Ryan Fitzpatrick is about to navigate an NFL preseason for the 14th time. For just the sixth time in those 14 years, however, he'll be taking his team's first offensive snap in August.
Originally a seventh-round pick of the Rams in 2005, Fitzpatrick didn't start a preseason opener until 2011, his seventh NFL season, even though he had already opened 36 regular-season games by that point. That honor, such as it is, usually goes to the quarterback the team expects to play when the games start to count, and it took a while before that was a common thing for the passer from Harvard. Later in his career Fitzpatrick found himself in that position more often, in 2011 and 2012 for the Bills, in 2014 for the Texans and in 2015 and 2016 for the Jets.
Most recently, Fitzpatrick went into last preseason as the number-one back-up to Jameis Winston and he played from about midway through the second quarter to midway through the fourth quarter in the first game. That likely would have been his assignment again this year if not for a three-game suspension that will have Winston out of the picture to start the regular season. That means Fitzpatrick is the logical starter on Thursday night when the Bucs play the Dolphins in Miami.
Last summer, Fitzpatrick subbed in the first three games of August and then started the fourth contest but left it pretty quickly. In all, he threw just 40 preseason passes; Winston threw 69. Those numbers will likely change this year, but it's not as simple as just reversing them. The Buccaneers are in the unusual position of trying to get two quarterbacks ready to start, and also to keep them both healthy through the preseason. In fact, that latter point is number one on Fitzpatrick's goals for these warm-up contests.
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Tuesday at One Buccaneer Place.
"I think success in a preseason game is coming out healthy, everybody coming out healthy," he said on Tuesday after the team's last practice before its opener. "It's good in that we've been banging heads with the same guys day-in and day-out, so we get to go against a different scheme [and] some guys that we don't know so well and they don't know us so well. Just to go out there and run our base stuff and execute a little bit [is good] just to get that game feel back, even going through warm-ups and pregame and re-establishing that routine."
Complicating matters further is that the Buccaneers did not get through their Monday practice healthy. After a first week-and-a-half of camp that was relatively light on injuries, the Bucs saw their training room fill up just a few days before the preseason opener. And because a disproportionately high percentage of the injured players hang out in the offensive line meeting room, there will be fewer players available for the O-Line rotation on Thursday night. That likely means more work for the reserves, as Head Coach Dirk Koetter said he's not going to let the injury situation make him put, say, Donovan Smith on the field in the second half with a third-string line.
"We had kind of a rough day yesterday from an injury standpoint and that's one of the reasons we had to cut it back today," said Dirk Koetter. "We've got a game Thursday night, and even though we have 90 players we always seem to get hit at one spot. Right now we're just a little bit thin on the offensive line, and that affects everybody else. We'll see – there's still a lot of guys up in the air for Thursday night. Obviously we're not going to take any chances with any player for preseason game number one."
Typically, the entire offense (give or take a player or two) exits at the same time in the preseason opener. That leaves the second-team quarterback playing behind a second-team line, and so on from there. The Buccaneers may have an unconventional quarterback rotation this August, but they can't let that affect how they deploy everyone else on offense.
"The quarterback thing is one piece of it," said Koetter. "We can't play the offensive line, the receivers, we're not going to double their reps because of the quarterback situation. We're going to stay on our progression and the quarterback situation is a separate issue that has to be worked out. And yes, we're extremely concerned about it."
For instance, there's the specific issue of center Ryan Jensen, new to the team in 2018 and now responsible for adjustments at the line of scrimmage, having a chance to get comfortable with both Fitzpatrick and Winston. That can happen in practice – Fitzpatrick takes the majority of the first-team reps but Winston gets in with that group from time to time – but it might not happen in the games.
"I don't know for sure if [Jensen] will work with more than one quarterback," said Koetter. "He might, he might not. You never know exactly how many plays you're going to get. Typically, your first group plays about 15 plays, which should take you through at least one quarter. Ryan, the fact that he's playing next to Ali [Marpet] is helping him a lot. [We're] very pleased with how physical he's playing, but as far as making all the calls and working with the quarterback, that's a process. It's where it should be but it's not behind or ahead."
As for Fitzpatrick, his wealth of experience is a significant advantage in this uncharted process. He has 13 NFL seasons and 119 starts under his belt, and he's also getting a lot more first-team reps in training camp than he did a year ago. One of the reasons the Bucs signed Fitzpatrick in 2017 was they believed he could step in and succeed without too much preparation, and in fact he did so in three starts last fall for an injured Winston. The same could apply to how this year's preseason reps are divvied up.
"The biggest thing with the reps with me is, how does your arm feel? Are you throwing too much? And definitely not," said Fitzgerald of his workload so far. "The reps have stepped up a little bit but not a ton. I'd say the reps that I do take are a little more meaningful than the ones I had all of last year, just in terms of working with two and threes. I feel really good physically, the arm feels great, and going into Year 14 I couldn't ask for my body to feel any better, probably."
So Fitzpatrick may leave the game after a quarter or so on Thursday night, but that doesn't mean he'll have no impact on the last three periods. The sideline of a live game is the perfect time for the veteran quarterback to share his hard-earned knowledge with young players, such as rookie quarterback Austin Allen.
"I love helping the younger guys, whether it's a receiver, quarterback, tight end, running back, just trying to get a feel for them and help them out as much as possible," said Fitzpatrick. "There's definitely patterns, certain things that happen every preseason that you either try to exploit or avoid, especially that fourth game with some of the younger guys. I've got plenty of sayings and wisdom for Austin Allen, things for him to do."