Ryan Fitzpatrick was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback, then he wasn't, and now he is again. Will the future bring yet another change in his status this season? He's not worried about that.
In other words, he's not looking over his shoulder, mainly because he doesn't anticipate giving the team a reason to make another change.
"I think that's true if maybe you're dealing with a younger guy, or a guy that doesn't have – whether it's warranted or not – as much confidence as I do in myself," said Fitzpatrick. "That's not something I ever really think about. Especially with the quarterback position, it's performance-based. If you play well, you're going to be out there; if you don't, you're not. I understand that part of it as well as everybody in the league does, probably. So that's the way I look at it. I'm just going to go out there and play, try to have fun with it."
This is the third time that Fitzpatrick has been bumped up to the starter since he first signed with the Buccaneers – his seventh NFL team – in the spring of 2017. The first two were by necessity, as he filled in for an injured Jameis Winston for three games last year and a suspended Winston at the beginning of this year. This time around, Winston is healthy and available, but the Buccaneers are turning to Fitzpatrick because they believe he gives them the best chance to win at this time. The team has won four of the seven games that he has started and his overall passer rating in those games is 101.6.
"What I've learned is that you've always got to stay ready, and you've got to take advantage of your opportunities when you get them," said Fitzpatrick. "Because the biggest thing about the NFL is it's a performance-based league and you have to go out there and perform, and if you don't there are other guys that are going to be able to. That's something that I've learned, and I've been on both sides of it plenty in my career."
Fitzpatrick performed particularly well in the first two games of this season, winning NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards for both efforts, and in a relief performance last week in the Bucs' nearly-successful comeback bid in Cincinnati. He had some ups and downs in starts against Pittsburgh and Chicago, but overall has an NFL-best 119.6 passer rating heading into his next start on Sunday at Carolina.
Winston also had plenty of productive stretches in his three starts, but his 10 interceptions in 13 quarters of play become too much of a problem, leading to the return to Fitzpatrick. Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who made that decision and announced it on Monday, has not elaborated on how long Fitzpatrick will remain at the helm, but it's reasonable to believe he'll hold onto the job as long as he plays well and the team is winning.
"To us, it's this week in Carolina," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken of how far ahead the team is looking at the situation. "I anticipate that he'll play well and that he'll continue to be our quarterback, but I don't know that. I did the same with Jameis. You anticipate a player playing well; you anticipate them continuing to play well."
When the Buccaneers went back to Winston after Fitzpatrick's four starts and the bye week, it wasn't a traditional benching for the veteran passer. The Buccaneers had no problem with Fitzpatrick's play but had planned all along to go back to the talented 24-year-old passer they were trying to develop into a franchise quarterback. Fitzpatrick has had other occasions in his career in which he has been benched for performance, even as recently as two years ago with the Jets. As it turned out, what he experienced in 2016 has made him less likely to worry about another benching.
"I've been through pretty much every situation," he said. "I've been in a lot of situations where I wasn't the guy, then became the guy, then wasn't the guy again, or went into the season as the guy. My year in 2016 with the Jets, I think I got benched three different times in the same year. We put so much into this game, and so when you're not able to go out there and continue to compete and try to be successful like you know you can, it's hard and it takes a toll on you – not just the physical part of going out there but the mental and emotional part.
"And for me, that's what made me stronger. That's kind of what made me who I am in terms of being able to be resilient and to handle the adversity and to be in the those tough situations where you're still going to show up and be the same guy at work every single day. Those things, for me, I always use them as building opportunities to grow as a teammate and as a person. That's how I've always looked at it and reacted to it."
Fitzpatrick's confidence shows not just in his throws but in his willingness to adapt the Buccaneers' offense on the fly. Depending on what he sees when he gets to the line, he doesn't always run the exact play that the coaches have sent in. Fitzpatrick's targets have come to expect the unexpected, in a good way.
"You never really know what you're going to get with him," said tight end Cameron Brate, who was even once on the end of a no-look pass from Fitzpatrick last season. "And that's not to say you're going to get something bad. I'm saying, you walk up, we call a play, and Ryan will find a way to get us into an even better play, maybe something that you really haven't even practiced that week. So you've always got to be on your toes with him."
According to Koetter, Fitzpatrick's 72-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans during the furious fourth-quarter rally last week was an example of such an adjustment at the line. Monken sent in a play that was supposed to go to the offense's left but Fitzpatrick read an opportunity in the other direction and had Evans run a route to the right that included a double-move that sprung him wide open.
Evans' catch was the longest play on an afternoon in which the offense set a single-game franchise record with 576 yards of offense. With contributions from both Fitzpatrick and Winston, the Buccaneers have put up the second-most passing yards through the first seven games of a season by any team in NFL history. Given the array of weapons around Fitzpatrick, there's no reason to expect the passing numbers to slow down too much. But Fitzpatrick knows that the turnovers do have to slow down, and that the wins have to pick up for any of it to matter – and likely for him to have no reason to look over his shoulder.
"Being in the office with the skill guys that we have is exciting, but like we've kind of said the last few weeks, the numbers are nice but the wins are what we care about," he said. "So we've got to go out there and find a way to [win]. First and foremost for me, I've got to limit turnovers and get our team in the end zone, and we've got to find a way to have more points than them at the end of the game. Those are simple things, sitting here and talking about them, but things we've got to continue to focus on executing."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.