There was no team meeting to announce Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Miami Dolphins‘ starting quarterback. It was simply assumed, veteran guard Jesse Davis said, until coach Brian Flores announced the news to the media on Monday.
Fitzpatrick, who is entering his 16th season in the NFL, was the best quarterback throughout the Dolphins’ training camp, even if he wasn’t the most talked about one after rookie first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa‘s arrival. So, being named the Dolphins’ starter might not have been a surprise, but it still meant “a ton” to Fitzpatrick.
“It’s not something that I take for granted. I’ve kind of gone back and forth and been the guy and not been the guy. I know how difficult it is to earn something like this,” Fitzpatrick said. “I know how difficult it is to accept this responsibility and to go out there and to shoulder everything that I’ve got to shoulder as the starting quarterback to get these guys ready to go play. It’s the reason I still play. It’s why I love the game so much.”
Tagovailoa is the Dolphins’ future at the position, and he’s certainly the team’s biggest long-term asset, even as a backup. Fitzpatrick is once again the temporary answer to the Dolphins’ long-term quarterback question, but he’s still the most important player on the Dolphins’ roster right now. Whether on the field or off it, Fitzpatrick’s role should be valued. A self-described placeholder for Tagovailoa, Fitzpatrick is so much more for a Dolphins team and fan base that has embraced him like a son.
“Fitz is just a wholesome person. The way he is out on the field is the same way he is off the field,” Tagovailoa said. “He’s a coach. He’s a mentor on and off the field. But he’s also a very, very family-oriented person. Very loving. Very caring for guys. And he’s really funny, too.”
Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey added more on Fitzpatrick: “His leadership is unbelievable. His understanding of the game is right up there with the best. He understands not only what we’re trying to do, but he understands what the defense is trying to do, and that gives any quarterback a leg up when they can do that. It wasn’t necessarily that way our first year together in Buffalo, but he’s gotten to the point the last six or seven years where that’s been a real asset for him. His accuracy has improved since we were together last, and I think his knowledge is great.”
Fitzpatrick’s impact shined when he led the winless Dolphins (0-7) to five victories over their final nine games with arguably the NFL’s least talented roster last season. He finished the season with a 68.3 QBR, eighth best in the NFL. But perhaps his most important impact comes off the field. Fitzpatrick is humble, comical and self-deprecating. It makes him one of the guys in a way that quarterbacks rarely are once they reach NFL starter status.
The ties that bind came through a week and a half ago when tragedy struck the seemingly unflappable Fitzpatrick. His mother, Lori, died on a Saturday morning, and the Dolphins’ family rallied together to send Fitzpatrick text messages and show their support. Flores, who wrapped an arm around Fitzpatrick on the practice field in an emotional moment the morning he found out the news, shared how much he relates to Fitzpatrick as a man, as a competitor, and now unfortunately, as someone who also lost his mom.
“I definitely feel the love,” Fitzpatrick said. “With a personal tragedy with my mom passing away, I think you feel it extra — all of the people.”
Dolphins players and coaches got to shower Fitzpatrick with some of the caring and good vibes that he gives to them on a daily basis.
“Ryan is a guy who I have a lot of respect for and who I love. He’s like a big brother — a lot older brother — to me,” Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “He’s been a great friend and just a great guy to be around — a great leader for us. Really since Day 1, we’ve hit it off and he’s someone that I love and care for a lot.”
Big brother is a perfect description for Fitzpatrick, who often jokes that at 37 years old he relates more to the coaches than his teammates. Fitzpatrick is 3,044 days (more than eight years) older than the second-oldest player on the team, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, 29.
Tagovailoa is a player whom Fitzpatrick treats like a big brother and is mentoring and guiding, things other veteran quarterbacks might have gotten territorial about and not pursued.
“He brings a lot to the team,” Flores said. “For Tua specifically, they kind of talk through end-of-game situations, end-of-half situations, third down, two-minute, red zone, Mike points in the run game, defensive structures. All of those things, he’s been very helpful to the young players. It’s the same defensively; so a defensive guy can go to Fitz and say, ‘Hey, what’d you see on that? What made you make that throw versus another throw?’ And he’s more than willing to take on that role and answer questions.”
So, if five years from now we are talking about a Tagovailoa-led Dolphins team winning a Super Bowl, it’s important to not forget the role Fitzpatrick played in Miami getting there.