or a starter; he's going to take his chance, for better or for worse; there will be some personality involved, which sometimes includes stealing DeSean Jackson's look for a press conference. All of it is going to be wrapped in some Fitzpatrick-branded honesty. 

Fitzpatrick's one-year deal in Washington is the best situation he's walked into as a starter. He said so himself on the ESPN Daily podcast in July. Sure, that involves the weapons he has at his disposal and the direction the franchise is headed after winning the NFC East; those played a massive role in why he decided to come to Washington. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that, as unusual as it sounds for a player in his late 30s, he's playing some of his best football.

"I just feel like the way that I'm playing the last four years, kind of the progression of my career, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense that 17 years in, physically, I feel great, mentally, emotionally. I'm in the right spot," Fitzpatrick said. "I just think I am set up for success this year and really looking forward to it."

By all accounts, Fitzpatrick is ready for the opportunity, and it's because of the path that lies behind him. From being the quiet rookie with the Rams to stepping in as a starter for the Bengals, having success with the Bills, being a relatable mentor in Tennessee and Houston and going through the ups and downs with New York, Miami and Tampa Bay, it's been about as wild of a journey as one could hope for. Still, it's what has prepared him for whatever comes next.

And who knows? The next stop for "Fitzmagic" might end up being his best trick yet.

"There has to be something back there, because...he's not a prototypical quarterback that can just take hits like that all day," Myers said. "But he seems to do it and he keeps coming. He's like the Energizer Bunny."

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