TAMPA – How big is the challenge facing Ryan Fitzpatrick, beginning with Sunday's game at New Orleans?
Put simply, he's being asked to do something he has only done once in 13 NFL seasons.
The 35-year-old Fitzpatrick, who has played for seven teams, has quarterbacked 23 road victories in his career. Only once did a victory come against a team that finished the season with a winning record.
It happened in 2009 when the Bills beat the Jets 16-13 at MetLife Stadium. What's more, Fitzpatrick didn't even start that game, coming off the bench for Buffalo to beat the Jets' Mark Sanchez, who helped the cause by throwing five interceptions that day. Those Jets finished 9-7.
With Bucs starter Jameis Winston suspended for three games, Fitzpatrick will face a gauntlet of division winners. After Sunday's opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the NFC South champion Saints, the Bucs host the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles before the Steelers visit Raymond James Stadium on Monday Night Football.
Everybody knew this would be a big mountain to climb for Fitzpatrick and the Bucs. Given his modest road record, it's looking more like Kilimanjaro.
"Well I don't think it's very big at all,'' offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "We went 2-1 last year with Fitz as our quarterback. It's a team game. We've got to play well around him. I thought we played well around him last year. I think we've played well around him in the preseason, so I don't see that at all as an issue."
Of course, Fitzpatrick didn't face any division winners last season. With Winston out with a shoulder injury, there was just enough Fitz-magic to beat his former Jets team 15-10 at RJS and then win at Miami 30-20 the next week. The Jets finished 5-11; the Dolphins 6-10.
And yet, Fitzpatrick is being asked to play savior for a Bucs season that could be lost before Winston returns in Week 4 at Chicago.
But with 119 career starts, Fitzpatrick looks at his circumstance as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
"Every time I go out there and try to win, so I don't know that it changes anything at all,'' Fitzpatrick said of what's riding on the Bucs three-game start. "It's a cool thing as a quarterback to be the Opening Day starter. It's a neat thing being out there with everybody with the excitement and the butterflies and the crowd into it.''
Coach Dirk Koetter admits the club knew last November when the NFL announced its investigation into allegations Winston groped a female Uber driver in 2016 that he may face a suspension.
Fitzpatrick had contemplated retirement. He said his decision to continue his career was not based on the possible opportunity to start should Winston be suspended.
I love stories that show me WHY athletes are great at what they do. Thomas Bassinger's piece on Drew Brees' uncanny ability to evade pressure is one of those stories. #Saints @saints @tometrics #TBvsNO @drewbrees #Bucs https://t.co/TJ2hUJ8tl3— Frank Pastor (@FrankPastor66) September 7, 2018
"I came back because I like playing football,'' Fitzpatrick said. "And I enjoyed being here.''
At least the Bucs were able to prepare for this situation. Winston was suspended in late June, plenty of time to adjust the practice repetitions at quarterback to get Fitzpatrick as much timing as he could with the starting receivers and running backs.
"I think that the reps that I was able to get with some of the guys during training camp — I think that's helpful,'' Fitzpatrick said. "You know, having a year under my belt of being comfortable in the offense and then getting some time to throw some balls to those guys to interact and talk with the lineman to get on the same page. And (center) Ryan Jensen being a new guy in our system, the more time the better, and because of the situation, I was able to get a few more reps than I normally would."
There really isn't too many examples for the Bucs to draw on for a template this season. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was suspended the first four games of 2016 for his role in Deflategate. Jimmy Garoppolo, who became injured in the second game, combined with Jacoby Brissett to go 3-1. In 2010 when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games in 2010, the Steelers went 2-2 behind Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.
In the NFL, and especially in the NFC South, it's about the quarterback, Martin Fennelly writes. And the Bucs have yet to prove they truly have one. #Bucs #Buccaneers #Saints #TBvsNO @TB_Times @mjfennelly https://t.co/ozdumPcY6y— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) September 6, 2018
Incidentally, both teams went to the Super Bowl, with the Patriots winning it.
"What comes to mind for me is there's no such thing as a backup football player in the NFL,'' defensive tackle Beau Allen said. "It doesn't matter if you're a gunner on special teams or a defensive lineman. If you're on the field in an NFL football game, you're an NFL football player. You never know when your time is going to come and when it does, you've got to perform.''
Contributing to Fitzpatrick's lack of road success is that he's rarely found himself on good football teams. The Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans and Jets are not exactly postseason fixtures.
Of fhe three games the Bucs will play without Winston, Sunday's opener may be the hardest. Eagles starter Carson Wenz still is out and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles was shaky in the opener against Atlanta. The Steelers could be without holdout running back Le'Veon Bell.
Fitzpatrick says the Bucs array of weapons on offense – from Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones – give them a chance Sunday.
"The talent is there in all the position groups," Fitzpatrick said. "But potential only goes so far. You've got to go out there and prove it. So far the way those guys, especially in that receiver room, the way that they've worked this offseason and the attitude they bring to practice every day, the different skills sets that we have in that room are really impressive. Does that mean a whole lot? No. We've got to produce. I've got to be able to spread it out to those guys and let them do what they're good at and hopefully the production comes.''
And maybe a win or two.