With one last check of the Twitter feed before bedtime last night, a significant portion of my offseason hopes for the Washington Football Team were realized:
Former Dolphins’ QB Ryan Fitzpatrick reached agreement with the Washington Football Team on a one-year deal worth $10 million that could grow to $12 million with incentives, per source. Fitzpatrick is expected to head to camp as the starter, with competition from Taylor Heinicke.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2021
As I detailed in January, Fitzpatrick is exactly the right option for this team at this point in time, given the surrounding circumstances and Coach Rivera’s interest in building long-term, durable success:
Ryan Fitzpatrick is getting up there, but like a fine wine, he seems to get better with age. His 95.6 passer rating was the second highest of his career, and had the Dolphins started him all season, they likely would have made the playoffs. Fitzpatrick is a near ideal fit for our situation. He can compete on a level playing field with Allen and Heinicke for the starting role, and if he doesn’t win the job, he can mentor the winner throughout the season. Grabbing Fitz also takes pressure off Rivera to draft a near term starter this year, instead allowing them to continue to build out the rest of the team. Finally, Fitz absolutely embodies Rivera’s “guys who like playing football” ethic.
Fitzpatrick’s addition has a multiplicity of benefits, which I’ll outline below, and which range from today until well into the future.
Washington is still a very young team, with a defense that has a ceiling of “elite.” The offense already has several key weapons in place: Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, JD McKissic, and Logan Thomas. And, the offensive line, which was #6 in the league last year, will return for another season together in 2021, and likely get depth added this offseason. The pieces are falling in place for long term success. Inevitably, the “we’re just a quarterback away” conversations began in earnest as soon as the season ended.
First, there was talk of trading away several first round draft picks AND a key defensive talent or two for the likes of DeShaun Watson, or, more recently, Russell Wilson. Nevermind the fact that the loss of draft capital and the ballooning cap hit would have gutted the team beyond the year or two of - admittedly - exciting play from either top-shelf QB, trading away key components of what made the team competitive this year - and hamstringing the team’s ability to replace them - seems completely counterproductive.
As free agency approached, several hail mary options bubbled up: Trading a Day 2 pick for Sam Darnold, bidding for Marcus Mariota, hoping that Mitch Trubisky still has something in the tank. All of these players are very much x factors, and there is absolutely no guarantee, or anything close, that they will be decent QBs in the NFL again, if they ever were. Two were likely to involve the sacrifice of draft capital. All three were likely to cost at least what Fitzpatrick did, and all three are serious projects in one form or fashion. The last thing this QB room needed before last night was another project.
Finally, the draft. Thankfully, a significant portion of the WFT fanbase has been shellshocked away from trading up for QBs in the draft. Between the deep wounds of the RG3 debacle and the wash out of Dwayne Haskins, many fans are appropriately cynical about the likelihood a first round QB can be counted on to provide long term relief. But some remain, and the talking heads are virtually certain it should be a top priority for the team.
The reality is, anything less than an irresponsible haul wouldn’t get Washington from #19 into the range of selecting a top 3 QB in this year’s draft. Additionally, if the team had taken a QB at #19, even a “developmental” QB, with Heinicke and Allen alone in the QB room, the media narrative would eventually become, “when will Mac Jones/Kellen Mond/Davis Mills start?” Fitzpatrick’s addition doesn’t rule out the drafting of a QB in 2021, but it does go a long way to ensuring the immediate pressure on such a player is minimized.
A Short Term Move
Of the non-DeShaun Watson/Russell Wilson “nuclear” options on the table, I’d argue that Fitzpatrick (or Allen or Heinicke, if they can beat him out), gives Washington the best chance to be competitive in 2021. Had Fitzpatrick been allowed to start for the Dolphins all season in 2020 - rather than having to bail out Tua in fits and starts - Miami likely would have made the playoffs. As it is, they went 10-6. For really the first time in his career, Fitzpatrick was on a good, albeit developing team in 2020. I see the 2021 WFT as in a very similar place to the 2020 Dolphins in terms of team development.
Highest-graded QBs past their first read since 2019:— PFF (@PFF) March 14, 2021
Russell Wilson - 91.5
Josh Allen - 90.6
Patrick Mahomes - 90.1
Ryan Fitzpatrick - 86.7 pic.twitter.com/9JV78Fys1q
The other short term options on the table? Heinicke/Allen? Collectively those QBs have shown very little ability to stay healthy for long stints of time, and, though that may eventually change, it would have been irresponsible to roll with them and a practice squad QB into the season.
Very few of the QBs in the draft - particularly those Washington would likely have access to - are “pro ready.” Most of them would be well-served by a year (or two) on the bench, and the likely consequence of rushing them into action would be poor performance on the field and a significant setback or derailing of their career. The other downside - mentioned above - is that if Heinicke/Allen got injured or didn’t play well, it wouldn’t take long at all for the media and restless fans to begin calls for thrusting the unprepared rookie into action. That’s not a distraction Ron or the team needs.
Finally, the aforementioned vets: Trubisky, Darnold, and Mariota. I’d argue that Fitzpatrick has the highest floor, and perhaps even the highest (one year) ceiling of the bunch. Below are the passer ratings for each of the four QBs for the last year in which they were the predominant starter for their team (2020 in all cases except Mariota, 2019).
Ryan Fitzpatrick - 95.6
Mitch Trubisky - 93.5
Marcus Mariota - 92.3
Sam Darnold - 72.7
As a whole, Ryan Fitzpatrick's reputation is an appropriate one. When you look at how he's fared the last few years, though, it drastically undersells how productive he's been https://t.co/dvflACBlIu— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) March 16, 2021
A Long Term Move
Some look at a 1-year deal for a 38 year old Fitzpatrick and say this is the embodiment of a short term move. How can he be the future? Of course Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the WFT QB of the future. The stability he brings, however, will allow Ron and his staff, and the rest of the team, to focus on building out the rest of the team for the future.
I’ve said it elsewhere, but the endless treadmill of searching in vain for a superstar QB is one of the most corrosive shibboleths of NFL team building. “Find the star QB and the rest will fall into place.” One only has to look at the 2020 Houston Texans to see how that plays out.
Several of the ascendant teams in the league, the Colts, the 49ers, the Dolphins, seem to have quietly figured this out, while others chomp at the bit to put it all on the line in the annual QB sweepstakes. To me, this move signals that Rivera is “opting out” of the superstar QB paradigm and instead focusing on bolstering his - already well composed - team so that when an adequate QB comes along, he can be plugged into a well-oiled machine. Think of 2021 Ryan Fitzpatrick as 2020 Philip Rivers, or even 2020 Ryan Fitzpatrick. This is a team that can win a playoff game in 2021 and be, through responsible free agency and two drafts, completely outfitted to be a Super Bowl contender in 2022.
I suspect that to the ears of many fans, that sounds like crazy talk, but this time, we actually are pretty close folks, and Fitzpatrick’s signing allows us to stay the course and get better. What more could we possibly ask for? Thanks, Ron.
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