TAMPA, Fla. — FitzMagic has its own special celebration.
It’s not quite Aaron Rodgers’ discount double-check. It’s not quite Cam Newton’s Superman. It’s … unique.
“It’s kind of an in-between Superman and throat slash,” explains tight end Cameron Brate. “It’s in the middle. Elbows flaring.”
Brate calls it “The Fitz.” But it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Everything is working. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the pitcher throwing the perfect game. Don’t ask too many questions.
“It’s fun to be around,” says Brate. “It’s captivating. Everyone gets excited when Fitz is doing well. He gets super pumped. He brings a certain energy to the huddle — and experience.”
The Bucs’ 2-0 start has a football nation talking about what happens when Jameis Winston returns from his suspension next week. On Monday, after an upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles, head coach Dirk Koetter refused to go into that topic.
But the choice is easy: as long as Fitzpatrick doesn’t implode on Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the job should be his until further notice.
And that doesn’t just benefit Fitzpatrick; it benefits Winston too.
The once-dour One Buc Place is suddenly a wonderland, filled with happy campers who have bought in. The best example is DeSean Jackson, who was spotted late last season with a horrified look on his face when Winston did his “Taste the W” speech before a loss. Now Jackson is reborn, making huge plays and literally giving Fitzpatrick the shirt off his back so the victorious quarterback could address the media in a blinged-out “Pimppatrick” getup that turned the unbeaten Bucs into a national talking point.
The league is looking at Tampa with disbelief, but the Bucs are looking at each other with belief. And that starts with the quarterback.
“He knows how to beat coverage,” says tight end O.J. Howard. “He sees coverage before it happens. He knows how to put the ball in the right spot. He knows where it should go before the defense even gets adjusted.”
It’s only two games, but those two games came against Super Bowl contenders — at New Orleans and home against the Eagles. Winston has never had two games like this because almost no one in the history of the league has. Only Tom Brady and Newton have thrown for consecutive 400-yard games to start a season before Fitzpatrick, and Fitzpatrick is the first to throw for 400 yards in consecutive games since Philip Rivers in 2013.
“I can’t say enough of how Fitz has been playing,” says Brate. “It’s been unbelievable. Every single ball has been right on the money.”
This began in preseason, say some of the Bucs. Fitzpatrick meshed with the top receivers in a way he hadn’t before because he was with the 2s instead of the 1s. Winston’s suspension gave a new group the chance to find a rhythm and it took hold. And although everyone is pointing to the litany of duds from Fitzpatrick’s former lives, it’s not like he had a bushel of receiving talent with the Bills, Titans, Texans and Jets.
There are, of course, arguments for giving the job back to Winston. He is more than a decade younger. His ceiling is still unknown. The Bucs have to figure out whether to lock him in after this season, and that means figuring out whether Winston can lead in the way he’s supposed to. Fitzpatrick has had hot streaks before in his winding career, and they usually give way to icy streaks. The worst of all worlds is if the Bucs end up at 8-8, miss the postseason and still don’t have a full grasp of Winston’s potential because they were wishing on Fitz’s star.
Sorry, but none of those arguments are good enough. Just because Winston might be as effective as Fitzpatrick doesn’t mean he will be. Winston had a strong preseason, but he had Jackson, Brate and Mike Evans last year and the team was only so-so. Winston has promise, but Fitzpatrick has results.
Then there’s the leadership issue. Consider how stalwart linebacker Kwon Alexander describes Fitzpatrick:
“A great person, a great family man, a great leader. Somebody who is always doing the right thing, leading by example. Just a great all-around person.
And: “Doing what he’s supposed to do all the time. He’s always doing the right thing. Guys look up to him.”
This wasn’t a shot at Winston, but this is also not a description of Winston. The younger quarterback has not proven that he’s “doing what he’s supposed to do all the time.” That’s why he’s suspended. That’s why there was an argument for riding with Fitzpatrick into Week 4 even before this season started.
The Bucs have not yet voted for captains, which could be an indication that Koetter wanted more leaders to step up … or it could be an indication he knew Winston wouldn’t get the nod. Either way, Bucs not named Winston have led.
Now, if Winston accepts and embraces the backup role, that’s a good sign. Then, if Fitzpatrick stumbles later in the season, Winston can be in a position to inject the team with some youthful energy and that fabled arm. He can be a savior of sorts.
But if Winston is slotted right back into his old job, both the team and the fanbase could be alienated. Momentum like the Bucs are showing is very rare in this sport, and whether it’s somewhat or fully from Fitzpatrick is almost irrelevant. It’s there, it’s unmistakable, and it needs to run its course. The Bucs haven’t had a high-powered offense in a long time (ever?) and a return to plodding would be painful to watch.
“In the back of your mind, knowing that the people around you are going to do their jobs at a very high level makes you want to play at an even higher level,” says offensive lineman Ali Marpet. The Bucs don’t hope Fitzpatrick will play “at a very high level.” They know he will. And from Koetter on down, there’s the belief that Fitzpatrick and the team can play even better. You simply cannot replicate that feeling no matter how much talent or coaching you have.
Whether it’s the FitzMagic or the Pimppatrick or “The Fitz” celebration, it’s the greatest show on turf right now and everyone else should clear the stage.
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