By Pete Baxter
Today I would like to take a look at two of the most unique, yet oddly similar careers in the history of the National Football League.
As Ryan Fitzpatrick starts his latest chapter as (currently) the starting quarterback for the Washington Football team, there has been some (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) discussion of his Hall of Fame credentials, and he has been crowned the greatest journeyman in NFL history.
While I can appreciate a little Fitzmagic as much as the next guy, I would like to throw Vinny Testaverde’s hat in the ring for the title of greatest journeyman quarterback in NFL history.
We will compare their personal journeys, team successes and failures, and their individual stats to determine who is the greater NFL nomad. Let’s get into it.
The Journey: Ryan Fitzpatrick
First, let us compare the actual journeys themselves.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, when he suits up for the Washington Football Team this year, will be throwing the pigskin for his ninth NFL squad.
Fitzpatrick started his career as a seventh-round draft pick out of Harvard for the then St. Louis Rams in 2005. He started his career with a bang worthy of a gunslinging legend, entering a game against the Houston Texans in relief of veteran Jamie Martin and throwing 310 yards and three touchdowns. His debut earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for this effort. In classic Fitzmagic fashion, immediately after this dominant performance that earned him the starting role, the wheels quickly fell off and he threw just one touchdown to eight interceptions over the next three games before losing the starting role to Martin once again. He would not start again for the Rams and was traded in 2007 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
With the Bengals, Fitzpatrick would once again get a chance to start after Carson Palmer fell to injury in 2008. Fitzpatrick would appear in 13 games that season with mixed results, finishing 4-7-1 as a starter, but displaying above average athleticism, finishing third in the league in rushing.
This performance earned him a contract with his third team, the Buffalo Bills. Fitzpatrick would replace starter Trent Edwards after Edwards fell to an injury in 2009. Fitzpatrick would lose the starting role once again to Edwards to the start the 2010 season but would earn it back after the team started 0-2. Fitzpatrick would remain the Bills starter through the 2012 season. Despite flashes of brilliance, Fitzpatrick and company just couldn’t win consistently, and he would finish with just a 20-33 record as a starter in Buffalo.
In 2013, the Bills opted to move on, and Fitzpatrick signed on in Tennessee to back up youngster Jake Locker. Once again Fitzpatrick quickly got a chance to play, replacing Locker after an injury in week 4. Fitzpatrick would start nine games for Tennessee, finishing just 3-6.
His performance in Tennessee was not enough to keep him around in 2014, but once again was enough to earn him a shot with the Houston Texans, where he would enter the season as the starting quarterback. He would promptly give up this starting role by November, losing the gig to youngster Ryan Mallet. Fitzy would regain the starting role after a Mallet injury, before losing it once again to an injury of his own. Despite this up and down season, Fitzpatrick was briefly on display when he set a franchise record for six touchdown passes in game against his former team, the Titans. Before falling to injury, Fitzpatrick had pulled off a .500 record at 6-6 with Texans.
You guessed it, his performance with Houston wasn’t enough to keep him town but was enough for the New York Jets to trade a late-round pick for him. He entered the 2015 season as the back up to youngster Geno Smith, before Smith was literally knocked out of the starting lineup by his own teammate via a broken jaw following a locker room brawl in the preseason.
Fitzpatrick would never look back that season and would finish 2015 with the best year of his career, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and over 30 touchdowns. He led the Jets to a surprising 10-6 record, though they missed the playoffs.
Fitzpatrick won the support of the locker room and eventually earned a new contract from the Jets to enter the 2016 season as their starter. And again, in classic Fitzy fashion, the wheels promptly fell off. He would struggle throughout the season, finishing just 3-8 as a starter with 12 touchdowns to 17 picks. Onto the next one…
After his contract was voided with the Jets, Fitzpatrick signed on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to back up young franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick spent two seasons in Tampa, seemingly swapping the starting gig on and off again with Winston as the youngster missed time due to suspensions and reckless play.
In one incredible relief stretch in Tampa, Fitzpatrick became the first player in NFL history to throw 400-plus yards in three consecutive games. Once again, in classic Fitzy fashion, the bottom fell out and he was benched two weeks later for Winston.
It was during his Tampa tenure that Fitzpatrick once borrowed one of Desean Jackson’s outfits for a press conference, leading to one of the greatest NFL meme interviews of all time.
In 2019, he moved on to the lowly Miami Dolphins, a team widely considered to be one of the worst teams on paper in the history of the league. After emerging as the starter after a battle with Josh Rosen, Fitzpatrick put on perhaps the most impressive season of his career, turning a presumed 0-16 squad into a respectably mediocre unit. He finished 5-8 as a starter for Miami, tossing 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, with his usual mix of reckless, head scratching play with occasional brilliance. Fitzpatrick even led the squad in rushing (the oldest quarterback to ever do so).
This surprisingly successful campaign earned him the starting nod in 2020, despite the Dolphins investing a first-round pick in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick built off his success of 2019 and started the season 4-3 as a starter. In one of the most shocking and hard-to-swallow moments of his career, Dolphins coach Brian Flores opted to go with his rookie in week 8. There were rumblings among his teammates that this was Fitzy’s team, and Fitzpatrick was vocal in the press discussing his disappointment. While he would appear again later in the season after Tua struggled, it was clearly Tagovailoa’s team moving forward.
Which brings us to today, team number nine. At 38 years old, the Ryan Fitzpatrick story is not over. He enters 2021 as the presumed starter for Washington, so he has time to add to his already impressive roller coaster of a career. More to come.
So, over the course of his 16-year (so far) career, he has signed off with nine different teams. Were you to make a road trip to follow each stop on Fitzpatrick’s career roadmap, you would cover a total of approximately 6,300 miles. A fascinating journey for one of the most exciting and frustrating players of the modern era.
The Journey: Vinny and the Jets (among others)
Meanwhile, Vinny Testaverde topped out at seven different squads during his incredible 21-year run. He started for all but one of those squads, the exception being the New England Patriots in 2006, the penultimate year of his marathon career. He threw just three passes that season (completing two, one for a touchdown for a solid 99.9 QBR).
He started his career as the number one pick in the 1987 draft for the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a struggle from day one, and Testaverde quickly gained a reputation for being turnover prone. His turnover struggles peaked at 35 interceptions in his second season, which remains an NFL record in futility to this day.
It was a different era in which teams actually stood by their quarterbacks, and Tampa gave Testaverde six years to prove himself. Unfortunately, he just could not find any sort of sustained success. He finished with a record of 24-48 as the starter in Tampa, with twice as many losses as wins. He threw for a total of 67 touchdowns to an amazing 102 interceptions over this span. Amazingly, despite his struggles, his career was far from over, and this would be one of many opportunities for Vinny to lead a team over the next two decades.
Onward to Cleveland, where he signed as a free agent in 1993 to back up Bernie Kosar. It didn’t take long for Vinny to get another shot, as a young Bill Belichick gave him the reigns to the offense later in the season. Testaverde would spend three years in Cleveland, including a playoff appearance and Wildcard game win, before moving with the franchise to Baltimore for two more years. Testaverde actually scored the first touchdown in Baltimore Ravens history, and would turn his first Pro Bowl campaign in 1996, throwing for 33 passing touchdowns.
However, as you probably guessed, the honeymoon in Baltimore was short lived. After struggling and dealing with injuries in 1997, Testaverde was released by the Ravens.
Bring on the legendary “Vinny and the Jets” era in New York. Testaverde spent his prime in New York, achieving his second Pro Bowl appearance in his first season in New York with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In his greatest season as a pro in 1998, he led the Jets to a 12-1 record as a starter, and an AFC Championship game appearance, a loss to John Elway’s Denver Broncos.
Once again, in classic, heart-breaking journeyman fashion, Testaverde went from his all-time high to a rock bottom following season, in which a week 1 injury caused him to miss the entire season.
He would spend four more seasons in New York; a mediocre 25 interception season, a return to playoff form for one last year, and then losing his job to Chad Pennington for his final two seasons in the Big Apple.
In 2004, he would move to Dallas for one last season with Bill Parcells. He would quickly get a chance to start after Quincy Carter’s release but would turn in a subpar 6-10 campaign with 17 touchdowns to 20 picks. The Cowboys would move on after one season
Vinny would wrap up his marathon career with one year stops back in New York, then to the Patriots and Panthers where he start a total of 10 games.
Testaverde would retire in 2007 after a journey that would cover seven teams and 5,811 total miles stop to stop.
So, who is the greatest journeyman quarterback ? Let us compare some key metrics to decide.
Testaverde has the slightly higher career winning percentage of 42% to Fitzpatrick’s 40%. Point Testaverde.
Fitzpatrick has the better touchdown to interception ratio of 1.32 (223 to 169) to Testaverde’s 1.03. Point Fitzmagic.
Testaverde has two Pro Bowl appearances to Fitzpatrick’s zero. Point Testaverde.
Testaverde has led a team to the playoffs three different times. Fitzpatrick has never started a playoff game. Point Testaverde.
Testaverde holds two NFL records: most consecutive seasons with at least one pass touchdown and the oldest player to win an NFL game. Fitzpatrick holds nine different NFL records, ranging from most consecutive 400 yard passing and 4 touchdown pass games to start a season to being the first quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a game for five different franchises. Point Fitzpatrick.
Testaverde holds a three to two lead in these metrics, and if you take into account the fact that Testaverde played in the era preceding the league rule changes that led to the recent explosion in quarterback stats, you have to give the nod to Vinny.
While the two had a great deal of similarities in their career arcs, Testaverde clearly achieved higher peaks in terms of individual play (two Pro Bowls) as well as team success (an AFC Championship appearance).
That said, Fitzpatrick’s long, epic road to mediocrity is not over. At age 38, he has another chance to get over the hump and lead a team to the playoffs with the Washington Football Team. It is the best overall squad he has ever been a part of. Will Ron Rivera, Dan Snyder and company put their faith in Fitzmagic this season, or will they move onto a younger, higher potential player sooner rather than later?
More to come from Washington.
But, at this moment in time, Vinny Testaverde holds the crown as the greatest journeyman quarterback in NFL history.