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A closer look at when Ryan Fitzpatrick performs best

England Patriots Vs. New York Jets At MetLife Stadium Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Amid discussions of “quarterback competitions” in the lead up to training camp, on top of the endless conversations about Washington’s “long term solution” at the position this offseason, one consistent theme - from just about everyone except the coaching staff - has been the perceived inadequacy of 2021’s most likely starting option: Ryan Fitzpatrick.

I’ve been on board the Fitz train since before it pulled into Union Station, but much of the focus from his arrival in DC through the draft and the early days of training camp seemed narrowly fixated on the near certainty he wasn’t going to be Washington’s starting quarterback for the next decade.

Much handwringing ensued, but as it has become clear that Fitzpatrick has built a rapport with his new teammates and that Rivera highly values veteran leadership at the position, the focus of press coverage has changed a bit.

Earlier in the week, listening to NFL Radio, former Dolphins’ Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey was interviewed about Tua Tagovailoa’s future in Miami. In time though, the conversation turned to Gailey’s opinion of Fitzpatrick, and specifically his projected performance in Washington.

Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Fitzpatrick and Gailey

There may be no individual in the NFL who has a better understanding of Fitzpatrick’s limitations and capabilities than Gailey. When Gailey was head coach for Buffalo from 2010 to 2012, Fitzpatrick was his primary starting QB. It wasn’t a great tenure for either Fitzpatrick or Gailey (Gailey was fired after going 16-32), but it was a pretty lackluster Bills team overall.

In the three years Gailey was there, Buffalo’s defense finished 24th, 26th, and 22nd in the league. The Bills’ offense was better, but still not great, finishing no higher than 14th in the league during his time with the team.

Gailey and Fitz reunited a few years later, in New York, where Gailey was hired as the Jets’ Offensive Coordinator under defensive-minded Head Coach Todd Bowles. There, Fitzpatrick accumulated - by far - the most single-season wins (10) of his career, alongside a top 10 Jets’ defense in 2015. Fitz also put up the most single-season yards (3,905), TDs (31), and lowest sack percentage of his career that year.

Unfortunately, that season was also capped off by perhaps the biggest meltdown of Fitzpatrick’s career. In the final week of the season - in a “win and in” game - the Jets went down early 14-0 to the Bills. The Jets and Fitzpatrick clawed back to within 2 points. At 17-19, and with about 11 minutes left in the game, Fitzpatrick proceeded to throw 3 interceptions. The Jets would eventually lose 22-17. The loss was a learning experience for Fitz, however.

Playing it safer, he admitted, “in hindsight, that probably would have been the best thing to do.”

The following season, the Jets’ defense collapsed, falling to 28th in the league, and by the end of the season, Gailey and Fitzpatrick would be gone. Bowles would follow a couple of years later.

Fitzpatrick and Gailey would come together - presumably - one last time, in 2020 with the Dolphins, where Gailey was again the Offensive Coordinator. The 2020 season presented several unique challenges for the duo, in addition to the COVID-19 impacts affecting the entire league. With the drafting of Tua, and the disrupted offseason, there was almost no opportunity to install the offseason with the rookie. Subsequently, Fitzpatrick started the first six games, going 3-3 and then was inserted in the line-up in fits and starts, often to clean up the mess created by Tua, throughout the rest of the season.

Overall, Fitzpatrick is credited with having gone 4-3 in 2020, but I’m not certain that’s an accurate reflection of his role in some of the games where he came in in relief later in the season. By and large, the Dolphins’ defense was stout last year, finishing 6th overall in the league, though they did give up 31 points in each of two of the losses attributed to Fitzpatrick.

Despite finishing 10-6, like the Jets had in 2015, the Dolphins failed to make the playoffs.

Despite their occasional struggles together, Gailey’s appreciation for what Fitzpatrick brings to the table is apparent:

“I’ve been with (Fitzpatrick) a long time,” Gailey said Tuesday. “We’ve had some great times together and we’ve had some bad times together. I think I have as much respect and I like him as much, if not more, than anybody I’ve ever coached. He’s a great teammate and a great, great, great competitor.”

“He does things with this offense that we have that are truly amazing to me,” Gailey said. “We’ll call a route and he’ll change one little wrinkle to it and be able to take advantage of the defense. The other day, he saw the defensive end’s stance, so he knew the coverage, so he changed one route and we get a touchdown.”

And the feeling is clearly mutual:

“He’s a guy that allows players to play to their strengths,” Fitzpatrick said in a video call with South Florida media. “He’s got an offense that is not very complicated to learn, but very complicated for defenses, in the way it’s presented to them.”

“Chan does a great job of utilizing different guys’ talents, to put them in a position to succeed, and not necessarily telling them there is a certain way to do it,” Fitzpatrick said. “But allowing them some freedom and flexibility, within certain constraints, to do the best job that they can.”

A couple of the things that came out in the NFL Radio interview with Gailey were that while he recognized Fitzpatrick’s inclination to fly by the seat of his pants at times, he believed that with a defense strong enough that he’s not having to play hero ball consistently, Fitzpatrick has the capacity to be effective and successful.

Gailey also allowed Fitzpatrick to play with the “freedom and flexibility” mentioned above, and in so doing, Fitz was able to rise to the occasion. Gailey was effusive with praise about Fitzpatrick’s intelligence, and his ability to tap into his experience to be able to manipulate defenses, and effectively put his own touch on the gameplan. It will be interesting to see if, within the confines of his own scheme, Scott Turner allows Fitz a similar level of improvisation.

Fitzpatrick’s “Historic” Defenses

Throughout most of Fitzpatrick’s career, he’s played with some pretty awful defenses. Out of the twelve seasons where he’s started at least 7 games, his defense has been bottom 5 in five of them. It’s been bottom half of the league in 7 of them. His defenses have been top ten three times, and in two of those seasons, his team finished 10-6 and narrowly missed the playoffs. In the third case, the 2014 Texans, the team finished 9-7.

Fitzpatrick’s QBR plotted against his teams’ defensive rankings for those seasons can be found below:

Season/Team/Fitzpatrick’s QBR/Team Defensive Ranking (For the seasons where Fitzpatrick started at least 7 games)

2008 - Cincinnati - 52.5 - 19th

2009 - Buffalo - 32.5 - 16th

2010 - Buffalo - 52.3 - 28th

2011 - Buffalo - 50.1 - 30th

2012 - Buffalo - 43.8 - 26th

2013 - Tennessee - 53.7 - 16th

2014 - Houston - 61.1 - 7th

2015 - NY Jets - 62 - 9th

2016 - NY Jets - 39.2 - 28th

2018 - Tampa Bay - 61 - 31st

2019 - Miami - 68.3 - 32nd

2020 - Miami - 76.9 - 6th

Presented this way, one notices several things. First, since about 2013 (and excepting 2016) Fitzpatrick’s play level has been on a steady upward trajectory, with the best seasons in the middle of his career coming with the best defenses that he had played with to-date (on the Texans and Jets). For the past three seasons, though, we see Fitzpatrick bucking a bit of a trend, playing some of his best football in spite of his two worst defenses, in 2018 and 2019, and then - probably not surprisingly - having a great season playing with the highest ranked defense of his career, the 2020 Dolphins.

In my estimation, this bodes very well for Washington in 2021. Washington’s defense last year - ranked 4th in the NFL - was better than any defense Fitzpatrick has played alongside in his career, and it appears to have improved this offseason. I would be surprised if, given the historical pattern of Ryan’s career this doesn’t end up being his best statistical season, assuming he’s able to stay healthy and resist the urge to try to put this team on his back.

Poll

How do you expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to perform this year?

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    He’ll have the best season of career.
    (417 votes)
  • 54%
    I expect him to have a top 5 season of his career.
    (522 votes)
  • 2%
    He’ll have one of the worst seasons of his career.
    (27 votes)
966 votes total Vote Now