The Bucs are playing a mind game


Ryan Fitzpatrick photo courtesy of the New York Jets

There was righteous indignation hurled at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week when they signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick off the streets.

How could anyone in his right football mind, the critics vented, choose Ryan Fitzpatrick over Colin Kaepernick at the quarterback spot? Kaepernick has taken a team to a Super Bowl, he’s been to a Pro Bowl and ranks 17th all-time in passer efficiency rating – 53 spots higher on that list than Fitzpatrick, who has never been to a Pro Bowl or a playoff game.

If the decision was all about putting a quarterback on the field, it was the wrong decision by the Buccaneers. At 29, Kaepernick likely has some quality years ahead of him. At 34, Fitzpatrick’s best years are behind him.

But the decision wasn’t about putting a quarterback on the field. The Bucs don’t want their backup quarterback to play, whether it be Fitzpatrick or Kaepernick. This franchise is in the hands of Jameis Winston — and the signing of Fitzpatrick was all about accelerating Winston’s development into a franchise quarterback.

This decision was about putting a veteran set of eyes in the film room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and on the game-day sideline for Winston. What Fitzpatrick sees on tape and on the field can help make Winston a better quarterback. He can become Winston’s sounding board, someone who can provide instant feedback as to what went right or wrong.

Say what you want about Fitzpatrick’s physical ability. He won only 46 of his 116 career starts in the NFL and averaged 15 interceptions in the nine seasons he spent as a starter. But he has thrown 3,876 career passes and squared off against the defenses of Bill Belichick, Wade Phillips and Dick LeBeau. He’s seen just about all an NFL quarterback can see on the football field.

And that’s why the Buccaneers found him attractive. He can serve as a mentor for Winston. Earl Morrall served in that capacity for Bob Griese. Don Strock served in that capacity for Dan Marino. More recently, Mark Sanchez served in that capacity for Dak Prescott with the Cowboys last season.

You can ding Fitzpatrick for some physical limitations. But you can’t ding him for his mental capacity. His ability to process is matched by few quarterbacks who have ever played the game. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics and scored a staggering 48 on his Wonderlic test. His smarts are why he could make an NFL roster as a seventh-round draft choice and then last 12 seasons. The Bucs are the seventh different NFL team to see value in the signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Jameis Winston was the first overall pick of the 2015 draft and became a walk-in starter, passing for 4,000-plus yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. In both seasons he passed for more yards than the best years of either Fitzpatrick or Kaepernick. If Tampa Bay is to return to a Super Bowl, it will be Winston taking the snaps, not his backup.

Which is why Ryan Fitzpatrick is now on the Bucs, not Kaepernick. Experience goes a long way in the NFL. Kaepernick hasn’t seen all that Fitzpatrick has seen in his career. The Bucs are hoping Fitzpatrick’s experiences can benefit Winston and, hopefully, shorten his learning curve.

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