On any given Sunday, Ryan Fitzpatrick could throw for 400 yards and four TDs.
On any given Sunday, Ryan Fitzpatrick could throw three interceptions, perhaps with a playoff berth on the line in the regular-season finale. Just ask the New York Jets.
He has a wealth of NFL experience … and a 59-86-1 record as a starter in 16 seasons.
He’s mastered any number of playbooks with his million-dollar Harvard brain … he’s also made any number of ill-fated gambles because his hundred-dollar Harvard arm often can’t cash the checks his brain writes.
Fitzpatrick is personable, popular with teammates and offers signature swag with his Reconstruction-era beard. He’s also a football vagabond who’s never appeared in a postseason game.
In short, he’s a prototypical backup quarterback – which makes the Washington Football Team’s decision to sign him to a one-year, $10 million contract and ride with him as the starter for 2021 all the more confounding.
Fresh off an improbable NFC East title run, the WFT is a team on the rise under coach Ron Rivera, the foundation forming around a potentially elite defense and promising arsenal of offensive weapons, including wideout Terry McLaurin, running back Antonio Gibson and emerging tight end Logan Thomas.
It would have been the perfect time for an ascending team to trade for a low-cost, high-upside quarterback like Sam Darnold. Even when that didn’t happen, Washington – picking 19th in this year’s draft – had golden opportunities to move up for passing prospects Justin Fields and Mac Jones as they drifted in Round 1. But they were ultimately leapfrogged by the Chicago Bears for Fields while Jones went to the New England Patriots four spots before the WFT selected.
Just this week, 2015 league MVP Cam Newton, who teamed with Rivera to make the Carolina Panthers a Super Bowl entry, shook loose after the Patriots declared Jones the victor for their QB1 duties. Yet Rivera quickly de-escalated any talk of a Newton reunion, saying Tuesday, “It did pop up on our radar.
“But just so you know, Ryan Fitzpatrick is our starting quarterback. OK, so that’s where we are.”
Yep, that’s where we are. But where exactly are we going?
Even if Fitzpatrick surpasses the career year he had with the Jets in 2015, a campaign that ended shy of postseason with that infamous crash and burn in Buffalo in Week 17, what then? He’ll be 39 in November. A free agent way back in 2016, Fitzpatrick belatedly re-signed with the Jets after it became apparent neither he nor the team had any better options. He reverted to his mean during that season, including a six-interception day at Kansas City, and was benched first for Geno Smith, then Bryce Petty. Fitzpatrick was no longer a Jet in 2017.
Rivera’s team has far more upside than those Jets, who almost caught lightning in a bottle. But that further begs the question why there wasn’t a better plan here. Fitzpatrick is a risk taker as much as he’s a game manager, and his uninspiring performance in the preseason only underscored his proclivities.
But even if he calculates this organization back to postseason, Washington will almost inevitably have to reset the position yet again in six months. Maybe Rivera and Co. can pull a rabbit out of the hat and entice Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers to D.C. … assuming either finally becomes available. In such a scenario, Washington could reasonably go from Square One to Square Ten in no time.
But barring that?
Hard to see the Football Team, which is probably far too talented to return to the draft’s top 10 any time soon, being in a much better spot to select a top quarterback next year. And Washington isn’t in the same position as the Dolphins, Eagles, Giants or Lions – all already own extra first-round picks, which make it far easier to climb the draft board when a team targets a QB.
Maybe Fitzpatrick tears it up in 2021. Maybe Taylor Heinicke builds on the impressive performance he produced when thrown into the postseason crucible last season against the eventual champion Buccaneers. Maybe Rivera has to reverse his stance on Newton if his current QBs, including Kyle Allen, fail to deliver.
Regardless, it seems inevitable that at some point fans of the WFT will be rearranging those three letters as they begin to ask hard questions about the franchise’s approach to any team’s most important position.
And they’re unlikely to be alone given other potentially catastrophic miscalculations that seemed to unfold around the league this offseason.
The Bears executed what still could be a franchise-altering draft, vaulting up the board to secure Fields before enlisting a bodyguard for him after dealing up again in the second round to pick Oklahoma State offensive lineman Teven Jenkins.
Then they might have botched matters.
Chicago brass decided to make Jenkins the team’s left tackle even though he predominantly played on the right side in college. Shortly after the draft, the Bears cut reliable left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who’s only 29 and hasn’t missed a game since 2014, to clear salary cap space. Oops. (Leno will protect Fitzpatrick’s blind side in 2021.)
Subsequently, Jenkins, who had a history of back problems and concussions in college – Chicago GM Ryan Pace said those issues were known and didn’t deter the Bears – couldn’t get on the field during training camp and eventually had to undergo another procedure on his back. He’s currently on injured reserve but might suit up this season. And yet …
Most of the discussion around the Bears this preseason centered on whether they should start Fields or adhere to their initial plan of using free agent signing Andy Dalton as QB1. While that’s served as a nice water cooler debate, there’s little dispute that both passers were shoddily protected this August behind a subpar line that hindered the entire offense. The current plan is to trot out 39-year-old Jason Peters, who signed with the team last month, at left tackle. Germain Ifedi, who has pretty much been an unqualified bust since the Seahawks drafted him in the first round five years ago, will man the right side.
Not only that, Chicago will face three of last season’s top sack artists – the Rams’ Aaron Donald, Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson and Browns’ Myles Garrett – in the first three weeks. Perhaps little wonder poor Dalton will be thrown to the wolves initially even though he lacks Fields’ ability to outrun danger.
With the fourth pick of the draft …
The Atlanta Falcons selected Kyle Pitts, and he might turn out to be a great choice given the dearth of impact tight ends in the league. Pitts has been widely hailed as the best prospect at his position, maybe ever.
And yet Fields has probably generated more buzz this preseason than any other player in the league. The Falcons could well rue the decision not to grab the Georgia native as the successor to veteran Matt Ryan, 36, who might become a valuable commodity on the trade market in a year or so. And if it turns out you picked Travis Kelce, good as he is, instead of Patrick Mahomes? Uh oh.
With the fifth pick of the draft …
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Ja’Marr Chase, who was the best receiver in college football in 2019 when he helped quarterback Joe Burrow lead LSU to the national title and onto the short list of best college football teams of all time. Reuniting Chase and Burrow in the Queen City holds obvious appeal.
But Chase, who opted out of the 2020 season, bombed badly in preseason, dropping pretty much everything thrown his way. That will presumably change, but his issues have already reignited the debate that Cincinnati should have chosen a left tackle – either Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who has also struggled while trying to master the right side in Detroit, or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater – to safeguard Burrow, who recorded his first three snaps last weekend as he continues to recover from multiple knee ligament tears that prematurely ended his rookie season in 2020.
Assuage the leader of the Pack
The Green Bay Packers front office knew it was at loggerheads with reigning league MVP Rodgers long before their issues became public knowledge on draft night. Yet the team has adhered to its modus operandi, which includes a general aversion to importing free agents and a tendency to prioritize defense, not weapons for Rodgers, with premium draft picks.
On the one hand, understandable. General manager Brian Gutekunst has largely adopted predecessor Ted Thompson’s methodology, one that’s maintained this small-market franchise as a perennial NFC power over the course of Rodgers’ career. But on the other, wouldn’t this have been the year to maybe take a risk and pursue a player of, for example, Julio Jones’ caliber to mollify the aging passer at a time when the Packers have come up short in consecutive NFC title games? Or maybe re-sign All-Pro center Corey Linsley? Or maybe draft a finished product like receiver Elijah Moore in the first round rather than a project like cornerback Eric Stokes?
As it stands, Rodgers’ relationship with the organization seems to remain pretty frosty even as he dedicates himself to teammates for a 17th season in Titletown. However, all signs now point to it being Rodgers’ last season in Green Bay after the final year of his contract was voided. Surely there were better courses of action given what Rodgers has meant to this franchise and could have meant for another four or five years.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.