TAMPA — In 13 seasons, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been a starter. He's been a backup. But what do you call him this year for the Bucs?
At 35, Fitzpatrick is the player who has to save the Bucs season before it really gets started. He has to navigate the turbulent first three games — at New Orleans, home against the Super Bowl champion Eagles and hosting the Steelers on Monday Night Football — while Jameis Winston serves a suspension.
"I mean, I thought I had seen and been through it all," Fitzpatrick said Friday, "but another year, just another different situation.
"I have been thrown in so many different situations and thought things were great one week and then thrown six interceptions the next week, and then got benched one week, and thrown six touchdowns the next week. So it's an absolute circus in this league and you have to look at it one week at a time."
In a way, Fitzpatrick may be the perfect quarterback to clean up Winston's mess. He's a survivor, a long shot to ever earn a job in the NFL as the 250th pick in the 2005 NFL draft out of Harvard.
But somehow he has been good enough to start 119 of the 133 games he's played with seven teams.
Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter for the Bucs last season while Winston was out with a shoulder injury. The Bucs then signed him to a one-year, $3.3 million contract, including a $1.3 million signing bonus, hoping they wouldn't need him in this role.
But the team and coach Dirk Koetter gained confidence in Fitzpatrick when he beat the Jets and Dolphins. He finished with 1,103 yards passing with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
"I think he's just got the right moxie to play quarterback, and he's done it for a bunch of different teams,'' Koetter said. "We're fortunate enough to have him. We saw what he could do when he was our starter last year for three games. There's no reason for us to be afraid of Ryan playing quarterback for us. He's going to play fine."
At this stage of his career, what Fitzpatrick may lack in arm strength he makes up for with experience and anticipation.
On Friday, during the 11-on-11 portion of practice, Fitzpatrick connected on a deep pass to receiver DeSean Jackson, something Winston struggled to do last season.
"Did you see that 60-yard bomb!" Koetter said after practice.
Said Fitzpatrick: "I feel like I have to go ice my arm… I think it went over 30 yards without a flutter so that was a record for me.
"But yeah, (Jackson) is obviously a home-run hitter and guy that defenses have to account for and they're afraid of, so we're going to try to give him as many opportunities as possible."
In fact, Fitzpatrick is pretty happy with the number of skilled receivers, running backs and tight ends the Bucs have assembled. He's in a pretty good position to evaluate what he has around him.
It's rare a backup quarterback would have the advantage of getting so many practice reps with the first-team offense. Rather than have to play alongside many who won't make the 53-man roster, the Bucs will protect Fitzpatrick in preseason games with the starting offensive line. He'll benefit from having improved timing with players such as receivers like Jackson, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Fitzpatrick sees traits of others receivers he has played with before. Now he has a chance to apply his experience and fine tune his chemistry. That's hard to do in the traditional role as a No. 2 quarterback.
What did the Bucs learn about Fitzpatrick last season? He's very skilled at reading defenses. He gets rid of the football quickly and with pretty good accuracy. He's a better athlete than people give him credit for and can run effectively for first downs.
Typically, he makes the right decisions and has confidence to make tight throws.
You won't get the scramble plays that Winston is capable of, and the Bucs may want to rely on their running game and defense more to create field position.
In leadership style, Fitzpatrick is the polar opposite of Winston. He has a calm demeanor that can be contagious and reassuring.
"Jameis is a more vocal leader and Ryan is a less vocal leader but still a real good leader nonetheless. I think his style will show up," Koetter said. "Again, when a backup quarterback is brought to a team, the coaching staff tells him he's there to support the starter. Well, that's not the case anymore. I think we'll see and the players will feel what I saw back many years ago when it's his show.''
Does Fitzpatrick feel like he has to be the Bucs savior?
"I mean, the season hasn't even started yet," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a cliché. … Not even based off last year talent wise, looking at the team we have out here, I get in that huddle on offense and I mean, it's a pretty exciting huddle to be in as a quarterback looking at some of those guys."
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud