By Zach Selby
Thirty-eight-year-old free agent quarterbacks are not normally sought after in the NFL, but that is exactly the situation Ryan Fitzpatrick found himself in this offseason.
"The climb that I've made in my career, I'm playing better right now than I've ever played in my career," Fitzpatrick told reporters after signing with the Washington Football Team. "I just feel like I've got a lot of great football ahead of me, which sounds crazy being 38 years old and figuring some things out about myself."
Fitzpatrick has played for eight teams during his 16-year career heading into 2021, and there were many interested in becoming his ninth; he does not want to reveal which teams he spoke to, but he did say there were "more than three." Regardless of what the list looked like, it was Washington who emerged as Fitzpatrick's top choice, and the journeyman was in Ashburn, Virginia, to sign his contract on March 18.
So what was it about the burgundy and gold that made Fitzpatrick view Washington as a prime destination? The answer lies in what the team has done since hiring head coach Ron Rivera last January. In one year, Rivera used his culture to turn a young, three-win team into a division winner. The plan is to keep building on that foundation, and Fitzpatrick wants to do whatever he can to help that process.
"I think everybody thinks it's headed in the right direction," he said. "I'm just happy to be here and be a part of it."
As one of the oldest active players in the NFL, Fitzpatrick has heard plenty of opinions about a variety of head coaches. When it comes to Rivera, Fitzpatrick noticed a common theme: he has garnered a high level of respect for his honesty and coaching style. People love playing for him, Fitzpatrick added, and hearing about those qualities made joining Washington an attractive prospect.
Then there are the results on the field to consider. Since getting his first head coaching opportunity in 2011, Rivera's teams have won their divisions four times, made five playoff appearances and made a trip to the Super Bowl. So, not only has Rivera been able to win over his players with his culture, but he has also backed it up with postseason appearances, which has eluded Fitzpatrick thus far in his career.
When Fitzpatrick finally had the chance to speak with Rivera in person at the Inova Sports Performance Center, he got a firsthand experience as to why so many players and coaches vouch for him.
"I've heard so many great things about him, and just getting the chance to sit down with him...and talk, you can tell early on that he's going to command the room, that he's got the respect of the team and all his peers," Fitzpatrick said on the Ross Tucker Podcast. "That was exciting for me."
What also impressed Fitzpatrick was how Rivera was able to take a 3-13 team and more than double its win total in just one season. And with Washington winning five of its final seven regular season games, he can tell the franchise is heading in the right direction.
"The team I just came from was very young," Fitzpatrick said, "and I feel like I had a big part in kind of bringing them along. I'm really excited to try to do the same thing in Washington."
That plays into the other factor that Fitzpatrick was considering in finding a new team; he wanted to find a place where he could compete. From what he has heard about offensive coordinator Scott Turner, he will have plenty of chances to do that. The second-year play-caller likes to cater his offenses around a quarterback's strengths, which in Fitzpatrick's case involves giving his receivers chances to thrive. He calls it "playing with that absence of fear."
"I'm not a guy that's going to sit there and be afraid to throw the ball down the field," he said. "I'm going to try to make the right plays. If I've got a chance and I've got my guy 1-on-1, I'm going to give them a chance. I think guys like playing with me because of that. I'm able to instill confidence in guys because I give them opportunities."
Fitzpatrick is not worried about learning another offense; he said Turner's scheme has a number system that he used 15 years ago, so he'll have to reintroduce himself to some of those tendencies. His top priority is establishing relationships with his teammates, which includes playmakers like Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas and newly-signed Curtis Samuel. He does not know much about them yet -- most of his scouting reports on them have come from his kids playing with them on Madden -- but he is looking forward to building that chemistry.
"I've definitely watched some highlights and things from some different guys," he said. "But being able to dive into the film and actually be able to get together with some of these guys. Sometimes I'll...put them in different categories and maybe compare them to different guys I've played with in the past. That seems to be something that's helped me jumpstart or maybe even fast forward a relationship with a certain guy and a connection on the field."
Fitzpatrick feels like he is playing better than he ever has, and he still loves the game. All he wanted was a chance to compete, and Washington has provided him with the opportunity. He admits that he has too much confidence in himself sometimes, but that has turned out to be part of what has allowed him to have a long career. He intends to bring that same swagger with him to Washington.
"I've had the ultimate belief in myself," he said. "I feel like whatever situation I'm put in, if I have the chance to compete, that's all I want. I'm excited for the opportunity."