- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2021

ASHBURN — Ryan Fitzpatrick saw Cam Sims deep down the field and went for the back-shoulder fade. As Washington’s quarterback let it rip, Fitzpatrick was counting on the wide receiver to turn around. But this was one of their first practices together, and Fitzpatrick said he didn’t know if Sims knew to expect the ball.

Sims read the play perfectly for the completion.

“Made a heck of a catch,” coach Ron Rivera said. 

The deep ball was a missing element last year in Washington’s offense, which ranked last in offensive DVOA (efficiency) and 30th in total yards. That’s part of the reason Washington signed Fitzpatrick, a 38-year-old journeyman gunslinger, to a one-year deal in free agency. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner relies on vertical routes to stretch the field, and Washington needs a quarterback who can consistently hit those throws. 

Fitzpatrick, however, was not brought on to be a savior. With Washington beginning 11-on-11 drills this week during OTAs, Rivera said his team won’t have to rely on Fitzpatrick to produce single-handedly. Rivera touted the changes all along the offense — changes he believes will take pressure off Fitzpatrick and help the unit as a whole. 

Washington could have as many as six new starters come fall. Besides quarterback, where Fitzpatrick replaces Alex Smith, there’s a reshuffled offensive line and new speedsters wide receiver.

“We have a lot of good weapons around our QB position,” Rivera said. “We are in a better position than we were last season.”

In Carolina, Rivera’s teams relied heavily on the quarterback. That worked wonders when Cam Newton was under center, less so when the former MVP was injured, especially over Rivera’s last few years. Rivera was fired in 2019 when Carolina was unable to sustain its previous success. 

Rivera is sticking with the same offensive system used basically throughout his Panthers tenure — a variation of Norv Turner’s “Air Coryell.” But this time, Rivera wants the talent in place so that his teams don’t have to be so dependent on the quarterback. “The styles are similar, but the players are different,” Rivera said.

Of Washington’s 29 free-agency or draft additions this offseason, 15 are on the offensive side of the ball, and that doesn’t include players who were re-signed from last year’s roster, like All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff and quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke.

Fitzpatrick praised the “diversity” of the wide receiving room. Washington has speed threats in Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown — the latter of two who were added to the team. There also are big receivers like Sims and Antonio Gandy-Golden.

Fitzpatrick said the acclimation process will take time.

“Everyone is a little bit different in terms of the way receivers run routes and expect the ball, the way the quarterbacks are throwing balls,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of it is, for me at least is that I am going to put it in the spot I believe it needs to be. That is going to result early on in some incompletions and then we can talk about why I threw it where I did.”

Fitzpatrick is still expected to perform and raise Washington’s ceiling on offense. When the journeyman was signed, Rivera pointed to Fitzpatrick’s stats in Miami and how the 38-year-old has been playing some of the best football of his career of late. There are advantages of having Fitzpatrick under center compared to Smith, his arm strength and durability the most notable. 

The franchise, though, understands Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term answer. The quarterback, after all, is on his ninth team in 17 seasons. The goal is for Washington to have the pieces in place for when the team does decide to address the position again next season.

In the meantime, Fitzpatrick can help Washington take the next step. He’s done that in plenty of other places like Miami and Buffalo.  

By now, Fitzpatrick is used to starting over.

“If a guy didn’t have the reputation Ryan has in terms of being a good teammate, being a smart football player, being a successful player, it would be hard,” Rivera said. “Because he has so many games under his belt, he’s had so much success under his belt that he’s gotten the players’ respect already. That’s a really cool thing.”

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