February 25, 2021

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tua Tagovailoa and the art of mentoring the competition

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RYAN FITZPATRICK’S WILDEST moment over the past four months, the one that encapsulates the totality of whatever the hell he’s experienced, was easily the most symbolically accurate: 19 seconds left, down two to the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday night, playoff elimination for the Miami Dolphins in sight, defensive end Arden Key yanking on his facemask like the brake on a runaway train, receiver Mack Hollins uncovered 34 yards downfield like he just stepped off the sideline, the ball somehow leaving Fitzpatrick’s hand with enough force and accuracy to overcome the extreme leftward torque Key applied to his body. A completion, a 15-yard penalty, and ultimately a game-winning field goal.

Fitzpatrick has seen some stuff this season. He has had his spirit lifted and his heart broken and his resolve tested. He has lost his job to rookie Tua Tagovailoa through no fault of his own, and he has done everything to gain it back, only to have it remain someone else’s. It has been — and this seems safe to say even from a distance — an exhilarating and confounding time.

He began the season as the starter for an unexpectedly competitive team, doing it with a feral style — aggro, chin-first — that ran counter to the better angels whispering inside his 38-year-old body. He was fired (his word) during the team’s Week 7 bye week, apparently without warning, and just as his team found some traction. He was summoned off the bench in a Week 11 loss to Denver after Tagovailoa struggled. He started in Week 12 while Tagovailoa rested a thumb injury and went 24-for-39 with two touchdowns in a win over the Jets. He returned to the bench for three more weeks before coming off it to earn the win on Saturday.

Obviously, Fitzpatrick knew this time would come. Tagovailoa was the fifth pick in the 2020 draft; he is the Dolphins’ photogenic and marketable quarterback of the future. But by any available metric — statistical, mystical — Fitzpatrick gave Miami its best chance to win every game this season. Instead, he was not only asked to relinquish his job but to transition to a new one. Not just backup, that most expendable and dismissive of titles, but mentor. Remember the job you were doing so well? So here’s the deal: We need you to let this other guy do it, and we need you to help him get up to speed in a big hurry.

And now, after a miracle finish made possible only because of him (182 passing yards in the final 9:47 after Tagovailoa had 94 in the first 50:13), Fitzpatrick returns to the sideline this Sunday as the 10-win Dolphins attempt to conclude an improbable playoff run.

“If there’s a hole through a wall in his house right now where one of his fists went through,” said former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in October, after Fitzpatrick was benched: “Let’s just say I wouldn’t blame him.”


THE POSITION OF quarterback has become so burdened with overwrought meaning and fantastical symbolism that it’s barely recognizable as an athletic endeavor. Too often it is elevated to seem more like secular deity. And yet, just hear this out, the Fitzpatrick/Tagovailoa saga brings up an aspect of the position — maybe the only aspect of the position — that might be underexamined: the dynamic between the starter and the backup. The job title — quarterback — remains the same, but the distance between the two is immeasurable.

An examination of the dynamic seems particularly relevant this season, with quarterbacks and backups swapping jobs at a cadence fast enough to seem random. In Washington, Kyle Allen took over for Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith took over for Kyle Allen and now Taylor Heinicke might be taking over for Alex Smith (by way of Dwayne Haskins). Carson Wentz was benched for Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. Taysom Hill and not Jameis Winston replaced an injured Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Chicago sang the catchy Trubisky-Foles-Trubisky anthem all season long.

Some of the moves were made out of necessity, some out of hope, some out of palms-to-the-sky desperation. All were made knowing they could change not only the fate of a season but a franchise. And the remarkable thing is how many of them worked.

Hill had completed just six passes in his first three NFL seasons, and yet he was chosen over Winston — the 2015 No. 1 pick who led the NFL with more than 5,000 yards passing and 30 interceptions in 2019 — to replace Brees for four games starting in mid-November.

Saints coach Sean Payton dismissed any concerns about Hill’s unrefined, quarterback-as-bone-saw style by saying, “The job is to win.” The corollary, as it relates to the decision Payton made, is obvious: The job is to not lose, and Hill’s skill set — limited but predictable — gave the Saints a better chance of not losing than Winston’s. Payton was right; the Saints won three of four games with Hill as the starter.

In Chicago, Mitchell Trubisky started the season, was benched for seven games and came back to play well enough to put the Bears in a playoff chase that would have been unthinkable a month ago. Seven weeks on the sideline gave Trubisky — an avid reader of leadership books — a more forceful attitude toward what the Bears’ offense should be doing when he’s in charge.

“One of the biggest things is him being able to stay positive during a negative situation,” Bears coach Matt Nagy told reporters last week. “He’s really taken it on. He’s put it completely on himself.”

And in Miami, the Dolphins are 8-2 since Tagovailoa took over (with the occasional assist from Fitzpatrick). It’s definitely unconventional, and it contradicts every known principle etched in the quarterback canon. Is it a two-quarterback system, or is Fitzpatrick just the Dolphins’ trained first responder? “If we go to a relief pitcher in the ninth, that’s what we’ll do,” coach Brian Flores said after beating the Raiders. “Fitz, he’s always ready to go.”

Perhaps the boldest move happened in Philadelphia, where the Eagles’ exasperation with Wentz peaked when he completed six passes and took four sacks in a Week 13 loss to the Packers. He was replaced by the rookie Hurts, whose charisma and adaptability brought life to a lifeless team and had a predictable effect on Wentz, who reportedly indicated he is not interested in staying in Philadelphia as a backup.

There are a bunch of crazy stories out in that great big world, stories of jealousy and pettiness as well as selflessness and support. Games are won and lost, careers are launched and destroyed. The quarterback room is either a sanguine, harmonious environment where the starter is revered and rookies are barely visible, or it’s a pit of vipers.

(Whether it’s the emotional distance created by television or the utopian view of sports as the world’s last great one-for-all meritocracy, the idea that there is a level of Victorian decorum in locker rooms and huddles is absurd. “One time in Seattle I got benched for Trent Dilfer,” says Hasselbeck, now an ESPN analyst. “The whole stadium was cheering for him and booing me. I liked Trent — we were friends — but I was so mad. At that moment, I wanted to fistfight Trent.”)

Longtime NFL quarterback Charlie Batch, who began his 15-year career as a starter in Detroit and ended it as a backup in Pittsburgh, says, “Oh, I’ve heard stories. Some backups don’t want to help the starter because they want to play. In some cases the backups won’t share information, or maybe they’re holding back info on audibles — they don’t want to see the starter succeed.”

It’s clear by Batch’s tone that he’s not only heard the stories but been a character in them. Pressed, he says, “At the time, I was young, and I didn’t know what was happening. The older I got, and the more I saw in the game, I looked back and thought, Really? That’s what was going on?” He stops himself, old bile rising, and says, “I’m not going to put anybody on blast, but …”

Batch could go on all day about the weirdness and the politics. As his four-year run as a starter in Detroit was winding down, the team anointed Mike McMahon, a fifth-round pick from Rutgers, to be his successor. To ease McMahon into the job, the team decided to give him a preordained series — usually the third or fourth — every game. “It would be his turn, but if we were starting at our own 10, they’d yell, ‘Charlie, get in there,'” Batch says, laughing. “Really? If this is his series, why isn’t he in there? So what I’m saying is, I understand Fitz’s frustration.”


“FIRST, THERE’S GOT to be trust,” says Colts coach Frank Reich, who with Jim Kelly formed one of the most famous starter-backup combos in NFL history. “You don’t want to feel any tension in the meeting room. You don’t want anything creating any sort of negative vibe in there. If the backup is not for the starter — and by for I mean celebrating his success — you can feel it. Players are so smart; starters know when the backup is really for them and when they’re really not.”

Reich spent his rookie year in Buffalo backing up Vince Ferragamo and another guy whose name escapes him. It was 1985, the Bills were terrible, and Reich got one moment on the field: against the Jets during the second game of December, in sub-20-degree weather and above 20 mph winds. It was third down, some other guy (not Ferragamo) got hurt, and Reich was summoned.

He whipped off his jacket, hopped around to loosen up the viscous legs, swung the arm around a couple of times, blew on his hands and ran to the huddle. He called the play, his frozen lips hiding the shakiness of his voice, took the snap and cut a dart through the wind to running back Greg Bell on a corner route for a 19-yard completion.

This was what Reich had been waiting for. He was feeling good. I can do this, he thought. Buffalo’s Rich Stadium came alive. Reich allowed himself a moment to look around before ducking into the huddle to call the next play. “And just as I’m ready to call it out, whatever his name was” — his name, for posterity, was Bruce Mathison — “sticks his head back into the huddle and just says, ‘I’m good — get out of here.'”

Reich is one of the few in NFL history for whom backup is an honorific. He played 13 NFL seasons and started just 20 games, but his performance in a wild-card game in January 1993, when he came off the bench and led the Bills to a win after being down 35-3, is an uppercase landmark in Buffalo: The Comeback.

And the culmination of Reich’s experience that day in Buffalo and over that decade in uniform can be found today in Indianapolis, where Jacoby Brissett is, along with New Orleans’ Hill, the most consistently utilized backup in the NFL. (“Who says the starting quarterback has to play every day?” Reich asked a reporter from the Indianapolis Star earlier this season.) A starter last season, after Andrew Luck retired and before Philip Rivers was signed in the offseason, Brissett has his own package of plays the Colts employ near the goal line and on third- and fourth-down situations.

“I feel deep down one of the intrinsic motivators in life is I want to contribute, and I have something to give,” Reich says. “As parents, my wife and I have long taught our children it’s about contribution and not credit. I really value a collaborative approach involving everybody. Everybody works really hard, and that’s why in our offense we spread the ball around so much. T.Y. Hilton is really good; we could throw it to him all the time and we’d look pretty smart, but everybody deserves a chance to be part of it. Quarterback is not a position where you can do much rotating, but I know Jacoby can make a contribution to make this team better, and that helps all of us.”

The Steelers played the Colts last season in Pittsburgh, where Batch is a member of the pre- and postgame broadcasts. Reich ran across the field before the game to see Batch, who was backed up by Reich for two years in Detroit. They hugged (that’s how long ago it was), and Batch told him, “It’s been 20 years, but I never took the opportunity to thank you. You showed me how to be a professional.”

How important is the relationship between the starter and the backup? Batch went on to be a valued backup in Pittsburgh, behind Kordell Stewart and then Ben Roethlisberger, and when I ask him how many of his 15 years in the NFL he attributes to Reich’s example, he says, “At least eight. I played 15, and more than half of them I owe to Frank’s professionalism.”


FITZPATRICK’S DEMOTION BACK in October led to one of the more remarkable news conferences in recent memory — part hostage video, part telehealth therapy session (an extremely 2020 scene). Fitzpatrick, his beard an untended shrub, sat in front of a computer screen, his voice stiff, stared into the vast electronic void and bared his humanity for 6 minutes and 48 seconds. “This profession is interesting in that I basically got fired yesterday and my day of work today consisted of me in Zoom meetings listening to the guy who fired me,” he said. “And then I was locked in a spaced-out room with my replacement for four hours. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that.”

This was not typical podium talk, that empty-calorie exercise in verbal evasion and obfuscation. This was something else, something rare and fleeting: a free look inside a man’s soul. “He had 24 hours to think about this and be calm, figure out what he wanted to say,” Hasselbeck says. “That was the ‘All right, now I’m calm’ version. That’s what made it so remarkable.”

It had the potential for ramifications outside the quarterback room. As Fitzpatrick said, there aren’t many jobs like this one. The belief that these decisions aren’t always made for pure football reasons — or by the purely football guys, like Flores, who nonetheless have to wear it — can create dissension.

“They created a situation where the guys in the locker room have a chance to resent Tua,” Hasselbeck says. “They can look at him and say, ‘This is a meritocracy, and you didn’t earn it.’ For the guys in the locker room, the loyalty to the decal on our helmet is far less than the loyalty to the guys next to you. Coaches get it, but owners don’t. They can misjudge the importance of that brotherhood.”

The fact that it didn’t is a testament to Fitzpatrick’s professionalism and the 22-year-old Tagovailoa’s likability. “I bet there’s not a quarterback alive who doesn’t understand and empathize with all Fitz has been through,” Reich says. “I don’t know him, but what I know of him, whatever frustration he felt, when he and Tua got back to work together, everything was fine.”

After Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins to the last-second comeback over the Raiders, he sounded like a different person than the one who spoke 24 hours after losing his job. “To me, he was, ‘Hey, let’s go — go get ’em,'” he told NFL Network when asked about replacing Tagovailoa. “I thought that was a very mature thing. After the drives, it was me coming to the sideline and just talking with him. Hey, this is the kind of game it’s been. These are some of the throws I’m making and why. Still teaching, and him sitting there and learning.”

It discounts the competitiveness of professional athletes to assume they’re hardwired to accept a demotion and move on — punch a wall one day, make the transition from leader of many to teacher of one the next. But in Fitzpatrick’s case, it might be true. After running for a touchdown against the Patriots, a miked-up Tagovailoa sat on the bench and asked Fitzpatrick to critique his ball security, to which Fitzpatrick replied, “Doesn’t matter — you made it into the end zone, baby.” And after Fitzpatrick’s miracle throw to Hollins, Tagovailoa said, “In a way, it wasn’t really that shocking. They call him FitzMagic for a reason.”

Tagovailoa has gone so far as to describe his relationship with Fitzpatrick as that of “father and son,” which is borderline remarkable given how many times one has been benched for the other this season. To be sure, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history (Montana-Young/Favre-Rodgers) knows these situations don’t often play out like an after-school special. Hasselbeck can’t count the number of times he was asked what Brett Favre taught him when they played together in Hasselbeck’s first two seasons. He would come up with an answer, innocuous and impossible to fact-check, mostly out of politeness. But the truth was, Hasselbeck was on and off the practice squad and Favre was an MVP. Favre barely knew Hasselbeck was there.

“I was allowed to be in the room while Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren coached Favre,” Hasselbeck says. “It wasn’t Brett’s job to teach me.”

But learning from someone isn’t mutually exclusive to being taught by them, and Hasselbeck can reel off a list of attributes he gleaned from Favre. How he talks to guys in the huddle. How important it is that he knows the name of everyone in the building. How he stands at the podium after a loss and takes the blame. How he intimidates the other team. “Whatever a quarterback experiences early on in the NFL — that’s what becomes normal,” Hasselbeck says, which is why it was such a shock to him when he arrived in Tennessee as a 12-year veteran, walked into his first Titans quarterback meeting and was greeted with, “Hey, thanks for coming. Thanks for being here on time.” “It blew me away,” Hasselbeck says. “Where I came from — Green Bay and Seattle — normal was my car being there before anyone else’s in the morning. Thanks for being on time? I’m your starting quarterback — when else would I get here?”

Two years later, Hasselbeck signed with Indianapolis to back up Andrew Luck. Before a workout in the summer of 2013, Luck asked his receivers, “Do you all want to throw after we run and lift?” When the time came, Hasselbeck watched as an equipment guy raced to the field with a bag of footballs, a trainer lined up a water cart and two video workers lined up to film it. It was a routine that looked familiar to Hasselbeck, who’d seen another Colts quarterback lead the same exercise.

“Everybody on the same page,” Hasselbeck says. “It was as if Peyton Manning never left the building.”


BATCH HAS STORIES, and this one might be his favorite:

Five years ago, in a mid-November game between the Steelers and the Browns, Landry Jones started at quarterback while Roethlisberger rested a wonky ankle. Nine plays into the game, Jones incurred an injury deemed to be worse than Roethlisberger’s, and so Roethlisberger took to the field and completed 22 of 33 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns in a Steelers win.

Batch was retired by then, and he interviewed Roethlisberger on the set of the local postgame show. Off camera, Roethlisberger said, “Charlie, I don’t know how you do this s—.”

Batch was justifiably confused. He’d just watched the man come off the bench with a bum ankle and throw for all those yards and all those touchdowns and win a game he wasn’t even supposed to play.

“What are you talking about?” Batch asked him.

At this point, Batch’s voice — summoning all those years he was dismissed as just a backup — assumes a new level of pride, because Roethlisberger shook his head and told him:

“Not knowing when you’re playing but always having to be ready. That right there? That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

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