All of a sudden, the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Miami Dolphins has become a lot more interesting.
All of a sudden, the Dolphins, despite being 0-5 and ranking last in the NFL on defense and next-to-last on offense, look less like tankers and more like a team that might be making an actual effort to win.
Brian Flores, the Dolphins’ rookie head coach, tinkered significantly with the script Wednesday by announcing Ryan Fitzpatrick, and not Josh Rosen, would be his starting quarterback Sunday at New Era Field. That’s as un-tanking a move as any, especially this deep into the season.
Flores stated the obvious in his conference call with Western New York media when he said he and his coaching staff concluded that Fitzpatrick gave the Dolphins the best chance to win. It’s also fair to assume the coach clearly felt desperate enough to let his players know that he hasn’t packed it in, even if the rest of the organization, by trading away key members of the roster, is seemingly doing its best to end up with the first pick of the 2020 draft and land a franchise quarterback. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa often is mentioned as a possibility.
Otherwise, there would be a real possibility their desire to even board the chartered flight to Buffalo, let alone take the field, would be somewhere in the range of going out for a team gum-scraping.
“The front office may be a little bit different because they’re trying to build for the future and build over time to create something sustainable,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “But the guys in that locker room that are playing, coaches that are coaching, they’re coaching for now, because tomorrow’s not promised. And they’re trying to get a win at all costs because this game is too hard not to go in there with the mindset of, ‘We’re going to try to win.’ ”
“I can’t speak on other other sports – basketball, baseball – but I know in our business, regardless of what the plans are with the roster long term, every coach and player in this league wants to win on Sundays,” said tight end Lee Smith. “There’s plans with the roster upstairs that are big picture and long term. But at the end of the day, when it comes down to Sundays, you want to win the football game. You don’t get these jobs, you don’t become a head coach in the NFL making a living out of losing. So the word ‘tank,’ I’m not sure I believe in it. I’m not sure it’s something that’s real in our business.”
Maybe the widely anticipated outcome of a lopsided Bills victory will hold up, regardless of who plays quarterback for the Dolphins. However, there’s at least some reason to believe that Fitzpatrick, who was signed to a two-year deal in March, stands a better chance of leading them to a stunning upset of his former team, which at 4-1 has its fans fully embracing the prospect of a playoff run.
Even at age 36 and in his 15th NFL season, Fitzpatrick, who played for the Bills from 2009 to 2012, continues to warrant respect for a body of work that includes 10 career games with four touchdown passes. That matches Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and leads Joe Montana by two. Fitzpatrick also has 17 games with 300-plus passing yards and five with 400-plus.
“I think he’s a tough, hard-nosed style player, kind of a throwback guy,” Alexander said. “You can hit him, but he gets up; he’s very resilient in that way. He has some ability to scramble and extend some plays and he has some type of magic dust on him as well, because he’ll do some things and you’re like, ‘How did he complete that ball? It’s just, you know, some guys have it. I think that’s one of his strengths as well, he plays fearless.”
There are plenty of Bills fans who are more than familiar with “Fitzmagic,” that quality Fitzpatrick has shown time and again to go through stretches where he looks like one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history. It was one of the reasons that he became a crowd favorite. His endearing personality was another.
Smith was in the early stages of his NFL career with the Bills, from 2011 to 2014, and formed a close friendship with Fitzpatrick, who was his neighbor in Western New York. The two have remained close and are likely to squeeze in some social time after the Dolphins arrive in town Saturday.
“We may or may not be eating dinner,” Smith said with a wry grin. “How many 15-year veterans are in this league right now? Five? And every one of them has survived as long as they have for a common reason. They’re great people and great football players. It’s that simple. So he’s no different than the other four or five Lorenzo Alexanders, all the grandpas running around these locker rooms. You’re never going to talk to somebody that doesn’t love the guy.”
Of course, Fitzpatrick did his “Bad Fitz” thing of trusting his gunslinging mentality too much and forcing throws that wind up in enemy hands enough times to enrage his most loyal supporters. That has gone a long way toward creating a vagabond resume that includes stints with seven other NFL teams.
“Fitz playing here, I know he’s well-liked in this area for what he did, and you could see that,” McDermott said. “He’s played with some of the guys that I’ve been around since coming here and his presence speaks for itself as a positive, energetic guy. And so it’ll be a good week of preparation for us and a big challenge for us.
“We’ve got to be disciplined. He’s a veteran, experienced quarterback and with that comes challenges, comes problems. He runs their offense extremely well and operates it with the no-huddle with tempo, does a good job getting them in and out of the huddle. I think the first game or two that he played there got away from him a little bit because of the score. So outside of that, he’s a good player.”
A week ago, Flores had said Rosen, the 2018 first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals the Dolphins acquired in a trade, would be the starter for the rest of the season. But Fitzpatrick, the only quarterback in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass for eight different teams, took his place against the Washington Redskins last Sunday and nearly led a comeback victory.
After the game, Flores said he would go back to Rosen, although he added the caveat that he would see what happened in practice this week. Apparently, the coach didn’t need to watch a single practice snap, because he made the decision before the Dolphins took the field for their first workout of the week.
The Bills hardly seemed surprised by the turn of events.
“Obviously, he has a lot of experience and I think he has a better grasp on their playbook and a little bit better command of their offense at this time in his career just because of the experience and the snaps that he’s played,” Alexander said. “He’s been a starter in this league and been around for a long time. And just kind of watching, I think they just get in and get out [of the huddle] a little bit better, probably a little bit more drop back as well.
“[With Fitzpatrick], you’re not trying to develop a guy. You have a guy that you know what he can do, he is what he is, and so they’ll have a good game plan as far as with what plays to Fitz’s strengths.”
One of those strengths has long been poise. Fitzpatrick doesn’t get easily rattled, which is why he can be so dangerous, especially when his team is trailing.
He won’t flinch under the roar of a sellout crowd looking to witness the home team’s most convincing triumph of the season.
“It’s an awesome place to play, whether you’re there as a player with the support of the fans or going in there as an opponent in a hostile environment,” Fitzpatrick told reporters covering the Dolphins. “When you walk in there, there’s not a whole lot of jerseys for your team. It’s all Buffalo jerseys. There will be some 14s but they’re probably Sammy Watkins [jerseys], not Fitzpatrick, and whoever it is now.
“It is fun to go and play in a game like this that is going to be in a great environment. This one is unique in that you have all of these new stadiums that are enormous and it’s almost like the game is secondary to some of the other stuff going on. But in Buffalo, it is all about the game.”
Maybe, with Fitzpatrick starting for the Dolphins, there might be a more competitive one than expected Sunday.