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Why Fitz? A Deep Dive Into Ron Rivera's Offseason Strategy

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Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera has a discussion with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the sideline during practice on Aug. 17, 2021. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

The gesture, to Ryan Fitzpatrick, meant everything.

Last March, having just agreed to a one-year, $10 million free-agent deal with Washington, the NFL's most portable passer was in the midst of a hauntingly familiar drill: Coordinating travel arrangements with a team operations official that would get him from Tampa, where he maintains an offseason residence, to his new NFL habitat. He was curious about flight options, boarding groups and other nuances important to seasoned travelers.

"I was like, 'Here's my Known Traveler Number,'" Fitzpatrick recalled. "Can you at least give me 'A List,' please?"

It was then that the 38-year-old old quarterback with the bodacious beard learned that TSA Pre clearance would not be necessary.

"It was the first time I got to fly on a private plane to sign," he said.

Then he added wryly: "It took 17 years, but I finally made it."

So yes, Fitzpatrick was smiling as he climbed aboard the aircraft owned by Dan and Tanya Snyder, en route to officially signing with his ninth NFL team. Alas, he did not experience a completely smooth landing, at least in a metaphorical sense: Plenty of football fans -- including some in the DMV area-- questioned his presence as the team's anointed starter in 2021, especially amid a turbulent offseason that featured a high-profile trade involving established quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff and reports that stars Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson all wanted out of their current situations.

Throw in a draft cycle that would feature five quarterbacks picked among the first 15 selections, and it's easy to see why so many Washington diehards were so starry-eyed.

In truth, coach Ron Rivera and the organization's other powerbrokers were tempted to bring in a quarterback with more marquee value. They made an inquiry about Stafford, following up with an offer to Detroit. At one point, Rivera believed Washington had an excellent shot at landing Stafford, before the Lions and Rams hastily hammered out their trade terms.

Then, heading into the draft, Rivera thought hard about trading up to acquire a quarterback. Ultimately, he balked at the price, instead staying put and selecting Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis with the 19th overall pick.

Faith in Fitzpatrick's abilities was one reason Rivera, general manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney ultimately felt comfortable staying away from the bright, shiny objects. There was also a foundational philosophy at play.

Intent on building the team from front to back -- a process validated by the strong line play that fueled Washington's second-half surge, surprising NFC East title (albeit with a 7-9 record) and stirring playoff performance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in his first season -- Rivera resisted the quick fix.

"We didn't have the pieces in place to say, 'All we have to do is get a quarterback we can win now,'" Rivera explained during training camp as he sat in his luxuriant office at the team's training facility. "I felt that if we could continue to put the rest of the pieces in place, why not do that? We like the guys that we have, and we like where we are, so why not add on a couple of pieces? Then, as we went through it, we felt, Wow -- we're shoring up the defense in free agency and the draft. Wow -- we got a slot receiver and a speed receiver in free agency and drafted a speed receiver. Now let's see if we can get everybody trained, get a veteran quarterback and see what happens."

There was a point in late January when Rivera believed Stafford might be that veteran quarterback. Washington had made an opening offer that included first- and third-round selections in the 2021 draft, and there was a palpable sense in the building that they could close a deal with the Lions. Then came the Saturday Night Surprise: Rivera, like many others around the league, was stunned when he learned that Detroit had instead agreed to trade Stafford to the Rams for two future first-round picks, a 2021 third-round choice and Jared Goff, with L.A. having sweetened the package in an effort to shed Goff's contract.

At various times, Rivera contemplated making a run at Wilson, Watson (before his legal troubles surfaced, including 22 civil lawsuits accusing the Texans quarterback of sexual assault and sexual misconduct) or Rodgers, whose dissatisfaction with the Packers became public hours before the start of the draft. In each case, they concluded that the price was prohibitive. Said Rivera: "Who wouldn't check in with those teams and do their due diligence to see what the cost would be to get a guy of that caliber?"

Similarly, while assessing the prospective cost of moving into the draft's top 10, the notion of including a core player in the deal was a non-starter to Rivera.

"That would have defeated the whole purpose," Rivera said. "We're trying to build a team, not give up building blocks. Some people wanted way too much draft capital for the next two years. We weren't through building. If we mortgaged our future on a player -- and maybe he isn't the right guy, and maybe we can't afford to keep our core -- it could have really set us back."

Instead, Washington felt comfortable moving forward with Fitzpatrick, who they prioritized ahead of fellow free agents Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor and reasonably inexpensive trade targets Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Sam Darnold.

Fitzpatrick drew interest from numerous teams, including one that would have penciled him in as the likely starter. Coming off a 2020 season with the Miami Dolphins during which he'd lost his starting job to rookie Tua Tagovailoa -- only to shine in several relief appearances down the stretch -- Fitzpatrick placed a premium on getting an opportunity to play.

"A chance to start -- that was the big thing I was looking for," Fitzpatrick said. "And there were a couple of teams out there that I talked to, and then it was like I got a chance to make a decision. Which is crazy, cause I never really have a chance to make a decision; the decision is pretty much always made for me. It's always been a couple of backup jobs here or there, and Which one's closest to Disneyworld?… that type of thing. I've obviously been brought in to start. But I don't think I've ever really had to make a decision (between potential starting opportunities).

"There was the appeal of the youth of this team, and of Coach Rivera and everything I'd heard about him. There were just a lot of positives and things that seemed like this place was trending in the right direction. So, it had all of those things wrapped up in it and made it an easy decision for me."

It felt like a good fit for Fitz, but it wasn't without challenges. As well traveled as the 17th-year veteran is, he hadn't played in a scheme similar to the one employed by Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner.

"In '05, my rookie year, I was with (St. Louis Rams coach) Mike Martz, and it was kind of the same tree," Fitzpatrick said. "But I was the fourth-string guy and never got any reps. So when I got here, it was completely foreign. This offseason I was a little bit lost and swimming in the offense."

Rivera and Turner are counting on the fact that Fitzpatrick is a quick learner—and that they're getting a better version of him, at 38, than the semi-reckless model of years past. Asked if he's a better player now than ever before, Fitzpatrick replied, "I mean, there's no doubt. I am."

For starters, his mechanics have improved appreciably.

"The physical part of throwing the football has become so much easier for me," he said. "My arm is not any stronger; it's probably less strong than it used to be. It's just learning the strengths and weaknesses of how I throw a football. That part has become more fluid for me, and I've become a much more accurate passer. Basically, for me, the less moving parts that I have, the more accurate I am. I used to be a very big body-thrower, legs all over the place, and head and hips… so now, keeping it a little more compact is helping."

Fitzpatrick said he gained an increased understanding of the position during the 2014 season while playing for then-Texans coach Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey (now the Dolphins' co-offensive coordinator).

"That was kind of the year that changed everything for me," he said. "Since getting with (O'Brien and Godsey) and playing in 2014, I've just had a different career. It was the New England system and just seeing the game in a completely different way. And as that has progressed, my footwork has become a lot less sloppy, and I know my strengths and my weaknesses so well."

One of those weaknesses -- a penchant for taking unnecessary risks -- has been curbed over time.

"I'm definitely wiser," Fitzpatrick said. "And there are still times when I'm gonna give guys chances, or when we're gonna take some shots down the field. But yeah, I look at the earlier stages of my career, and Loose Cannon would probably be a good way to describe me most of the time."

That said, Fitzpatrick isn't embracing the Game Manager premise that so many outsiders -- and, at times, even insiders like Rivera -- have applied to the Washington situation.

"That's what everybody says and wants to talk about," Fitzpatrick said, "but… I think we have to be careful with that mentality. It can't be, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa -- we've got a great defense. If we just don't turn it over and kick a field goal, we'll be good to go.' It's my job to make this offense as good as possible, and we're gonna be out there attacking and trying to put a lot of points on the board."

If everything goes according to Fitzpatrick's plan, he may add another complicating factor to the organization's quest for a long-term solution at the sport's most important position. For Rivera, having resisted the temptation to overextend in pursuit of a franchise passer heading into the 2021 campaign, a big year from his handpicked 38-year-old caretaker would be a good problem to have.

"We've got our fingers crossed that we're doing the right thing," Rivera said. "We do want to try to keep our own; we feel really good about our own. We'd like to get everything else in place and then take a step back and address that position and say, 'Now it's time, guys. Let's roll.'

"Next year, if all goes well, it'll be like, 'Man, we've got all the pieces now.' Then we can decide: Is it time to draft a young one, trade for one or, who knows, maybe Fitz has another year in him?"

The possibilities are tantalizing, including the prospect of a superstar such as Rodgers or Wilson in burgundy and gold, with a stacked roster around him built to maximize the opportunity. In the meantime, Fitzpatrick is the man charged with trying to make Washington's offense take off -- no Known Traveler number required.

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