The moment of RYAN FITZPATRICK’s death over the past four months, which sums up the totality of what he has been through, is by far the most symbolically accurate: With 19 seconds to go in the race, the Las Vegas Raiders had two more to go on Saturday night. The ball left Fitzpatrick’s hand with enough power and precision to overcome the extreme torque in Key’s left hand. A completion, a 15-yard penalty and finally the winning goal of the game.
Fitzpatrick’s had his share of the action this season. His mind was lifted, his heart broken and his determination tested. He lost his job through no fault of his own to the recruit Tua Tagovailoa, and he did everything he could to get her back, but she remained a foreigner. It was… …and it seems safe, even from a distance… an exciting and confusing time.
He started the season as the starter of a team with an unexpected competitive strength and did so in a fierce style – aggressive, chin-splitting – that went against the best angels whispering in his 38-year-old body. He was fired (his word) in week 7 before his team’s deadline, apparently without warning, and just as his team found some traction. He was recalled from the bank in the Week 11 loss to Denver after Tagovailoa struggled. He started week 12 with Tagovailoa absent due to a thumb injury and placed a 24-39 with two touchdowns in the victory over the Jets. He returned to the bench for another three weeks before coming off the bench on Saturday to win.
Clearly, Fitzpatrick knew this moment would come. Tagovailoa was the fifth choice in the design for 2020 and is the photogenic and saleable quarterback of the future for the Dolphins. But by all available measures – statistics, mystics – Fitzpatrick gave Miami the best chance to win every game of the season. Instead, he was asked not only to quit his job, but also to change jobs. Not just a backup, the most superfluous and despicable of titles, but a mentor. Remember that job you did so well? So here’s the problem: We need you to get that other guy done, and we need you to help him get up to speed in a hurry.
And now, after a miraculous finish only made possible by him (182 meters in the last 9:47 after Tagovailoa’s 94 in the first 50:13), Fitzpatrick returns to the sidelines on Sunday as the 10-match winning Dolphins try to complete an incredible play-off run.
If there’s a hole in his house now, one of his fists went through, said former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in October after Fitzpatrick was put on the bench: Let’s just say I wouldn’t blame him.
The quarterback’s POSITION is so overloaded with exaggerated meaning and capricious symbolism that it is hardly recognizable as a sporting activity anymore. Too often she is exaggerated and appears rather as a secular deity. Still, listen carefully, the Fitzpatrick/Tagovailoa saga brings forward an aspect of the position – perhaps the only aspect of the position – that could be underestimated: the dynamics between departure and return. The job title – quarterback – remains the same, but the distance between the two is immeasurable.
The study of dynamics seems particularly relevant this season, as quarterbacks and substitutes change at a pace fast enough to seem random. In Washington, D.C., Kyle Allen followed Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith followed Kyle Allen, and now Taylor Heinik could take Alex Smith’s place (on Dwayne Haskins). Carson Wentz sat on the bench in Philadelphia for Jaylen Hurts. Taysom Hill, not Jameis Winston, replaced an injured Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Chicago sang a catchy Trubisky Falls hymn throughout the season.
Some steps were taken out of necessity, some out of hope, some out of despair, from the palm of the hands to heaven. It was clear to everyone that they could change not only the fate of the season, but also that of the franchise. And the amazing thing is, a lot of them worked.
Fault! The file name is not specified. The Saints won three of the four games with Tays Hill as quarterback, proving that Sean Payton’s decision to use Hill instead of Jameis Winston was the right one. David Grunfeld/Pool Photo via AP
Hill made only six passes in his first three seasons in the NFL, but was selected to replace Winston – the number one of 2015 who led the NFL with more than 5,000 passing yards and 30 steals in 2019 – to replace Brees for four games starting in mid-November.
The coach of Saints Sean Payton dismissed all concerns about the style of Hill as quarterback and said the goal is to win. The conclusion in relation to Peyton’s decision is obvious: The task is not to lose, and Hill’s skills – limited but predictable – gave the Saints a better chance of not losing than Winston. Payton was right, the Saints have won three of the four races with Hill as first starter.
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Mitchell Trubisky started the season in Chicago, sat on the bench for seven games and came back well enough to put the Bears on a playoff hunt that would have been unthinkable a month ago. Seven weeks on the sidelines gave Trubisky – an avid reader of leadership books – a stronger mindset about what bears should do when they are in charge.
One of the most important things is that he can remain positive in a negative situation, told the coach Matt Nagy last week to the reporters. He really liked it. He’s the one who provoked it.
And in Miami, the Dolphins have gone 8-2 since Tagovailoa took over (with occasional help from Fitzpatrick). It’s certainly unconventional and it goes against all the known principles laid down in the quarterback’s canon. Is it a two-quarter system, or is Fitzpatrick just a dolphin-trained first-timer? If we go to the pitcher in the ninth, we will do it, said coach Brian Flores after the victory of the Raiders. Fitz, he’s always ready.
Perhaps the most daring move was made in Philadelphia, where the bitterness of the Eagles towards Wentz reached a climax when he made six paces and allowed the Packers four sacks in a Week 13 loss. He was replaced by the Hurts recruit, whose charisma and adaptability brought an inanimate team to life and had a predictable impact on Wentz, who would not have been wise to stay in Philadelphia as backup.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Pictures of Mark Brown/White
There are tons of crazy stories in this vast world, stories about jealousy and pettiness, selflessness and support. Games are won and lost, careers are launched and destroyed. The quarterback’s room is either a serene and harmonious environment where blue is worshipped and barely seen, or a pit of vipers.
(Whether it’s the emotional distance created by television or the utopian idea that sport is the last great meritocracy in the world, the idea that dressing rooms and meetings have a Victorian décor is absurd. I sat on a bench in Seattle for Trent Dilfer, says Hasselbeck, who is now an ESPN analyst. The whole stadium cheered and chased me out. I liked Trent – we were friends – but I was so angry. I wanted to fight Trent then.)
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According to old NFL quarterback Charlie Batch, who started his 15-year career in Detroit and finished as a replacement in Pittsburgh: Oh, I’ve heard stories. Some substitutes don’t want to help the starter because they want to play. In some cases, backups don’t share information or store information about audio devices – they don’t want the boot process to succeed.
Butch’s tone showed that he had not only heard the stories, but that he had also played a part in them. The press, he says, I was young then and didn’t know what was going on. The older I got and the more I saw the game, the more I turned around and thought: Really? Is that what was going on? He stops, the old gal rises, says I’m not gonna blow anyone up, but….
The party can discuss idiosyncrasies and politics all day long. When his four-year stint in Detroit ended, the team called him successor to Mike McMahon, a Rutgers fifth round choice. To make McMahon’s work easier, the team decided to put a certain series – usually the third or fourth – aside for him in each race. It would’ve been his turn, but if we’d started in the ’10s, they would’ve screamed: Charlie, go over there, Butch said smiling. Really? If it’s his show, why isn’t he on it? I mean, I understand Fitz’s frustration.
FIRST to trust, says Colts coach Frank Reich, who together with Jim Kelly created one of the most famous combo starters in NFL history. You don’t want to feel tension in the conference room. You don’t want anything to cause negative vibrations. If the backup isn’t for the starter – and by that I mean celebrating his success – feel it. Players are smart enough to let beginners know when rescues are real for them and when not.
Reich spent his first year in Buffalo supporting Vince Ferragamo and another man whose name escapes him. It was 1985, the Bills were terrible, and Reich had a moment on the field: against the Jets in Game 2 in December, in sub-zero temperatures and winds over 20 mph. He was third, another guy (not Ferragamo) was injured, and Reich was called.
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He took off his jacket, jumped up to loosen his skinny legs, turned his arm several times, blew on his arms and ran for a hug. He called to the room, his frozen lips hiding the quake in his voice, he took the trigger and threw a dart in the wind to support Greg Bell on a corner course for a 19 meter finish.
The Reich was waiting for him. He felt good. I can do that, he thought. The extensive Buffalo stadium has come to life. Reich looked around before going into the party meeting to call the next room. And as soon as I was ready to call him, whatever his name was – his name, for posterity, was Bruce Matheson – he put his head back in his arms and just said I was fine – get out of here.
Rich is one of the few people in the history of the NFL for whom backups are honored. He played 13 seasons in the NFL and only started 20 games, but his performance in a wild game in January 1993, when he came off the bench to lead the Bills to victory after leading 35-3, is a milestone for Buffalo: Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back! Back!
The culmination of the experience of the Reich that day in Buffalo and that decade in uniform can be considered the Indianapolis of today, where Jacoby Brissett, along with New Orleans’ Hill, is the most widely used backup option in the NFL. (Who says a starting quarterback has to play every day? Reich asked an Indianapolis Star reporter earlier this season). Started last season after the retirement of Andrew Luck and prior to the signing of Philip Rivers in the off-season, Brissett has had its own set of matches that the Colts use near the goal line and in third and fourth down situations.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Coach Frank Reich’s experience as a replacement in the NFL led to the creative use of Jacoby Brissett. I know Jacoby can do his part to make this team better, and that helps all of us, he says. Chuck Cook/USA Goodnight Sports
Deep inside I feel that one of my inner motivations in life is that I want to contribute, and I have something to give, says Reich. As parents, my wife and I have long taught our children that this is a surety, not a loan. I really appreciate the cooperative and participative approach. Everybody works very hard, and that’s why we’ve moved the ball so many times in our attack. T.Y. Hilton is really good, we could throw it all the time and we’d look pretty smart, but everyone deserves a chance to be there. The quarterback position is not a position where you can spin a lot, but I know Jacoby can help this team improve and that helps all of us.
The Steelers played last season against the Colts in Pittsburgh, where Batch participated in pre-game and post-game broadcasts. Reich walked onto the field before the game to see Batch, who supported Reich for two years in Detroit. They hugged each other (it was a long time ago), and Butch told him it was 20 years ago, but I never took the opportunity to thank him. You taught me how to be a professional.
How important is the relationship between starter and backup? The play gave Pittsburgh a valuable boost, behind Cordell Stewart and then Ben Roethlisberger, and when I ask him how many of his 15 years in the NFL he attributes to the Reich’s example, he answers at least eight. I’ve played 15 times, and I owe more than half of that to Frank’s professionalism.
Fault! The file name is not specified. What I know about [Fitzpatrick] is the frustration he felt when he and Tua worked together again, okay, says Frank Reich, who spent his career as a replacement. Chris Coduto/Getty Images
The FITZPATRICK demonstration conference in October resulted in one of the most notable press conferences in recent memory – part hostage taking video, part telemedicine therapy session (extreme scene 2020). Fitzpatrick, with a beard in a rough bush, sat in front of a computer screen, his voice stiff, staring at the enormous electronic void, except for his humanity for six minutes and 48 seconds. This job is interesting because I was fired yesterday and my working day today was attending Zoom meetings and listening to the man who fired me, he said. And then I was locked in a room with my replacement for four hours. There aren’t many such works.
This was not a typical group discussion, this empty-calorie exercise with evasions and verbal obfuscation. It was something else, rare and ephemeral: a free view of a person’s soul. He had 24 hours to think, to calm down and to find out what he meant, says Hasselbeck. That was a version of Okay, now I’m calm. That’s what made it so great.
That could also have had consequences outside the quarterback room. Like Fitzpatrick said, there aren’t many jobs like that. The conviction that these decisions are not always made for purely footballing reasons – or by purely footballing guys like Flores who have to wear them anyway – can be divisive.
They have created a situation in which the boys in the dressing room have a chance to antagonize Tua, Hasselbeck said. You can look at him and say: It’s a meritocracy and you don’t deserve it. For the boys in the dressing room, the loyalty to the sticker on our helmet is much less than the loyalty to the boys next to you. The coaches understand that, but the home team doesn’t. Maybe you don’t realize the importance of this brotherhood.
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That it didn’t come to that, testifies to Fitzpatrick’s professionalism and 22-year-old Tagovailoa’s sympathy for the character. I bet there isn’t a quarterback alive who doesn’t understand and identify with what Fitz was going through, Reich said. I don’t know him, but what I do know about him… Whatever frustration he felt when he and Tua worked together again, everything went well.
After Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins to a last-minute comeback against the Raiders, he didn’t sound like the man who spoke 24 hours after losing his job. For me, he says: Hey, let’s go get them, he told the NFL network when he was asked if Tagovailoa was gonna replace him. I thought it was very mature. After the walks I would stand on the sidelines and just talk to him. Hey, it’s that kind of game. Here are some of my staves and why. He keeps teaching and sitting and learning.
It devalues the competitiveness of professional athletes to assume that they are willing to accept a relegation and move on – only to one day run into a wall to go from leader of many to teacher of one. But in Fitzpatrick’s case, that may be true. After the touchdown against the Patriots Tagovailoa sat on the bench and asked Fitzpatrick to criticize the safety of his ball, to which Fitzpatrick replied: Who cares? We’re coming to the end, baby. And after the miraculous jet from Fitzpatrick to Hollins, Tagovailoa said it wasn’t so shocking in a way. They don’t call him FitzMagic for nothing.
Fault! The file name is not specified. It wasn’t Brett’s job to teach me, says Hasselbeck, but he can still push down the list of attributes he acquired in two seasons with Favre. Jeff Hanisch/Getty Images …
Tagovailoa went so far as to describe his relationship with Fitzpatrick as that of a father and son, which is remarkable considering the number of times he has been sidelined this season. Of course, anyone with a passive knowledge of history (Montana-Young/Favre-Rogers) knows that these situations are not as common as unplanned specials. Hasselbeck cannot count the number of times he has been asked what Brett Favre taught him when they played together in the first two seasons of Hasselbeck. He gave an answer, innocent and impossible to verify, usually out of politeness. But the truth is, Hasselbeck was on and off the coaching staff and Favre was MVP. Favre didn’t know Hasselbeck was there.
I had to be in the room while Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren were coaching Favre, says Hasselbeck. It wasn’t Brett’s job to lecture me.
But learning from someone is not mutually exclusive, and Hasselbeck can move the list of attributes he got from Favre backwards. The way he talks to the men in the party meeting. It is important that he knows the names of all the occupants of the building. How he stands on stage after a loss and takes the blame. How he intimidates the other team. Everything a quarterback goes through in the beginning of his NFL career becomes the norm, according to Hasselbeck. So it was a shock for him when he arrived in Tennessee as a 12-year veteran, arrived at his first Titans quarterback meeting and was greeted by Hey, thanks for coming. Thanks for being on time. It blew me on my nerves, says Hasselbeck. Where I’m from – Green Bay and Seattle – it’s normal for my car to be there in the morning before someone arrives. Thanks for being on time? I’m your starting quarterback… when can I come?
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Two years later Hasselbeck signed with Indianapolis to support Andrew Luck. For the training in the summer of 2013 Luck asked his students: Do you want to drop everything after you ran and went upstairs? When the time was right, Hasselbeck saw a team member rush to the field with a bag of bullets, a bus with a water tanker and two videographers to film him. The routine was familiar to Hasselbeck, who had seen another Colts quarterback do the same exercise.
Everyone is on the same wavelength, says Hasselbeck. It’s like Peyton Manning never left the building.
BATCHY had warehouses, and this could be his favorite:
Five years ago, in a mid-November game between the Steelers and Browns, Landry Jones started as quarterback while Roethlisberger rested from a wobbly ankle. Jones was injured nine times in the game, which is considered worse than Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger came out on the field and made 22 of 33 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers’ win.
By that time, Butch had withdrawn and interviewed Roethlisberger on the set of a local post-game show. Behind closed doors, Roethlisberger said: Charlie, I don’t know how you do it ……
The party was justifiably confused. He just saw a guy with an ankle come off the bench and throw for all those yards and touchdowns and win a game he shouldn’t even have played.
What do you mean? Butch asked him.
At that moment Butch’s voice – reminiscent of all the years he was sent back as a reservist – hinted at a new level of pride, as Roethlisberger shook his head and said:
Don’t know when to play, but always be ready. Over there? This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
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