ASHBURN, Va. — As Washington Football Team quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick checked out the defense before the snap, he noticed the coverage being played against tight end Logan Thomas, isolated on the right side. The defensive back was aligned to Thomas’ inside, leaving a lot of room on the outside for Thomas. And Fitzpatrick knew where Thomas would get to — and when.
In a sign of his comfort level with his new teammates, Fitzpatrick didn’t hesitate. He dropped back, held the safety with his eyes for a split second, then lofted a perfect back-shoulder toss to Thomas for a 24-yard gain in Washington’s preseason opener against the New England Patriots last week.
Earlier in the game, in another moment of synchronicity, Fitzpatrick led wide receiver Terry McLaurin into a 22-yard completion with a well-placed ball — not to where McLaurin was, but to where he was headed and just to the other side of a linebacker underneath.
“Those were probably the two best throws that highlight the fact that we’re feeling a little bit more comfortable on offense with each other,” Fitzpatrick said.
This is what Washington had hoped to see from Fitzpatrick this summer, after a few bumpy days in the spring as he learned yet another offense with his ninth NFL team.
“There’s a couple reads and throws the way they do things here that made me scratch my head at first, that I totally get them and I’m on board with now,” he said. “They look at football differently than I ever have.”
If Washington is going to build on its 7-9 finish from last season, Fitzpatrick must be consistent for 17 games. Washington’s defense should be good, but it also plays a tougher schedule that, barring injuries, will feature quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs), Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks), Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers), Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers), Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders) and Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys, twice).
That’s why seeing a rhythm develop between Fitzpatrick and his wide receivers has been crucial. In practices, it is clear he trusts McLaurin and Thomas as well as slot receiver Adam Humphries.
“He has a lot of anticipation,” McLaurin said.
The third-year wide receiver then cited the two pass plays against New England.
“When I came out of that in cut, the ball was right there on the opposite side of that backer,” McLaurin said. “Which was nice for me, because you get a chance to catch the ball and run. Obviously he knows the scheme. But the anticipation, the details of the routing, and then getting the chemistry with the rest of our receivers, that’s what we’re continuing to work out. When you see him making those anticipatory throws, those back-shoulder throws that he’s been hitting with Logan, those are tough to defend.”
Fitzpatrick spends a lot of time talking to wide receivers, in practice and after — even if he wasn’t the one making the throw. He’ll talk to them after completions about what routes they might need to run if they get a different leverage from the defender. After practice one day, he and Humphries worked on an adjustment based on where the linebacker might be aligned.
That’s the value of having a quarterback entering his 17th year.
Even though Fitzpatrick has played with eight previous teams, this offense took time to learn. During the spring there were some rough moments — interceptions — as he learned. There might be more on the way, too. That’s been the nature of his pro career, but also is a product of playing in a new system.
Fitzpatrick said some of the progressions are different than what he has been used to, based on personnel groupings or formations. He said he watched film of former Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who ran the same system under Norv Turner, father of Washington’s offensive coordinator, Scott. That, Fitzpatrick said, made it easier for him to trust.
“As an older guy, a lot of times it’s, ‘Well, that’s not the way I’ve done it. I don’t think that’s going to work.’ And it did take OTAs and some training camp reps to kind of see some things that I hadn’t looked at in a particular way before,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s hard. And the older you get, the harder it is to [not] take a step back and say, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m right, you’re wrong’ and you get into that game a little bit. You take the ego out of it and it takes reps and time to understand it.”
Practices also have featured more downfield passes than in recent years. Last season, Washington’s quarterbacks ranked last in average air yards per pass attempt at 6.1, per ESPN’s Stats & Information. Fitzpatrick’s career low in this area is 7.49, set in 2008. Since 2013 he has averaged 8.79 air yards per pass attempt, which is good news for McLaurin and speedy wide receivers Dyami Brown and Curtis Samuel, who has yet to practice in full-team sessions since being taken off the physically unable to perform list.
“With the players we have, with the speed we have,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said, “we’ve got to consider throwing that ball downfield.”
Quarterbacks who bounce around as much as Fitzpatrick, 38, has don’t usually have that chance to fully integrate into a new system. However, in Washington there’s no high draft pick waiting to take over. And, Fitzpatrick is on a one-year deal.
“I don’t really have the luxury of not being able to be good at it or do it and perform at a high level right away,” Fitzpatrick said. “I have to do it right away.”