One thing you can say about head coach Ron Rivera is that he knows what he wants.
That is especially true when it comes to his starting quarterback, which is a role the Washington Football Team is looking for a player to fill for the 2021 season. It made sure Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, both of whom flashed some talent at various points last season, would be part of that search by tendering Allen and re-signing Heinicke, but it still wanted to add someone else to make it a true competition.
That's where Ryan Fitzpatrick comes into the picture, and based on Rivera's criteria for a starting signal-caller, he checks all the boxes.
"He's got to be tough, first and foremost," Rivera told Colin Cowherd on March 12, three days before the team reportedly agreed to terms with Fitzpatrick. "He has to be tough -- mentally tough, physically tough. He has to have a true feel and love and desire for his teammates. It's an amazing thing, but when that teammate knows that...guy's going to do everything that he can to be there for his teammates, be around his teammates, it's an intangible. And then I think [be] fearless."
Washington had other paths it could have taken to find a starting quarterback, but Rivera chose Fitzpatrick because he possessed these qualities. No matter where he has gone in his 16-year career spanning eight teams, Fitzpatrick has been praised for being a good teammate who is tough and fearless. And it sounds like Rivera expects him to put those skills on display once again.
"He was a guy that when I was in Carolina at one time and we had to compete against him, you always sat there and go: 'Gosh, this guy -- there's something about this guy,'" Rivera said during his free agency press conference Thursday. "It's going to be intriguing for us to see exactly how it unfolds and how it fits with us."
If Rivera is looking for examples of toughness, he doesn't need to look any further than the wild finish to the Miami Dolphins' Week 16 game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Dolphins had developed a unique rotation at quarterback for the 2020 season. Rookie Tua Tagovailoa took the reins as the starter from Fitzpatrick in Week 8, but that did not mean the team was done with the veteran's services. If the Dolphins found themselves in a tough spot -- like they did facing a 16-13 deficit in the fourth quarter against the Raiders -- Fitzpatrick could come in as a "closer" and hopefully lead the team to a win.
Fitzpatrick took over for Tagovailoa with about eight minutes left to play and led the offense on three straight scoring drives, but the true highlight of the game came with 19 ticks on the clock. The pocket was collapsing around Fitzpatrick as he surveyed his options. He saw receiver Mack Hollins running free down the left sideline, but defensive end Arden Key grabbed and pulled his facemask at the moment of his release. Still, Collins came down with the throw, and after the Dolphins were rewarded with a 15-yard penalty, Jason Sanders jogged onto the field and made the game-winning field goal.
ESPN gave the Raiders a 99.9% chance to win prior to the play. After the game, Fitzpatrick called it the biggest pass of his career.
"I think the odds were pretty low there for us to be able to complete something with the proper yardage and not have to throw a Hail Mary but actually kick a field goal," Fitzpatrick said. "I didn't know that it was complete. As you guys saw, my facemask was getting pulled and my head was getting ripped off. I turned around to say, 'Hey, facemask,' just to make sure they saw it. I think Jesse Davis, or maybe Myles (Gaskin) had to tell me that it was complete, but I didn't know that we completed it."
Fitzpatrick’s moxy set Twitter ablaze with many praising the latest example of "Fitzmagic." It caught the attention of Washington's players, as well, and when Antonio Gibson heard the team was signing him, he was already anxious to see what the 38-year-old was going to pull off next in the burgundy and gold.
"He couldn't even see and he completed it," Gibson said. "I was like, 'Man, that man can ball.' So when they said we were picking him up, I was like, 'I'm ready for this.'"
A "calming and relaxing" teammate
If there is anything Fitzpatrick is known for outside of making mind-boggling plays, it's his ability to win over a locker room.
No matter where Fitzpatrick has gone in his career, he has no trouble getting people to like him. That is why so many of his Dolphins teammates vouched for him in his second season with the team.
"He just brings energy," Dolphins right tackle Jesse Davis told ESPN. "Everybody always comments on it, on how electric he can be and how he uplifts the whole squad, and even coaches. It's refreshing to play with him. He's out there getting us on correct assignments and watching him have fun throwing the ball and scoring touchdowns, it's just great."
Fitzpatrick is used to the process of getting to know a new team by now. The first thing he likes to do is make sure he is being true to himself and not trying to recreate his personality. For him, it's about being completely authentic. He wants to sit down with his teammates in the cafeteria and get to know them off the field. That extra effort, he said, "goes a long way."
"We felt we wanted to get a guy in here that has the experience and can help us going forward and can help us develop," Rivera said. "It's one of those things I talked about last season. It's not just about having a guy out there playing quarterback and trying to win, but also having a guy out there that helps everybody else develop."
From what Dolphins head coach Brian Flores saw, that is exactly what Fitzpatrick offers to a team.
"He's a great teammate, and that goes far beyond what you guys see on the field," Flores said. "So that's their interactions in the locker room, outside of the building. ... On the field, you guys see his energy, his enthusiasm, his support for his teammates, his willingness to put his body on the line for his teammates."
That approach goes back even further to his days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Adam Humphries spent time with Fitzpatrick from 2017-18. Fitzpatrick makes coming to work everyday fun, Humphries said, and he could tell how much passion the quarterback has for the game.
"Just being around Fitzpatrick and just the way he carries himself, it's calming and relaxing," Humphries said. "It allows you to play freely. I've enjoyed that part of Ryan."
Rivera told Cowherd he used to love how fearless Cam Newton was with the Carolina Panthers. Newton wanted the ball in his hands, Rivera said, and nobody scared him. It seems that is something he and Fitzpatrick have in common.
"I think my style of play, I'm going to give my guys chances," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm not a guy that's going to sit there and be afraid to throw the ball down the field. 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."
Fitzpatrick has never signed a contract that was longer than three years, which may partly influence his style of playing as if he has nothing to lose.
That dates all the way back to his NFL debut, when he led the St. Louis Rams to an overtime victory over the Houston Texans. If a receiver finds himself open, there's a good chance Fitzpatrick is going to look his way, even if they aren't the first read on a play. From what he can tell, that instills confidence in his teammates.
"Just kind of playing with that absence of fear, I think, goes a long way," Fitzpatrick said. "It's one of the reasons I still play, too, because I love doing it. I love giving guys chances. That style of play at quarterback is going away a little bit."
Fitzpatrick has always had confidence in himself -- he even said he probably has too much self-confidence. Ironically, he sees it as an advantage, and it has something to do with why teams are willing to keep giving him chances.
Fitzpatrick will have another chance to be a starter, as he will be part of a competition with Allen and Heinicke. As long as he stays true to the characteristics that enticed Rivera to sign him, he has a good shot of winning the job.
"I've had the ultimate belief in myself," Fitzpatrick 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."