Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take stock of NFL free agency moves a week or so into the annual exercise….
* Ryan Fitzpatrick is a Dolphin. Because of course he is.
For the third time in what will be his 15th NFL season, Fitzpatrick, perhaps the league’s premier journeyman quarterback, has landed in the AFC East. He had already checked off stops in Buffalo and with the Jets as he continues his own unique game of NFL Career Bingo, and now he joins Miami, where he just might serve as the Dolphins 2019 starter. At least to begin the season. As we all know, things have a way of going sideways on Fitzpatrick after strong beginnings, and he has started all 16 games for a team in just three seasons.
I don’t foresee Fitzpatrick completing his AFC East tour de force with the fourth and final team — New England — but I suppose stranger things have happened. He’s only 36, and after all, he once was a standout at Harvard, before parlaying his 7th round, 250th overall draft selection in 2005 into more of an NFL run than anyone could have possibly dreamed.
After the Dolphins missed out on Teddy Bridgewater — the ultimate “Bridge quarterback? — in free agency, they turned to Fitzpatrick over the weekend, signaling that they have not had their fill of guys named Ryan at the game’s most pivotal position. After seven mostly frustrating years of Ryan Tannehill, Miami traded him to Tennessee last week and will take their chances with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is six years older and just finished up a two-year stint as a backup and part-time starter in Tampa Bay. He signed a two-year, $11 million deal, and now the Dolphins will climb on the same rollercoaster ride experienced by every other team that has employed Fitzpatrick: Some good, some bad, some horrible. With a fine beard to show for it.
Overall the Dolphins are Fitzpatrick’s eighth different team, and his two years as a Buc followed his two years as a Jet, his one year in Houston and his one year in Tennessee. Miami will make it six teams in eight seasons for Fitzpatrick, from his final year in Buffalo (2012) on, and he has now spent time in five different divisions: NFC West (St. Louis), AFC North (Cincinnati), AFC East (Buffalo, Jets, Miami), AFC South (Tennessee, Houston), and NFC South (Tampa Bay). Only the AFC West, NFC East, and NFC North have eluded him.
In fairness, the the man they somewhat facetiously call “Fitzmagic’’ has traditionally played his best ball in the AFC East. Thirty-three of his career’s 50 wins as an NFL starter came in the division, going 20-33 in his four-year run in Buffalo (2009-2012), and 13-14 in two seasons with the Jets (2015-16).
In his first year in New York, he led the Todd Bowles-coached 2015 Jets to a 10-6 second-place finish in the division, posting career highs in passing yards (3,905) and touchdown throws (31). The Jets missed out on a playoff berth only when Fitzpatrick reverted to form and threw three costly interceptions in an upset Week 17 loss at Buffalo against the 8-8 Bills. It would have been the first postseason appearance of his long journey, and he still hasn’t tasted the NFL playoffs after 14 mostly mediocre seasons.
He’s not likely to break that streak in Miami, obviously, with rookie head coach Brian Flores and his Dolphins in the throes a near-complete tear-down job that many have attached the “T’’ word to: Tanking. With the No. 13 pick in the first round, Miami could well draft its next franchise quarterback this year and that would signal another short starting stint for Fitzpatrick, who is more than used to that trend, having started 12 games or fewer for a club in eight different seasons.
Well-traveled and often-discarded, Fitzpatrick is back in the East, taking aim at the Beast from Foxboro once more. Ten years after he first arrived in Buffalo in 2009, at least it’s a familiar pursuit. Here’s betting the familiar results follow.
* The great Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season and what a disaster this century has been for Miami at quarterback in the ensuing 19 seasons. In the same span of time Tom Brady has been on the Patriots roster (2000-on), the Dolphins have cycled through a mind-boggling 19 different starters, with 16 of those quarterbacks starting at least four games in a particular season. By comparison, New England has had just five different starters in that era, with only three of them opening more than three games in any season (Drew Bledsoe, Brady and Matt Cassel).
Jay Fiedler was the best of the bunch for Miami, winning 36 of the 59 games (.610) he started for the Dolphins from 2000-2004. Tannehill won a list-best 42 games as a Miami starter, but lost even more (46 games). Chad Pennington had his moments, going 12-8 in Miami, including that epic 2008 “Wildcat’’ game in Gillette Stadium. Other than that, not much, unless you consider Gus Frerotte (9-6 in 2005), Brian Griese (3-2), Matt Moore (8-9), Chad Henne (13-18) and Jay Cutler (6-8) a success.
Where you have gone, A.J. Feeley? Dolphins nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Wu, wu, wu.
* The Browns, Steelers and Ravens have been in the headlines plenty this offseason, but it’s a new day in Cincinnati and we shouldn’t overlook the Bengals. Though it seemed like Groundhog Day would never end in the Queen City, the Bengals moving on from Marvin Lewis and Vontaze Burfict in the span of two-plus months convinces me that a fresh start is indeed unfolding under new head coach Zac Taylor.
For as good a linebacker he was when he was playing with discipline and focus, Burfict simply wasn’t worth the trouble when he lost sight of those traits and became a one-man on-field vigilante group. Which was often, resulting in a head-slapping procession of fines and league suspensions.
The reality is the Bengals, probably due to Lewis’s sense of loyalty, stuck with Burfict way too long. He got seven seasons in Cincinnati, but probably deserved no more than three or four due to his egregious actions and borderline (and past the line) dirty play. Lewis would have garnered a playoff victory had Burfict been able to play within the rules in that 2015 first-round game at home against Pittsburgh, but he didn’t, and his key penalty on a hit to Antonio Brown helped the Bengals implode late, dropping Lewis to 0-7 in the postseason.
Reports say the Raiders are interested in Burfict, no doubt due to Oakland defensive coordinator Paul Guenther having coached him in Cincinnati. But Brown now plays for the Raiders and that should make for an interesting locker room dynamic if the two men and former AFC North rivals share the same space. Will Oakland heed the lessons learned in Cincinnati? Burfict hasn’t played more than 11 games in any season since 2013 due to injuries and suspensions, and he’s not the kind of player any more who should get the benefit of the doubt.
* This much I’ve gleaned from almost 30 years covering the NFL: When a general manager like the Giants’ Dave Gettleman stands up this week before the media and announces “Trust me, we’ve got a plan,’’ but refuses to divulge any part of said plan, it rarely ends well. Let alone with the big confetti shower they give the winning team after the final gun of the Super Bowl.
In one respect, it’s obvious what the Giants’ plan is. They haven’t signed or traded for any veteran quarterback this offseason, so the goal is to find their next starting quarterback in this year’s draft, and then let him sit and learn behind Eli Manning in 2019. Thus Gettleman’s reference to wanting to follow “the Kansas City model’’ earlier this offseason, with Patrick Mahomes backing up Alex Smith for a season in 2017 before taking over last year.
But when a team lets a Landon Collins walk out the door via free agency rather than franchising him at a reasonable price, deals away pass rusher Olivier Vernon, then trades away an elite game-changing talent like Odell Beckham Jr. (six-plus months after signing him to a huge contract extension), all while continuing to act like Manning is performing at a 2011 level, it begs for more explanation and insight than just “Trust us, you’ll see.’’ Some answers are necessary at this point and need to be legitimately produced.
Nobody expects Gettleman to give away state secrets or invite reporters into his office for a detailed chalk-talk analysis of how New York intends to rebuild. But taking the approach that there’s nothing to talk about, other than the fans need to keep showing the faith, isn’t going to cut it in that market. If that’s Gettleman’s plan, he needs to come up with a Plan B.
* Thanks to the Beckham trade, the Browns enter the 2019 draft without owning a first-round pick for the first time since 2008, when they were coming off a 10-6, just-missed-the-playoffs season. Cleveland’s first selection is 49th overall, and its second falls at No. 80.
What a refreshing turn of events for the Browns, who stockpiled draft picks like they were war rations in recent years, with their default setting being to use their surplus to acquire even more draft capital. Cleveland made 14 picks in the top 40 of the 2014-2018 drafts, but will sit out this year’s festivities until midway through the second round.
That after Cleveland owned four of the top 35 picks last year, taking quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1, cornerback Denzel Ward at No. 4 and running back Nick Chubb at 35th overall in the second round. The Browns are finally finding out how nice life can be outside of the top 10. They’re young, talented, coming off a winning second half in 2018, and don’t have a ton of needs for a change.
* Smart move, Blake Bortles, and we haven’t said that too often in the past five years. Bortles not only changed conferences in going from the Jaguars to the Rams, he moved about as far away from Jacksonville as possible on the NFL map. Oh, and he now gets to play for Sean McVay, who has a track record for getting the best out of his quarterbacks (Super Bowls aside).
The Quarterback Whisperer label can be wildly over-used in the NFL, but McVay has a few skins on the wall in that department and he’ll be good for fixing what ails Bortles’ game. If you have to face reality and enter the backup/injury replacement starter portion of your career, might as well do it for the defending NFC champions whose coach is known for his offensive acumen.
Of all the backups who signed or re-signed in recent days, I’d put Bortles landing spot ahead of Tyrod Taylor to the Chargers (very solid) Teddy Bridgewater returning to New Orleans (somewhat understandable), Ryan Tannehill to Tennessee (decent spot) and Ryan Fitzpatrick to Miami (best of the bad options) and Brett Hundley to Arizona (yawn).