NFL

Fitzpatrick's Harvard degree a plus?

Sports Xchange Len Pasquarelli
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Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick joked earlier that he might be in the only profession in which his much respected Harvard degree could actually be regarded as a negative.

"When you walk into a job interview almost anywhere else and announce that you are a Harvard graduate, it pretty much has some weight," Fitzpatrick told The Sports Xchange from his home in Gilbert, Ariz., earlier this week. "But when you walk into the NFL and say, 'Harvard,' well . . . "

Well, indeed.

With apologies to Donovan McNabb — a six-time Pro Bowl performer who has been unofficially dissed by the Washington Redskins, is essentially a man without a team until the lockout and trade moratorium end, and figures to be playing for his third franchise in three seasons in 2011 — Fitzpatrick is arguably the least appreciated quarterback in the league to have thrown for 3,000 yards last year.

Maybe in the past 10 years or so.

Fitzpatrick, 28, started 13 games for the Bills in 2010, passed for exactly 3,000 yards, and had 23 touchdown passes — all career bests. The 3,000 yards were more than those thrown by David Garrard, Brett Favre and Jason Campbell. As unlikely as some might consider it, Fitzpatrick's 23 touchdown passes were more than 14 quarterbacks who started at least 10 regular-season games last year. His 81.8 passer rating was better than that of a half-dozen starters.

Yet Fitzpatrick, a five-year veteran who is with his third team since 2005, and who might have the dreaded "journeyman" label unfortunately and unfairly dogging him, can probably stroll down the middle of Genesee Street in Buffalo anonymously.

Heck, for that matter, Fitzpatrick can likely go to the grocery store in Gilbert to pick up a few items or take his three kids to the playground, and go unnoticed. Which, apparently, isn't all that bad relative to the paparazzi following most starting quarterbacks generate when they take to the streets.

"There's something to be said for being (unrecognized)," said Fitzpatrick, who can get on with his daily life without being hounded by whatever nettlesome paparazzi really are in Gilbert. "It's not all so bad."

Before one begins to assign all those hackneyed Rodney Dangerfield tags to Fitzpatrick, know this: The Bills quarterback commands great respect among his Buffalo teammates. And general manager Buddy Nix told The Buffalo News that his quarterback is a "smart guy" and "tough guy," and that Fitzpatrick "has a lot of the qualities you need" at the position.

At the NFL meetings in New Orleans in March, coach Chan Gailey reiterated his regard for Fitzpatrick, and noted to the media surrounding him at the annual coaches' breakfast that the quarterback "is a whole heck of a lot better" than he is credited with being.

"The man can play," said tailback Fred Jackson.

That didn't stop Nix and Gailey from examining the quarterback options in the draft — the organization was incredibly forthright in acknowledging it could select a passer if a franchise foundation-type prospect was available and deemed worthy of the slot in which Buffalo was picking — but the Bills didn't tab one with any of their nine picks. Nix has likewise conceded that the Bills will probably sign a veteran backup when the lockout ends.

But Nix has also made it clear that Fitzpatrick is the starter for 2011. And Gailey thought enough of Fitzpatrick to have phoned him before the lockout and advised him the Bills might choose a quarterback in the draft.

Neither that candid admission, nor the relative lack of profile, seemed to concern Fitzpatrick very much.

The heads-up call by Gailey to Fitzpatrick, who watched the entire draft with a vested interest, as he typically does ("You always want to see if your team is going to take a quarterback," he said), was appreciated. So is the absence of celebrity. His impressive 2010 numbers aside, it's hardly hyperbole to suggest that Fitzpatrick might be the NFL's least-known incumbent starting quarterback.

Then again, for a guy from Harvard, chosen by St. Louis in the seventh round in '05, the latter is to be expected, it seems. After all, Fitzpatrick played college football for the Crimson, not The Crimson Tide.

This has been a bit of an uneven offseason for Fitzpatrick.

Less than an hour after the lockout was imposed by owners, he and wife Liza welcomed their third child, daughter Lucy Violet. There has been the lockout, though, and that has precluded Fitzpatrick from minicamps and organized team activities, although it has permitted him quality family time. On the flip side, the fact Buffalo didn't take a quarterback in the draft, and actually selected defensive players with each of its first three picks, validated the regard in which Fitzpatrick is held.

Said wide receiver Stevie Johnson, in an appearance on The NFL Network earlier this month: "He's the guy for the job."

A longtime Arizona State fan, Fitzpatrick went to Harvard after he received little interest from big-time Division I programs, and the Ivy League school reached out to him. A two-year starter, Fitzpatrick won the Asa A. Bushnell Cup as the league's top player in 2004, became the first Harvard quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a career, and was the first quarterback from the school chosen in the draft since 1981. Plus he is one of just two Harvard players selected overall in the past 20 years.

The 250th player chosen in the 2005 draft, there were only five prospects taken after him. But he has certainly made himself relevant.

In the spring of 2005, Fitzpatrick garnered some recognition when he scored either a 48 or 49 on the Wonderlic exam administered by league teams (50 is the max). Still, there was the matter of confirming to teams and to himself that he possessed the requisite brawn, not just brains, to play at the NFL level.

"Probably when I made the (Rams') roster as a rookie, even though I was only the third-string guy (beating out the more heralded Jeff Smoker for the job) . . . that's when I knew I could play in the league," Fitzpatrick said. "I mean, playing for Mike Martz, I had a lot thrown at me, and found out I could handle it. And then with Scott Linehan, another tremendous offensive mind (who replaced Martz in '06), I learned a lot. But it didn't (overwhelm) me. I felt I could play. I felt like I was more than just 'the Harvard guy,' trying to make it."

With 36 career starts — he also started 12 contests in 2008 in Cincinnati, when Carson Palmer was sidelined by a right elbow injury — Fitzpatrick has established himself as a more than simply a curiosity item. And with his numbers in 2010, and his command of the huddle after replacing the highly-touted Trent Edwards as starter, Fitzpatrick is definitely more than some a Harvard "egghead."

Then again, the economics degree he earned from Harvard might come in handy after the 2011 season, given his situation. Fitzpatrick is in the final season of the three-year deal he signed with the Bills as a free agent in 2009, scheduled to make $3.195 million in base salary, but eligible for unrestricted free agency after the year, even under the '10 rules.

Yet he likes the city of Buffalo, the fans there, and the food, and the team. And he would like, if possible, to stay with the Bills for a while longer.

Even if very few people, the estimable Harvard diploma notwithstanding, really know who he is.

Around the league

(N)ochocinco: Despite a report from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Falcons might have "the inside track" for signing Chad Ochocinco if he is released by Cincinnati when the lockout ends, any deal is expected to be derailed.

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It's a convenient connect-the-dots scenario between Ochocinco and new Atlanta quarterbacks coach Bob Bratkowski, who was the Bengals offensive coordinator for the wide receiver's entire 10-year Bengals tenure. But the truth is that Bratkowski and Ochocinco weren't particularly close — even though "Ocho" is pushing the notion of a reunion — and the 33-year-old wide receiver isn't a very good fit.

"Ain't happenin'," one team source succinctly told The Sports Xchange.

The Falcons' starters are likely to be Roddy White, the NFL's leading pass-catcher in 2010, and rookie Julio Jones, the first-round pick for whom Atlanta surrendered five draft choices to move up in the first round last month.

Even if the Falcons release or trade former first-rounder and starter Michael Jenkins, who could now be rendered extraneous and overpriced with the addition of Jones, the team still has third-year veteran Harry Douglas to play the slot. Douglas was a disappointment in '10, with only 22 catches, but the coming season will be his second year back following knee surgery that sidelined him for all of 2009, and Falcons' coaches seem very confident he will recapture his 2008 rookie form and the quickness he displayed.

Atlanta also has promising youngster Kerry Meier, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who was solid early in his rookie training camp, then missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, and Pro Bowl return man Eric Weems.

In the best-case scenario, Ochocinco would be the Falcons' No. 4 receiver, and he (and his mouth) isn't apt to accept that role. The team carried 10-year veteran Brian Finneran in 2010, but he played a big role on special teams, something Ochocinco has never done. Even though the 35-year-old Finneran has been told that he won't be re-signed for 2011, the Falcons won't replace him with Ochocinco.

And, finally, there is this factor: Bratkowski and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey are especially tight, having worked together for two seasons (1999-2000) on the Pittsburgh staff. Bratkowski isn't going to impose Ochocinco on a guy whom many in the league consider his closest friend.

Regression depression: Several coaches, notably Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, were fairly outspoken this week about the ramifications of an offseason in which there are no minicamps and OTAs. Belichick candidly conceded the Patriots may have to cut back on the playbook. Reid admitted the overall quality of play could suffer. But the upshot of the lack of work might also be, according to a few coaches to whom The Sports Xchange spoke, that there is actually less hitting than normal in camps.

If that's possible.

"Your first priority will be to gauge the conditioning of your team," said one AFC coach this week. "All these unofficial camps they're having . . . I mean, what can they do, besides seven-on-seven drills? There's no contact. The (irony) is that guys want less contact, and, because of the lockout, they're probably going to get it. The players could lose the battle but win a war that's important to them."

Bush league: Word is that if tailback Reggie Bush doesn't return to New Orleans for the 2011 season — and despite an $11.8 price tag, that remains a possibility — he will be more sought after than some people think as a free agent.

Last week, The Tip Sheet reported that at least one team with time on its hands during the lockout was reviewing videotape of Bush as a potential slot receiver. But we heard from some teams this week that he is just as valuable as a change-of-pace back, who gets maybe 10-12 "touches" per game as a back and return man.

Said one team executive: "The thing with (Bush) will be timing. You don't want to run out when free agency eventually starts, and sign a (versatile) back, and then have Bush pop free, because the Saints can't afford him. You might be kicking yourself for not waiting on Bush, and seeing what his market is out there. So it's probably going to take some legwork, you know?"

Back on the case: There hasn't been much news of late emanating from some government agencies' investigation of NFL player representatives, and the reason is because the feds had a much more important diversion: due diligence following the death of Osama bin Laden.

Sports, and the potential indiscretions of agents, simply hasn't been a priority. But the several agents in the crosshairs of the probe, many of them located in the Southeast and a few of them fairly well-known names, shouldn't let down their guards just yet. One person very familiar with the government's digging told The Sports Xchange that the probe will resume at the end of the month.

Wade's world: Much has been made about the Houston Texans' transition to a 3-4 defense, and the personnel/positional changes that new coordinator Wade Phillips will enact: defensive end Mario Williams to linebacker, defensive tackle Amobe Okoye to end, strong-side linebacker Brian Cushing to inside linebacker, etc.

But it's worth noting that Phillips, in inheriting a secondary that finished last versus the pass in 2010, will confront some of the same problems he faced in Dallas last year.

That's particularly true at safety, where neither of the Houston starters from a year ago, Eugene Wilson and Bernard Pollard, will return. The Texans may start a rookie, fifth-round pick Shiloh Keo of Idaho, at one of the safety spots. Keo is believed to be a very bright guy who is usually around the ball (11 interceptions in college), but who still struggled in coverage at times. A solid tackler, Keo is nonetheless going to have a lot of responsibility for a youngster.

The team may move one of its young veteran cornerbacks to safety as well, but there seems little doubt Phillips is going to have a pretty inexperienced interior secondary with which to cope, in addition to all the other changes he's making.

Supplemental insurance: The names certainly aren't set, and neither is the exact date, but the NFL plans on having a supplemental draft this summer. There has been some question about the legality of the special-cases draft, which has produced just one player taken in the top three rounds — Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon by Washington in the third round in 2009 — since 2006.

But league vice president Greg Aiello confirmed to The Sports Xchange that the supplemental draft is covered explicitly in the expired collective bargaining agreement, the same way the regular-phase draft last month was directly addressed. As previously reported here, the supplemental draft lost a potential big-name player when former University of Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins opted to transfer and continue his college career elsewhere.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors that Michael Floyd of Notre Dame might opt for the supplemental draft, but sources close to the wide receiver contend that isn't the case.

Cone of silence: Amid reports last week that Pittsburgh and Washington had a draft-day deal arranged in the first round that fell apart because the player the Steelers coveted was gone, denials have come from all sides. Redskins vice president of public relations Tony Wyllie and general manager Bruce Allen both pooh-poohed the reports, as did a trusted Steelers source.

The alleged trade would have had the Steelers moving up to the 16th slot in the opening round from the 31st, presumably to grab University of Florida guard Mike Pouncey. But the brother of Pittsburgh Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was taken by Miami with the 15th choice. According to the Pittsburgh source, the two teams spoke in the days preceding the draft, doing the type of due diligence all franchises conduct, but there was not a phone call at all between the two clubs once the lottery began.

Punts: There have been numerous reports over the past two weeks of contact between coaches and players, forbidden under terms of the lockout, and it would probably be naive to think there's isn't some sort of communication occurring in some cases. But league officials said Thursday that, after investigating some of the reports, they have unearthed no violations. From a personal standpoint, we can report that several teams where The Sports Xchange sought interviews with coaches politely declined the requests of lack of clarity with lockout rules. ...

With the presumptive retirement of Phil Jackson from the Los Angeles Lakers, Forbes magazine has tabbed Belichick as the highest-paid coach in any of the four North American professional leagues. Coaching salaries in the NFL are notoriously tough to pinpoint, and New England is particularly cryptic about Belichick's deal, but Forbes pegs his contract at about $7.5 million per year. There are six other NFL coaches — Mike Shanahan, Pete Carroll, Lovie Smith, Ken Whisenhunt, Tom Coughlin, and Mike Tomlin — in the top 10. The other three are NBA coaches. ...

Last week in this spot, we noted that Philadelphia will jettison veteran kicker David Akers after the lockout, not only for age and salary, but because some in the organization have grown weary of what they perceive as attitude problems. This week, Eagles special teams coach Bobby April all but confirmed Akers' pending departure when he said that rookie Alex Henery of Nebraska, the club's fourth-round pick in last month's draft, could be the club's leading scorer for many years. ...

Contracts from the UFL began landing in the mailboxes of players and agents this week, and the fledgling, five-team league has made some notable cuts: The salary for the season has been reduced to $40,000, from $50,000 a year ago. Training camp per diem payments went from $55 to $50. Most notable was the reduction for the title game. Last year, the league champion received $20,000 and the runner-up bagged $10,000. For 2011, the payments are $6,000 and $5,000, respectively. ...

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 
Len Pasquarelli
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.
 

As noted this week in several spots, Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who early in the year signed a new two-year, $30 million contract that makes him the NFL's priciest defensive player on a per-year average basis, will foot the bill for a four-day session with teammates in Atlanta Tuesday through Friday. Agent Eugene Parker told The Sports Xchange he has not spoken to his client about the price, and could not confirm it is six figures, but said: "The one thing about Richard is that he does everything first class, so he's not going to cut corners, believe me. He feels like this is important for the team and he's going to do it right." According to the plan, Seymour will supervise the defensive workouts and Jason Campbell will run the offensive practices. The sessions will be at Competitive Edge Sports in suburban Atlanta, and will be monitored by noted trainer Chip Smith, the subject of a column by The Sports Xchange at the outset of the lockout. ...

The lockout could scuttle plans by the New Orleans staff for working third-round draft pick Martez Wilson, a middle linebacker at Illinois, on the strong side. If the lockout wipes out most minicamps and OTAs, it's likely Wilson will be relegated to backup duty behind Jonathan Vilma in the middle. ...

The Eagles could also switch middle linebacker Stewart Bradley to the strong-side spot to make room for either Omar Gaither or Jamar Chaney, both of whom logged two starts in 2010, at the "Mike" position. ...

Eleven-year veteran cornerback Dre Bly, who didn't play in the league at all in 2010, still hopes to catch on with someone for camp. Bly, who will be 34 on Sunday, averaged 13.5 starts in eight seasons until sitting out last year. ...

Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley, who played in only five games in 2010 because of meniscus surgery, reported last week that his knee feels fine and he's ready to roll. But there continue to be suspicions that this could be the final season in Green Bay for Finley, who possesses monstrous athletic skills and was on his way to a career season in '10 before the injury. Finley is in the final year of his contract and, if he hits the market, will draw plenty of suitors. The Packers, who are always conscious of depth under general manager Ted Thompson, have three other veteran tight ends on the roster, and added two more. D.J. Williams of Arkansas and North Carolina's Ryan Taylor, in the draft. ...

There has been a lot of attention paid to veteran wide receivers who might be available in free agency — Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, and Vincent Jackson, among others — and justifiably so. And the status of Carolina's Steve Smith, who is said to have asked for a trade, is worth watching for teams in the market. But clubs are also monitoring a group of young wideouts whose free agency status will be determined by the CBA negotiations. The group includes Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, James Jones, Lance Moore, Sidney Rice and Mike Sims-Walker. ...

The above-mentioned Fitzpatrick told The Sports Xchange that Buffalo skill-position players will assemble next week for workouts. The group of about nine running backs and receivers also met last month. ...

The Palm Beach Post had an interesting Friday column in which it noted that some front office employees, whose salaries have been reduced because of the lockout, are actually rooting for the players to prevail. We don't know about that, but we can attest there are some assistant coaches, who are about to go stir-crazy, who privately wish the players would cave, so they can get back to work. ...

Notable leftover from the draft is that Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who made 58 draft-day trades since acquiring the franchise in 1989, made none this year. ...

Although they have yet to see first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan on the practice field, some Washington coaches remain borderline skeptical that the former Purdue star will make a seamless transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Kerrigan has a great motor, but has struggled at times in space. Of course, the Kerrigan supporters note that, under coordinator Jim Haslett, the Redskins' linebackers don't drop and cover much anyway.

The last word: "I could play today and help a team out. There is no doubt in my mind. ... I know I couldn't play a whole game, but I could contribute a lot."— Former NFL tailback Herschel Walker, who is 49 and hasn't played since 1997, per The Dallas Morning News.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bengals, Packers, Raiders, Vikings, Saints, Jets, Eagles, Redskins, Jaguars, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Brian Finneran, Chad Johnson, David Akers, Eugene Wilson, Michael Jenkins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Reggie Bush, Fred Jackson, James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Kerrigan, Julio Jones, Martez Wilson, Ryan Taylor, Shiloh Keo

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