- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2021

ASHBURN — Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard had grown too long. Even by his standards. This was in 2014, before the quarterback regularly rocked the bushy, full head of hair on his face that became part of his public persona. Back then, Fitzpatrick was on his third team in three seasons, was benched and had just been renamed the starter for the Houston Texans midway through the season.

So, just ahead of his second chance, he decided to shave. Not fully clean. But … presentable, at least.

“There’s always a different reason (for shaving) whether it’s a funk or bubble gum or can’t get whatever stench it is out of there,” Fitzpatrick said recently. 

The sudden change in appearance wasn’t the only way Fitzpatrick looked different that season. The week he trimmed his beard, the quarterback went on to throw for a career-high six touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans, far and away the best performance of his then-10 years in the NFL. 

As the 38-year-old prepares for Washington’s opener Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, he does so in the midst of late-career resurgence — one that wouldn’t have been possible if not for his lone year with the 2014 Texans.

Fitzpatrick says a year under then-Texans coach Bill O’Brien helped him see “the game in a different way.” He learned different ways to attack defenses, how to manipulate coverages and recognize what teams wanted to do. 

The stats from that year weren’t especially great, despite career-highs in completion percentage and passer rating. Yardage (2,483) wasn’t special, nor was the fact that he went just 6-6 in 12 games. The Texans, like most teams who’ve given Fitzpatrick the starting job, were trying to rebuild.

But the journeyman left Houston with a “new perspective” — a mindset that has stuck with the veteran, still a starter after nine teams and 17 years into his career.

“It was just a 180 difference from the way that I had looked at it in the past,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was refreshing for me to be able to see that it gave me a new life a little bit and having to start over and feel like I was in kindergarten again and having to learn everything from the ground up. I think that was what a lot of it was.”

The Texans and Fitzpatrick, in a sense, were a perfect match because both were starting over. Houston had come off a 2-14 season and hired O’Brien — a taskmaster whose pedigree included leading Penn State and serving as Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator.  

Fitzpatrick, coming off a down year with the Titans, was the Texans’ stopgap, a temporary answer while it looked for a long-term solution at quarterback.

The transition for the Texans wasn’t smooth. Chris Myers, the team’s starting center, remembers how a number of veterans balked at O’Brien’s hard-nosed, Belichick-ian approach. “It was my way or the highway,” Myers said. But Myers noticed a bond between Fitzpatrick and O’Brien — with the signal-caller eager to absorb new concepts and a new way of doing things. 

Looking back, it’s easy to see why Fitzpatrick was so open to Houston’s offense. After all, the scheme borrowed heavily from New England, giving the quarterback practically complete control. On any single snap, Fitzpatrick would receive two to three plays in the huddle and then have the freedom to run one of those or call an audible depending on the look the defense gave him.

That sort of freedom in the rigid, send-the-play-in hierarchy of the NFL is rare. To pull it off, Fitzpatrick had to study and come prepared. Beyond meetings with coaches, Fitzpatrick would organize player-only sit-downs with the groups to review details. 

Myers could tell Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, thrived on that challenge. In non-football settings, Myers could see the way Fitzpatrick picked up new hobbies — like when Fitzpatrick taught himself how to read binary code through self-guided books. Myers likes to tell a story of how Fitzpatrick showed the offensive line how to read the code on the back of a napkin at a New York pizzeria on an early-season road trip. 

“That’s the kind of person he is,” Myers said. “He’s just beyond the normal realm of thinking. And he’s always dissecting things, so he’s always thinking. That’s just in his mental makeup.” 

Ken Zampese can tell the difference the Texans’ influence had on Fitzpatrick. Now reunited in Washington, the quarterbacks coach worked with Fitzpatrick in Cincinnati for two seasons, including one in which Fitzpatrick started 12 games in place of an injured Carson Palmer in 2008. 

When Zampese looks back at that season, he sees it as Fitzpatrick’s audition for the rest of the league — one that paved the way for a successful four-year stint with the Buffalo Bills, still the longest Fitzpatrick has been on one NFL team.  But he also remembers the then 26-year-old being “thrown into the fire” and having to go through growing pains.

Thirteen years later, Zampese said it’s clear that Fitzpatrick can handle whatever is thrown his way.

“It’s one of the reasons we liked him so much — there’s so much to draw from,” Zampese said. “He’s done about everything that the league has to offer offensively.”

Ironically, Washington’s scheme — a variation on the “Air Coryell” offense — is perhaps the one system that was new to Fitzpatrick. Last month in training camp, the former seventh-rounder admitted there were reads and throws in Washington’s system that “made me scratch my head at first.” Fitzpatrick said he had “take the ego out of it” to get on board.

With Washington, Fitzpatrick may not have as much freedom at the line of scrimmage as he did with the Texans. The quarterback will have room to audible, but the team doesn’t want Fitzpatrick to “change things completely,” coach Ron Rivera said.

“With what we do and how we do it, we give him some freedom, we give him some opportunities but then we also, we’ll make calls and that’s what we want done,” Rivera told The Washington Times. “It’s not like he has no freedom, but it’s not like we are giving him the keys to say, ‘Here, go out and run the offense.” 

Still, Rivera is excited about Fitzpatrick. After the team’s initial plan to trade for Matthew Stafford broke down, Rivera was more than willing to sign Fitzpatrick to a one-year, $10 million deal. He remembered how when in Carolina, he’d have to “scout the whole field” when game-planning against Fitzpatrick, then on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because of the quarterback’s ability to launch it deep.

Compared to Houston, this opportunity is different for Fitzpatrick. Sure he’s still a stopgap — Washington will be in the market for a quarterback next season — but this is one of the few times in Fitzpatrick’s career that he enters the season as the team’s unquestioned starter and without a young quarterback being groomed behind him

Instead, he arrives in Washington established. The bushy beard, the “Fitzmagic” nickname, the outlandish postgame outfits are all now the norm — far from his days in Houston.

Last week, Fitzpatrick guessed it has been years since he last shaved. He indicated he doesn’t plan to anytime soon, citing how strange pro golfer Dustin Johnson and tight end Travis Kelce looked after sporting a clean-shaven look. 

“I don’t think I can ever shave again,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think it can ever come off because they just look like different human beings.”

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