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Ryan Fitzpatrick's dramatic return to the AFC East

Welcome back, bearded King!

Ryan Fitzpatrick's dramatic return to the AFC East
Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 3.0 (]

The AFC East rejoices, as the bearded wonder, the man with a cannon arm and an iron chin, returns to the division to add a third squad to his prolific resume. After trading away their starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Miami has signed Ryan Fitzpatrick. Any reader of this site knows my adoration for the man, and I celebrate this glorious signing with an explainer of sorts. A Fitzpatrick-led offense is not your typical experience.

As always, the invaluable Pro Football Reference powers our data for this analysis.

Origins of FITZMAGIC

A true Fitzmagic season needs an injury to the incumbent starter to truly activate his magical powers. Miami currently employs two quarterbacks named Jake Rudock and Luke Falk, neither a particularly promising prospect. Rudock has only 5 NFL passes and a pick to his name. Falk is a sixth round pick from 2018 already on his second team. 

Ostensibly, Fitzpatrick signed to be this year’s starter, replacing Ryan Tannehill. While Tannehill may have a higher career passer rating, Fitz has the chaotic range that inspired our Fitzmagic Score in the first place. Here, you can see the distribution of passer ratings for both quarterbacks, updated through the end of the 2018 season.

Tannehill often plays to his exact average, while our buddy Fitz thrives on outliers. In fact, with the updated dataset we score Fitzpatrick as a 139, while Tannehill slides to a 110; with 100 as the most consistent if unspectacular score, Tannehill is consistently mediocre while Fitz vacillates between glory and anguish. 

The birth of the beard

In Fitzpatrick’s first year with the Buffalo Bills, he took over from Trent Edwards and promptly beat the Jets 16-13 in overtime. Fitz turned a 1-5 dumpster fire into a competitive team the rest of the way. Buffalo ended the year 6-10, and these wins ensured they’d miss out on a top draft pick. In the 2010 draft, Buffalo took CJ Spiller at 9th overall.

Trent Edwards took the job back for the first three weeks of the next season, but started 0-3 and soon found himself benched in favor of the Bearded Wonder. Fitzpatrick lead the Bills to a 4-9 record, again making sure they would miss on the top pick. While they did end up with Marcell Dareus at third overall, Fitz’s heroics cost them a shot at Cam Newton.

Fitz performed so admirably that the Bills gave him a six year, $59 million deal. ESPN reported that the deal would include $24 million guaranteed.

The one-time journeyman, 2005 seventh-round draft pick and Harvard graduate has formally arrived as a bona fide NFL starter after being rewarded with what could potentially become the most lucrative contract in team history. It’s a bold move by a team that’s spent much of the past 15 years searching for someone to fill the quarterback role, and a reward for a player who as a first-time starter this season has led a revived offense that has Buffalo off to a surprising 4-2 start.

Fitz posted a career worst twenty-three interceptions in this very same season, and Buffalo would end the year 6-10. As you guessed, they missed out on a top 2012 NFL draft pick and a shot at the duo of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Fitz repeated that trick in 2012 with yet another 6-10 season, inspiring the Bills to draft E.J. Manuel at 16th overall in the 2013 Draft: truly, he saved the worst blow for last.

Tennessee and Houston: The John Wick Years

Like the puppy-loving, mass-murdering protagonist of the best 2010s action franchise, Fitz showed surgical precision and quick exit strategies in his one year stints at Tennessee and Houston. In 2013, he battled Jake Locker for starters minutes,. Fitz ultimately took the job over in week 9 after a Locker injury and finished the year 4-7. Houston then took a flyer on the Bearded Wonder, and he rewarded their confidence by producing a 6-6 record in his twelve games and a then career-best 95.3 passer rating. The Texans still ended the season out of the playoffs, and Fitz found himself searching for a new squad.

Enter: Gang Green

Local media did not announce the Fitzpatrick signing with great fanfare. When his curse powers activated, inspiring IK Enemkpali to break Geno Smith’s jaw in a training camp fracas.

Fitzmagic arrived like a hurricane. He broke Jets passing records with an attack firmed up by the combination of Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall,. New York raced to a 10-5 record, one win away from their first playoff berth since the 2010-2011 season.

Because we’re discussing the Jets, they of course lost that game to scorned former coach Rex Ryan. New York then resigned Fitzpatrick to a $12 million deal to chase the Fitzmagic high. Instead, they watched as Fitz tossed 17 picks and a 69.6 passer rating in their abysmal 5-11 2016 season. 

Tampa Bay rolls the dice

Despite torpedoing a promising Jets team, Fitzpatrick found himself in another backup gig, this time cursing Jameis Winston. He filled in for some spot duty in 2017, but the real story came in the following year.  Winston’s history of terrible behavior and multiple sexual assault allegations produced a three game suspension in 2018. In that opening, Fitz dropped three straight 400 yard games, two games with a passer rating over 154, and two games with a passer rating under 50. We named our volatility score after him for a reason.

Perhaps finally killing Winston’s image as a franchise quarterback was the best thing that Fitz did in Tampa, excluding his fantastic outfit swap with DeSean Jackson. He faces no incumbents in Miami. Barring a highly drafted rookie or surprising trade for a prospect like Josh Rosen, he’ll come into the year as the wizened commander of a likely tank.

Yet, if history shows us anything, the ride will be anything but smooth. Sandwiched between moments of glory will be abject misery and a 6-10 record. Enjoy the season, Dolphins fans, and when you wake up in January of 2020 with a middling draft pick and an extension offer for Fitz, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Jamie Larson