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There’s a complaint I find myself raising about all the D.C.-area sports teams: They are boring. I have a tendency to level this complaint whether it is accurate—hello, Maryland men’s basketball—or not—hi there, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook scoring a billion points while leading the Wizards to another mediocre season!
The Washington Football Team is coming out of a couple of years being led by, arguably, the most boring quarterback in football, Alex Smith. Smith was best known for completing short, safe passes and just generally not throwing interceptions, right up until he became best known for somehow coming back to play professional football after nearly having his leg amputated due to a life-threatening infection.
But, #realtalk, once the shock of that wore off, Smith’s onfield performance was somehow even more boring. When Smith was ruled out of the team’s playoff game because of an injury to the leg that wasn’t almost amputated, Taylor Heinicke dazzled in relief not by winning the game (which, notably, he didn’t) but by being something that Washington Football Team fans hadn’t seen since Robert Griffin III’s rookie year: fun to watch.
This is a fanbase that is starved for fun. For a team that scores a bunch of points. For a quarterback who will attempt the high-reward throw despite the risk. For a leader who will wear dumb facial hair and an elaborate costume during a press conference.
With a single signing this offseason, Washington addressed all of those gaps. Ryan Fitzpatrick is coming to town. Fitzpatrick, sometimes known as “Fitzmagic,” somehow manages to be multiple fascinating characters in the football movie of life. At age 38 and on his ninth team, he’s 30 percent “aging veteran looking for one last ride.” As a guy who made it to the NFL from Harvard, he’s 10 percent “guy who made it to the NFL from Harvard.” (This represents truly remarkable growth—in his first several years in the league, he was almost 85 percent “guy who made it to the NFL from Harvard.”) As someone who has thrown 223 touchdowns to 169 interceptions, he’s a solid 25 percent “gunslinger who is just havin’ fun out there.” As someone with an elaborate beard and a self-consciously cool wardrobe, he’s 12 percent perfect blog fodder. And as someone who has lost his job to a whole bunch of young and/or rookie quarterbacks over the years, he’s 23 percent “an optimal choice to bring in while you figure out whether or not Heinicke can actually play.”
And that’s probably the key. Heinicke’s performance in the playoff loss looked, genuinely, really good. If Heinicke had been an unproven but highly regarded rookie, it would’ve looked promising, and probably even would have been a viable argument for starting the 28-year-old next year. But Heinicke wasn’t a rookie. He was a journeyman in his late 20s whom the Washington Football Team had pulled from graduate-level math classes at Old Dominion University after unremarkable stints with four previous NFL franchises and one XFL franchise.
If the best that Heinicke showed—that one playoff game—is truly representative of the level of moxie and ability that he could show in the NFL, you could start him. But there is no way on Earth that any decision maker at Washington could make that call. Which makes Fitzpatrick the perfect signing. He’s good enough that Heinicke will genuinely have to beat him out to win the starting job—and, if he does so, he’ll have completely earned that position. But he’s also good enough that if, as seems likely, he wins the starting position, he could actually lead Washington to a genuinely successful season. (And look good doing it, too.)
Still, this isn’t a signing that’s going to fire up the fanbase. Most likely, it’s a signing that kicks the can down the road on a longterm QB decision. But if so, it’s a really well-struck can kick. Fitzpatrick is someone that the front office can sell to potential free agent pass-catchers. He’s shown that he can help wide receivers rack up stats even in losing seasons (e.g. his stints with the Bengals and the Jets). That’s easier than trying to convince potential signees that they can trust Heinicke. Fitzpatrick is reportedly a good locker room guy and a decent mentor to young quarterbacks, which replaces something significant the team lost when Smith left. He’s not a high-dollar guy by quarterback standards, and his one-year deal means that there are no future ramifications to worry about.
At an absolute bare minimum, the Fitzpatrick, Heinicke (and, fine, Kyle Allen) combo would seem to ensure that the Washington Football Team doesn’t have to reach for a quarterback in this year’s draft, and that—one way or another—the team will have its first truly fun-to-watch season in years.