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Saturday, Nov 18, 2017
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Bucs-Jets: How Ryan Fitzpatrick keeps finding his way onto the field

TAMPA — Ryan Fitzpatrick knows no matter how far he travels, he will eventually bump into his past.

That's what happens when you play for seven NFL teams.

What he didn't anticipate was getting his first Tampa Bay start against the New York Jets.

"It's definitely an ironic situation," said Fitzpatrick, who gets his 117th career start at 1 p.m. Sunday because Jameis Winston is out with a shoulder injury. "I've been in this situation before with other teams and the biggest thing is I've got a lot of friends still in that building... a lot of mutual respect. But, we're all competitors too."

There's a lot of reunions scheduled Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Fitzpatrick starts against a Jets franchise he quarterbacked the two previous seasons and brought to the playoffs brink in 2015.

Jets quarterback Josh McCown faces Tampa Bay, which he quarterbacked to a 1-10 record in 2015.

Fitzpatrick vs. McCown. Never before in NFL history have two quarterbacks who played for so many teams (15 combined) started against each other.

Fitzpatrick, 34, has played for the Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets and Bucs — in that order.

McCown, 38, has played for the Cardinals, Lions, Raiders, Panthers, Bears, Bucs, Browns and Jets.

"Yeah, we have the league covered between me and (Fitzpatrick)," McCown said. "The funny thing is both of us having history with the opposing team, so yeah, it's a unique thing."

You want unique? Consider that McCown preceded Winston in Tampa Bay, who preceded Fitzpatrick as the Bucs starter, who preceded McCown as the Jets starter. Got all that?

Not so long ago Fitzpatrick looked at home in East Rutherford.

After leading the Jets to a 10-6 record with a career-best 31 touchdowns and narrowly missing the playoffs two years ago, Fitzpatrick held out briefly before signing a one-year $12-million contract to remain in New York.

Then disaster struck. He got benched after a 3-6 start, only to return twice after Geno Smith and Bryce Petty got hurt.

His contract automatically voided in February, making him a free agent. He said he thought about retirement before the Bucs called in the off-season.

"I was pretty close to just being done, which was a really hard thing for me just because I enjoy playing so much," Fitzpatrick said.

Even he didn't realize how much until Week 5 at Arizona. Playing in his home state in front of family and friends, Fitzpatrick came in late in the first half and nearly rallied the Bucs' from a 24-0 deficit, passing for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a 38-33 loss.

"That was probably the moment if you are looking for one of me just being reassured that I made the right decision," he said.

That Fitzpatrick even played in the NFL is one for the history books. Staying in the league may have been the easy part.

At 17, Fitzpatrick told his dad he wanted to go to Harvard and play football. A record-setting quarterback at Highland High School in Arizona, he knew what this meant. No Crimson player had ever completed a pass in the NFL.

" 'You realize what you're giving up here?'" Michael Fitzpatrick told his son. "He looked back at me and said, "Dad, if I'm good enough, they'll find me."

Fitzpatrick arrived as the fifth quarterback on Harvard's depth chart and moved up to No. 2 by the 2002 opener at Holy Cross. When senior Neil Rose took a hit to the head late in the game and coach Tim Murphy summoned his prized recruit. Harvard had a three score lead. Fitzgerald had these instructions: Protect the ball. Don't take a big hit. Stay in bounds. Milk the clock.

Murphy recalls the first play, a naked bootleg on which Holy Cross took the fake. Fitzpatrick sprinted down the sideline as a Holy Cross safety approached near midfield.

"Fitzy hits him so hard, they had to stop the game for 10 minutes," Murphy said. "I turned to an assistant and said, "What the hell do we have here?"

NFL teams have been asking that same question for 13 seasons. The answer?

An economics major who never made a "B" in the Harvard business school.

A player whose passion was football but nobody thought it would be his profession.

A quarterback who showed up at the NFL combine at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds with plenty of arm strength and athleticism, and left with an intelligence test score that blew everyone away. Let's see if the FOX crew can makes it through Sunday's broadcast without reference to Fitzpatrick's Wonderlic score. He nailed 48 of 50 questions in nine minutes.

The league shrugged. He was drafted in the seventh round, 250th overall, by the St. Louis Rams.

Murphy is reminded of what he thought when he recruited Fitzpatrick, who was ignored by Pac-12 schools.

"I thought either they knew something we didn't know or we knew something they didn't know," Murphy said. "I'm glad it turned out we knew something they didn't."

What NFL teams now know is that Fitzpatrick consistently finds his way onto the field. Perhaps you've heard of the Fitzpatrick curse — the starting quarterback goes every time Fitzpatrick comes to town. It put him in some unique company.

Here's the list of quarterbacks who have started at least half of their team's games each of the last nine seasons: Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Depending on Winston's shoulder, he could make it 10 straight seasons, which is not what anyone expected when he signed with the Bucs.

Fitzpatrick expected a mentoring role, in more ways than one.

He and wife Liza have six children: Ruby, Maizy, Zoey, Lucy, Tate and Brad. It seems every year, Fitzpatrick's parents help Liza move the family when Ryan heads to training camp. The two boys play youth football and are defensive linemen. One of the main reasons he still plays today is so his children can more fully enjoy and appreciate his career.

"That's fun for me," Fitzpatrick said. "That was a lot of the reason initially this year why I wanted to continue to do it. It's been a lot of fun either having them in the locker room and around the guys a little bit.

"A lot of times for me, that's thinking about my boys and them watching me and what I would want to present them with in certain situations. So just in terms of demeanor and approach and making sure I'm consistent in the way I do things."

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud

   
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