You never know when your chance for redemption might come, all you can do is be ready if and when it happens. Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is quite familiar with this concept. Fitzpatrick started the first nine games of the 2014 season for the Texans, but was benched in favor or Ryan Mallett, and that's where things stood until Mallett suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Houston's 22-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday. Fitzpatrick was benched for two reasons: his own ineffectiveness, and head coach Bill O'Brien's need to see what Mallett could do as the Texans were trying to stay in the AFC playoff hunt. Fitzpatrick had not thrown for more than 289 yards and two touchdowns in any game this season, so there wasn't much reason to expect that he'd go off against the Tennessee Titans this Sunday.
That, as they say, is why they play the game. Fitzpatrick, the lifetime journeyman from a true talent perspective, threw a career-high six touchdown passes against a blitz-happy Titans defense, completing 24-of-33 passes for 358 yards and perhaps most importantly, no interceptions. Coming into this game, Fitzpatrick was a non-factor with the deep ball, but he made some nice throws downfield, especially to receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished the day with nine catches for 238 yards and two of those touchdowns. J.J. Watt also caught one of those touchdown passes, adding to his legitimate NFL Most Valuable Player candidacy and becoming the first defensive lineman to score five times in a season since 1944. Fitzpatrick hit Watt out of the fullback spot in motion, in a place where only Watt could catch it.
“It was an unreal throw by Fitz," Watt said after the game. "He put it in a spot where nobody but me could get it and it was a perfect throw. He really couldn’t have put it in a better spot. It was just a matter of going out there and grabbing it. All of the credit goes to him on that.”
Many of Fitzpatrick's teammates were more than willing to give him credit, starting with Hopkins. The first touchdown to Hopkins was a straight-up bomb as the talented receiver beat coverage, and the second was a perfectly placed stick throw.
"Fitz played a great game, from calling the audibles at the line, from making plays with his feet," Hopkins said. "That’s what he’s good at. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but Fitz is a tough guy. He’s going to go out there and give you his all. In the offseason, me and Fitz had a great connection coming into the season and we knew if we could get on track, then things were going to be good and we picked up on that today.”
It also impressed everyone on hand that Fitzpatrick lived up to the promise he made when he was benched -- that he would retain his intensity and do whatever he could to continue to help the team. That approach paid dividends, and it ensured that Fitzpatrick would have respect, no matter what.
“It was great, great outing by him," said receiver Andre Johnson, who has said quite a bit about Houston's quarterback situation over the last two years, and very little of it positive. "He did a great job the way he commanded the offense. It was awesome. An awesome thing to watch.
"The guy still prepared as if he was going to play every week. You just have to be ready when your opportunity comes."
Ready he was, though Fitzpatrick didn't have a bunch of specifics on hand when asked why things just clocked in for him on this day. He did welcome the possibility that shaving his famous Viking-ish beard was a contributing factor, but in the end, it may have been more about a different view -- against a team that released him last season.
“I think that being able to look at it at a different perspective, take a step back, and see it from a different view, I do think it helped a little bit. I think that and me going back and evaluating myself, I think those were two factors that helped me out today.”
It's hard to say whether Fitzpatrick has these kinds of days in him down the road, or whether this is more of a fluke. And he understands as well as anyone that it's an up-and-down business.
“Like what I said after I got benched, and even going into this week, to be a successful quarterback in this league, it’s all about self-confidence. Never losing that belief in yourself and that’s something that I will never lose. You know, it is something that I have dealt with in my life -- people doubting me and all those different things. It was a great team win today, you know. We are going to move on and go to the next one because that’s what the NFL is. Those six touchdowns that we had today are not going to count next week. We will have tonight to celebrate and we will spend it with family and everything, but we will move on tomorrow.”
Perhaps, in the end, losing Fitzpatrick on the field helped his teammates to understand his value. It certainly sounded like that when left tackle Duane Brown recalled what the quarterback's return meant to him. Football is a highly personal thing, and it's a professional highwire -- most of the rank and file know they're a play or two away from having their futures questioned and minimized. When one player makes a comeback like this, it seemingly opens the window for all. "If it can happen for him, why not me?" they ask.
"Everything he’s gone through, we’ve been right there with him," Brown said. "We had no doubt in our mind that he was going to come out and perform. I didn’t know he was going to come out and have a six-touchdown day, you know, and I wasn’t surprised. He prepared so well this week, we prepared well as an O-line and tried to do everything we can to give him time to operate back there and these are the results and we just have to keep doing this week in and week out.”
O'Brien, who had to make that tough call in the first place, did what any coach would do -- he took Fitzpatrick's return as a rallying point for his entire team.
“You can’t say enough about him as a person. He’s a great guy -- a really good down to earth, good teammate, really bright. He understands the game. He understands that that position demands a lot. Like I said when we made Mallett the starter, it wasn’t all Fitzy’s fault. It was just, hey look, we felt like we were making a decision that was best for the team at the time. Like I said this week, maybe it helped Fitz to take a step back. You never want to see anybody get hurt like Mallett did, but maybe it helped Fitz to see how the offense was operated and he went in there and did a good job.
"Now, the trick is can we do it again? That’s the trick. Can we do it again?”
That is indeed the trick. Tomorrow will see Fitzpatrick and the 6-6 Texans preparing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a division foe they face twice in the season's final four weeks. In between those games, there are contests against Baltimore's new and old teams -- the Ravens and the Colts -- and a real shot at the postseason one year after finishing 2-14.
That's redemption, though you don't need to tell Ryan Fitzpatrick. He's just lived a bit of it.