TAMPA, Fla. — The speakers at Raymond James Stadium blared the song “Magic,” by Pilot. Fans in the stands are now donning faux beards. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson even let Ryan Fitzpatrick borrow his outfit to wear to his postgame news conference and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy may lend him his sparkly silver high-tops if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers improve to 3-0 overall after their Sept. 24 game.
Hey, if the shoe fits.
For two consecutive weeks, Fitzpatrick has lit up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ offense — 819 passing yards, eight passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown with the offense scoring 68 points. He also has the Bucs scoring at warp-speed now — with the 58-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson on the opening drive against the New Orleans Saints last week and this week, on the very first play, a 75-yard deep pass to Jackson.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jackson said of Fitzpatrick. “He’s playing out of this world right now.”
The last time the Bucs’ offense — which has been notorious for slow starts the past several seasons — scored on the opening possession in back-to-back weeks in the same season? Try Weeks 2 and 3 in 1999, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
If that’s not impressive enough, consider this: The Bucs became the first team in the Super Bowl era to start 2-0 despite facing teams that won 11 or more games the previous season in each of their first two games, while facing the defending Super Bowl champion in one of those two games.
So maybe there really is something to this “Fitz-magic” thing. Whatever it is, whatever wave of good ju-ju they’re riding with this backup quarterback playing on his seventh team in 14 seasons — this Cinderella story can’t end when starter Jameis Winston returns in two weeks, can it?
It shouldn’t. Fitzpatrick has the Bucs in a position that absolutely no one saw them in, with a shot of going 3-0 next week at home when the Pittsburgh Steelers arrive for “Monday Night Football.” Mind you, this is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 or won a playoff game since 2002.
“I mean, we’re 2-0. I think that’s where we expected to be. I don’t know if everybody else expected us to be there, but we’re just going to continue to ride this momentum. The confidence is high and we’ve just got to make sure we keep hitting on those plays. Those guys in the huddle believe in me and I believe in them and good things will happen,” Fitzpatrick said.
So, how is the veteran QB doing it?
He’s hitting deep passes, for one. Fitzpatrick is 4-of-5 with four touchdowns on passes thrown 30 or more yards downfield this season. Only six quarterbacks had four touchdowns like that last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
He’s also finding his star receivers. Fitzpatrick is 26-of-28 for 505 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions when targeting Jackson and Mike Evans this season (including going 14-of-16 against the Eagles). Winston completed 55 percent of his throws with five touchdowns and six interceptions to Evans and Jackson last season.
What’s also interesting is that he’s controlling the right side of the field. Fitzpatrick was 12-of-12 for 187 yards and two touchdowns passing outside the right hashes on Sunday. He’s now 22-of-24 (92 percent) for 449 yards (18.7 yards per throw average) with five touchdowns on those passes this season.
“Really good play, really good quarterback play. [He’s] putting the ball on the money, letting our play-makers make plays,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. “I think it’s a combination of the weapons, his experience fits what we do a lot and then protection. We’re protecting him well.”
The Bucs should ride this momentum for as long as they can, as long as they keep winning. And if the so-called “Cycle of Fitzpatrick” is real, too — the one that everyone talks about, where he gets hot for a few games and then bottoms out — then they can allow that transition to happen naturally. But don’t force it. Neither Koetter or general manager Jason Licht have committed to a starter beyond Week 3.
Winston will have been away from the facility for three weeks, having not practiced with any of these receivers, and by the time he returns, it will be on a short week since the Bucs play Monday night before going on the road to play Chicago.
Also consider, if the Bucs decide Winston is not a part of their future — although it’s hard to imagine them jumping ship considering all they’ve invested in him — they could theoretically cut him before March 13, 2019, when the new league year begins, and not owe him a dime of the $20.9 million he’s due. If they do play him, and he gets hurt, they would be on the hook for that money since it’s guaranteed for injury only. So there’s some incentive to sit him if they decide he’s no longer part of their future plans.
Fitzpatrick will be 36 years old in two months, so he is not the long-term solution at the position. But with Winston’s strong preseason performances, and the stark contrast between his and Fitzpatrick’s mostly-average play during it, the Bucs are in a position to make some difficult decisions.
Things can change quickly, especially when a team is unbeaten and the team starts playing songs for you at the stadium.
“That was cool when they played the ‘Magic’ song after the one [touchdown],” Koetter said. “Ryan deserves everything he’s getting right now. He’s playing great football, so why not?”