Monday, March 18th, 2019

Oh, oh, oh….

Neil Reynolds

Oh, oh, oh….

Neil Reynolds NFL

As Ryan Fitzpatrick ensures another year in the NFL with a move to Miami, we look back as Sky Sports’ Neil Reynolds caught up with one of the most colourful, entertaining and popular quarterbacks in the NFL.

The 2018 NFL season has served up many outstanding stories. Among those was Ryan Fitzpatrick and his record-breaking start to the year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With Jameis Winston sent to the bench through suspension, his journeyman replacement came roaring out of the gates and unleashed a mystical and captivating force on the rest of the league that can only be described as ‘Fitzmagic.’ He kicked off his 14th season by throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns in an eye-opening 48-40 road win over the New Orleans Saints, which led him to admit (albeit tongue in cheek) that “it takes a special quarterback to put up 48 points in the Superdome”.

Fitzpatrick followed up that season opener with a 402-yard, four-touchdown display during a 27-21 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, leading to ‘that’ press conference in which he stole DeSean Jackson’s clothes and channeled his inner Connor McGregor to the delight of millions around the world.

By the time he had thrown for 411 yards and three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers a week later, his name was etched in the record books as the first quarterback in NFL history to notch three consecutive 400-yard passing days. He would end 2018 with a very credible 2,366 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and a career-high quarterback rating of 100.4.

As one of the more colourful characters in the league, Fitzpatrick is a fan favourite across the NFL. And he has been able to build up quite the following having played for the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, New York Jets and Bucs from 2005 to 2018.

In our conversation that took place in the United Kingdom during the NFL UK Live tour in January, Fitz talked about life in the NFL, offensive schemes that are taking hold and the recent hire of Bruce Arians as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Let’s get started with a question everyone wants to know… if you had to lose your beard or your chest hair, which would you choose?
As all my bearded men out there know, that’s a tough question. I love body hair. Because I’m in Tampa now and I frequent the beach, I think if I got rid of the chest hair that would look good.

We’ll get the light-hearted ones out of the way and then talk some football… so in all your years in the NFL, you must have been involved in some good locker room and training-camp pranks?
I’ve been involved in plenty of them and here is what I learned early on – and I made this mistake – when you’re in these prank wars, you never prank a specialist. The kickers, punters and long snappers have too much time because they don’t meet during the day – they do nothing.

The latest one I can remember was in Tampa and I messed with one of the kickers who I thought had messed with me. I thought it would be kind of funny to hide his cleats and clothes and put them in the cold tub. Well, I came back from a meeting and my locker had been completely cleared out and all that remains are Christmas lights, tape, glitter and confetti. I spent the next two hours cleaning up. I’ve seen guys take the tyres off another player’s car or they’ve filled cars with popcorn. There have been a lot of good ones, but I try to keep it tame and respectful.

What are the challenges of moving from team to team as often as you have?
I got traded away from the Rams when my son was just six months old. So I learned very early on in my career that this is business. From a football point of view, everything changes from team to team and schemes are different but there are also plenty of similarities. There are only so many packages and so many route combinations that can be run or ways you can have a blocking scheme up front and hand the ball off.

A lot of the difficulty when you shift from team to team is not in learning new plays, it’s learning the terminology and being able to relate it to what you have done in the past or deciding if you want to pick it up completely new. It’s an interesting world and the way coordinators do things is so different with play-calling, tempo and pace, and the RPOs that are taking over the league.

Let’s talk a little bit of X’s and O’s then because you must have seen some changes in your 14 years in the league. What is your take on the offensive explosion we saw around the NFL in 2018?
My coordinator for the last two years was Todd Monken and he comes from the college mindset of Air Raid and spread them out. We have RPOs now which, as you know, are running plays with the option to throw the ball if the defense collapses. We always talk about the trickle-down effect in things inside and outside of sport but we’re seeing the trickle up effect right now in football. We’re seeing the way these spread offenses are being run in college and we’re seeing the talent coming up to the NFL, whether that be the linemen up front or the skill positions. They are so good at that style of play and the talent level is so good that they are almost forcing the NFL to adapt to that.

It’s such a game of spacing now and it’s about spreading defenses out and giving the quarterback the option to hand it off or throw it. It has been quite amazing – I’m going into my 15th year and to see the changes over the past five years has been amazing.

Teams are making offensive hires at head coach now and everybody is looking for the next Sean McVay because of the way he changed Jared Goff’s career in a single year. It’s so much about franchise quarterbacks now that teams are bringing in head coaches who can specifically help the quarterback.

As you say, so much of the NFL is about the quarterbacks, but do you also see increased creativity in the running game?
There are a lot of different styles that can be identified now. You still have those downhill runners like Derrick Henry and they have a place in our league. But the position got devalued a little bit in recent years. Some teams feel they can win with scheme instead of certain players.

But we have seen Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley become franchise-changing running backs with their dynamic skill sets. The one thing that has changed the most since I’ve been in the league isn’t necessarily about downhill or side-to-side running backs. It’s more a case now that all running backs need to have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield – they’ve got to be able to line up as a wide receiver and create mismatches against the defense. To me, the skillsets that these guys have coming out of college now – with this huge emphasis on catching the ball – means running backs have gotten that much better as receivers because there is more of an emphasis at the lower level.

You’ve played a long time in the NFL. There are highs, for sure, but do you have any regrets?
I was asked that question a lot on the NFL UK Live tour and I really don’t. The experiences I have been able to enjoy and the friends I have been able to make in the NFL mean it is hard to have regrets. I have played 14 years and have never played in a playoff game, so that might be one. But I really don’t have any regrets.

There aren’t many times in life when you’re able to act like a kid when you’re feeling pure jubilation. I have thrown touchdown passes to win games and you can share those experiences with your teammates. That, in a nutshell, is why I still want to be out there after 14 years and why I still want to play.

Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new head coach in Bruce Arians. What did you think of that move and the fact that Coach Arians has publicly backed Jameis Winston?
I don’t know Bruce really well – he did some broadcasting this year and we have production meetings before the games transpire. He was the announcer and I was the quarterback so we sat in the room together and talked football and everything about the Bucs.

Now he has been named as head coach. I truly respect everything Bruce has done in the NFL. Carson Palmer is a guy I played with for a few years in Cincinnati and he had a great career before taking it to the next level with Bruce. I was happy to see them hire a guy who was older than me. Now if you’re over 35, you’re too old to coach in the NFL.

With Jameis, he was trying to inspire a guy he believes in. The NFL is always about winning and competition and putting the best guys on the field. That’s what is always going to happen. He was just trying to inspire confidence in a guy who was coming off a rough year.

This article originally appeared in Issue XLIV of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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