Despite Loss, 'Fitzmagic' Has Earned Bucs' Starting Job over Jameis Winston

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 25, 2018

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

The "Fitzmagic" is not gone, nor should it be removed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineup anytime soon. 

How quickly everyone forgets. 

One poor half was all it took for public opinion to turn on Ryan Fitzpatrick despite the fact that he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first two weeks of the 2018 season.

Although, a near second-half comeback had everyone believing again.

Even in a 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday at Raymond James Stadium, the 35-year-old gunslinger solidified himself as the Buccaneers' starting quarterback, despite Jameis Winston's imminent return. 

"We'll worry about that when the time comes," Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said last Monday, per the Tampa Bay Times' Martin Fennelly

The time has come, since Winston's three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy ends Tuesday. Koetter can't seriously entertain the idea of replacing Fitzpatrick after he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 or more yards in three consecutive games. The 14-year veteran only needs one more 400-yard game to tie Dan Marino and Peyton Manning for the most such games in a season, according to NFL Research

"If Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Griffin, whoever it is, is playing lights-out, I don't think it's fair right now just to say, 'Yes, automatically, [Jameis] is going to be the guy,'" general manager Jason Licht said a week prior to the start of the regular season, per Sports Illustrated's Michael Shapiro

Will the Buccaneers adhere to this philosophy? They should. 

Even in a sloppily played and turnover-prone contest, Tampa Bay rallied around its veteran signal-caller and nearly had enough to erase a 20-point halftime gap. Fitzpatrick completed 19 of 29 second-half passes as the Bucs rattled off 17 unanswered points to come within three points of tying Pittsburgh. 

Fitzpatrick's first-half performance wasn't nearly as bad as portrayed, either. His three interceptions will be scrutinized—in a misplaced attempt to rationalize the argument that Winston should start upon his return—even though none fell squarely on the quarterback's play. 

All three occurred on consecutive second-quarter drives. 

Pittsburgh linebacker Jon Bostic tipped the first, and Mike Hilton caught the deflection to stop the Buccaneers in the red zone, as seen below:  

A protection breakdown allowed a free runner at the quarterback. Right tackle Demar Dotson didn't slide his protection to the outside threat. Instead, he locked onto T.J. Watt. Fitzpatrick tried to beat the blitz by throwing behind it, only to have his pass ricochet off Bostic's helmet. 

The second mistake appeared to be a miscommunication between the quarterback and his target, Mike Evans: 

Evans slowed his route and attempted to sit in the soft spot of the Steelers' zone coverage, whereas Fitzpatrick seemingly expected the 6'5" receiver to keep running between the dropping linebacker and safety. 

The third interception was a backbreaker, as linebacker Bud Dupree returned the ball 10 yards for a touchdown:

Nose tackle Daniel McCullers provided pressure and placed his gigantic paw in the way of Fitzpatrick's throwing motion, which caused the ball to sail despite an open underneath receiver.

So much is placed on the quarterback, even when he's not the problem. 

For example, Fitzpatrick can't be blamed for dropping a pair of potential touchdown passes, as Chris Godwin did. The second-year wide receiver lost a fumble as well. Godwin finished the contest with five receptions, 74 yards and a touchdown, but his mistakes left too many points on the field and directly led to seven Steelers points. 

Furthermore, 27 points and 455 yards of total offense should be more than enough to capture a victory. Instead, the Buccaneers fell to 2-1 overall because the defense surrendered 413 total yards and couldn't get a key stop late in the game. 

After all, Fitzpatrick didn't attempt to tackle tight end Vance McDonald only to be trucked and give up a 75-yard touchdown. Chris Conte suffered that embarrassment and left the game with an injured knee

The quarterback displayed his leadership skills during his postgame press conference. 

"Three interceptions on me. Can't have them. Hard to win a game that way," Fitzpatrick told reporters. "We obviously dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. The great thing to me coming out of this game is the belief in the huddle during the second half, and guys not wavering and not blinking and having the feeling the whole time we were going to come back and win the game." 

Even if the Buccaneers, specifically Fitzpatrick, fell completely flat on their faces, his previous performances built enough goodwill to hold off the former starter. 

Prior to Monday, the Buccaneers quarterback led the league with 819 passing yards, 13.4 yards per attempt and a 151.5 passer rating. He's still the league's leading passer with 1,230 yards through three games, and the Buccaneers feature the NFL's No. 1 offense. 

How good Winston looks or how much he's prepared for another opportunity doesn't matter—and he looks great, according to quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr.: 

The Buccaneers are Fitzpatrick's team for now. 

"He's playing on fire right now," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said last week, per the Washington TimesMatthew Paras. "With the way the team is rallying behind him and just playing lights-out football, you have to kind of honor it. You can't take the hot man out. You got the hot fire right now." 

Nothing has changed. Fitzpatrick remains the hot hand despite some first-half slippage. Winston may be ready to play, but he must earn back his teammates' trust after seeing what his backup-turned-starter accomplished.   

Koetter didn't make an immediate decision about Tampa Bay's Week 4 starting quarterback, even though the right move is obvious. 

"Let's see what happens," Koetter said, per the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud. "I'd love to get a chance to talk to Jameis [Winston] face to face before I tell the rest of the world.''

The Chicago Bears defense won't be as forgiving, but Fitzpatrick may have a little something up his sleeve. 

As British author J.B. Priestley once said"I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning."

    

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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