A dozen years ago, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick suited up for the St. Louis Rams as they met the Kansas City Chiefs in the teams' shared 2005 preseason finale. Fitzpatrick, the 250th of 255 players drafted that year, had also played in the Rams' first three warmup games but had only thrown a total of 10 passes. Jamie Martin was going to start the game for St. Louis while Marc Bulger sat out, but Fitzpatrick was set to get his biggest dose of playing time yet.
It went well. Fitzpatrick replaced Martin midway through the second quarter…and was promptly sacked, losing a fumble that led to a quick Chiefs' touchdown. All that did was set the stage for a big Rams comeback; down 20-10, the home team rallied to a 27-23 victory, with the rookie passer completing 12 of 22 passes for 295 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran five times for 31 yards. Fitzpatrick's 20-yard touchdown pass to Dane Looker late in the fourth quarter provided the game-winning points.
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As you might expect, Fitzpatrick is perfectly fine with the NFL's preseason slate remaining at four games, despite persistent talk of shortening the August slate.
"Well, if the NFL didn't have four preseason games than I wouldn't be standing here right now," said the 13th-year veteran with 116 career regular-season starts. "It's a great opportunity. I think extending the roster to 90 for that fourth game is awesome because it gives a lot of these guys a chance. I was one of those guys, not just for one or two years but for a lot of years, where in that fourth preseason game I was playing for a job."
The Buccaneers' ratings in this years Madden video game.
Fitzpatrick's preseason performance helped him get his foot in the door and he started three games for the Rams as a rookie. However, he played in just two contests over the next two seasons in St. Louis and Cincinnati and did not throw a regular-season pass in that span. Still, as he said, that final preseason game continued to be a showcase for him. Fitzpatrick started the Rams' fourth preseason game in both 2006 and 2007; after the latter game he was traded to Cincinnati. He then started the preseason finale for the Bengals in 2008. That '08 tune-up preceded his first real run as a starter, as he would open 12 games for the Bengals that fall. He's been entrenched in the NFL ever since.
The first summer in which Fitzpatrick got to sit out the fourth preseason game was in 2010, his second year in Buffalo. He didn't play in Week Four the last two years either, as the New York Jets' first-string quarterback. However, Fitzpatrick is preparing to play for the Buccaneers on Thursday night against Washington, as starter Jameis Winston will get the time off.
Fitzpatrick has no problem getting back into the Week Four action, even with his long history as an NFL starter.
"[It's] not hard at all," he said. "I love to be out there. I love playing and being the guy. The role that I'm in now asks me to do different things. I'm still going to prepare the best way that I know how. My role here is certainly different than it was the last two years in New York. It's the reality of the situation and so I just try to be professional every day and go about my business and try to do the best job that I can to prepare myself and help out the other guys. I'm just trying to add whenever and however I can some of the experience that I have."
As Fitzpatrick noted, the NFL made a change in 2017 that allows more players to get the sort of opportunity that he did back in 2005 (and 2006 and 2007, etc.). Previously, teams had to trim their rosters from 90 to 75 players between the third and fourth preseason games. The 15 players cut were obviously from the back end of the depth chart…just the sort of roster hopefuls that could use another chance to put some good work on tape.
Fitzgerald would be paying close attention to Thursday's game even if he wasn't starting.
"Everybody likes to complain now about the shortened offseason and all that stuff; well, this is a real chance for some of these guys who have been putting in a lot of work to show what they can do on tape, and not just audition for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but for everybody," said the veteran passer. "It's one of those things, especially as a veteran, and all the starters that aren't going to play, you've got to stay into it because these are guys that are fighting. It's fun to watch that."
With Winston held out and Ryan Griffin recovering from a shoulder injury, Fitzpatrick and undrafted rookie Sefo Liufau will be the only quarterbacks available for the Buccaneers on Thursday night. Even if Liufau gets an extended audition, there will plenty of snaps for the two passers to spare. Fitzpatrick wouldn't necessarily need another game to be ready for the regular season but he knows it can be a useful part of his preparations.
"With each preseason game, you try to go into it looking at the other team…there's not a lot of scheming going on but being prepared in that regard," said Fitzpatrick. "[You are] preparing to kind of have a general feel for what's going to be coming in certain situations, whether it's third down or red zone. I think it just helps up ramp up the preparation a little bit, getting ready for the regular season."
Fitzpatrick's passes on Thursday night may not factor much into the Bucs' decisions at quarterback, but each one of those throws will have a target waiting on the other end. It could prove to be a very important night for a young wide receiver or tight end, and the veteran quarterback has a chance to be a part of it. Fitzpatrick certainly knows that good things can come out of the fourth week of the preseason.