TAMPA — Shortly after he learned he would be starting the first three games this season, Ryan Fitzpatrick saw the opportunity to do something few thought would be possible.
No, not take Jameis Winston's job.
The Bucs starting quarterback was suspended three games, but that's not the goal Fitzpatrick set.
"When everything happened in the offseason and it became that I was going to start the first three games, that's where all my focus went, into these first three games," Fitzpatrick said Friday. "I just wanted to do whatever I could possibly do to get this team to 3-0 and we're sitting here right now at 2-0 with a chance at it. So far, so good. But I am so focused on this game and trying to get it done with Pittsburgh and trying to get to that 3-0 goal that I had set for myself and the team this off-season. That's what I'm focused on."
While that may be true, the Bucs and Fitzpatrick never counted on this: after wins at New Orleans and against the Super Bowl champion Eagles, Fitzpatrick leads the NFL in passing yards (819) and passer rating (151.5).
His back-to-back games with at least 400 yards passing and four TDs to start the season had never been done before.
Already, players such as DeSean Jackson have lobbied for Fitzpatrick to keep the starting quarterback job even after Winston returns from a three-game suspension Tuesday. Jackson said earlier this week that the Bucs "can't take the hot man out."
"At the time being, I just kind of speak my mind and it's something I've kind of done my whole career," Jackson said. "If I feel a certain way, I'm going to say it. It's not my decision. Obviously, we feel like we have a great position to have two guys who can go out there and make plays and play at a high level. Obviously, Jameis did a great job in the preseason, him being heathy and getting his shoulder back. Just being in that situation, whoever is making the decision who's going to be the starting quarterback, you've got two great options."
Of course, Fitzpatrick doesn't put much weight to Jackson's endorsement. Jackson leads the NFL with 275 receiving yards and his three touchdown receptions match the total for all of 2017.
"What I've found in my career is when you throw touchdowns to somebody, they tend to like you," Fitzpatrick said. "And when you don't, they fall out of love with you. When things are going well, everybody seems to be best friends."
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has steadfastly declined to talk about who would start at quarterback when Winston returns. As he points out, they don't have all the information to make that decision prior to Monday night's game against the Steelers.
"It really doesn't make any difference when it happens," Koetter said. "I mean think about it. Why would we tell Chicago what we're doing?
"When we need to know, we'll know. I mean it's not going to be that big of a deal. You guys are making it much bigger than it is."
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken also became the latest kick the impending QB controversy down the road.
"We'll welcome him back," Monken said of Winston. "Jameis is part of this football family, but at this point, the guys we have now are moving forward for Monday night."
The general feeling is that as long as Fitzpatrick plays at a top-tier level and/or continues to win, the job is his even after Winston returns. With a short week following the Monday Night Football game against the Steelers, it's already likely Fitzpatrick will start Sept. 30 at Chicago.
What has allowed Fitzpatrick to thrive in the Bucs offense at age 35? By his own admission, he's never played better.
"Outstanding preparation," Monken said. "I think he's a consummate pro. It starts with him. His capacity to get us in the right things and yet take it to another level. I think our players in general, I thought our skill guys in general, when they've had one-on-one matchups, they've won. We've had excellent protection and he's been really, really accurate."
On Friday, Fitzpatrick practiced with a brace on his right knee, the first signs of wear and tear from the season. He also knows it's unlikely he will continue to produce 75-yard pass plays like the ones he connected on to Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard Sunday. But he has confidence that the Bucs offense will continue to find a way to pile up the points.
"You know, for me, why I play this game, is those guys in the huddle," Fitzpatrick said. "I have full confidence in them and it's nice to hear they have confidence in me. That's why I do it. I like that feeling out there, I like playing. And I just hope it carries over to this game. We've got an extremely tough opponent that's angry right now and looking for a win and it will be on the biggest stage so we're looking forward to it."
Then on Tuesday, Koetter can begin dealing with the lingering question: Fitzpatrick or Winston?
"You can't make a decision before it happens," Koetter said. "Because we don't have all the variables. Things could change on Monday. They could change tomorrow. There's no use worrying about decisions when you don't have all the information."