NEW ORLEANS — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers practiced all summer with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback and offensive coordinator Todd Monken calling plays. The plan was to give Fitzpatrick as many first-team reps as they could to prepare for starter Jameis Winston‘s three-game suspension, and for coach Dirk Koetter, who has always called plays, to have a second set of eyes with Monken while allowing him to gain experience.
Except Monken wasn’t supposed to call plays during the regular season, until Koetter quietly made the decision this week to hand over the reins. And the 35-year-old Fitzpatrick, making his 120th start Sunday for his seventh different team, wasn’t supposed to be this good. When most assumed it would take a Herculean effort from the defense to top Drew Brees & Co., Fitzpatrick dazzled, making clutch throws to a bevy of receivers for one of the best offensive outings in franchise history in a 48-40 win.
“I’m happy to announce that Fitz-magic is alive and well,” Koetter said. “Quite a start, huh? He’s got it in him. You guys saw it.
“That [was] a huge way to start our season. I don’t think anyone in here was picking us. [I mean], are you kidding me?”
Added wide receiver Mike Evans: “That’s how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be. … We know what we are capable of. We don’t really care what the outside thinks.”
Just how good was Fitzpatrick? The Bucs’ 48 points matched a franchise high, with 41 coming from the offense. Their 529 total yards were also their second most in a game, behind the 573 they had against the Minnesota Vikings in 1980.
Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a fifth score. On the Bucs’ opening possession, he heaved a 58-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson, who went completely unaccounted for when lining up in the slot (Jackson typically lines up on the outside). Fitzpatrick then tucked the ball and ran in a touchdown on the outside, slamming his head into safety Marcus Williams to cross the goal line.
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“We were pretty pumped on the field. It was just amazing to see Fitz be able to score a touchdown with his legs,” said tight end O.J. Howard. “We didn’t expect anything less out of [him]. We know he’s the ultimate competitor. He’s a heck of a quarterback. It was just so much of our repetition that we do every day in practice that showed up on film.”
Said offensive tackle Demar Dotson: “There was never a doubt in our minds. Maybe you guys doubted him but we never doubted Fitz.”
The Bucs’ defense was another story, however, having few answers for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara, who finished with 141 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. On the second play from scrimmage, Kamara took a short pass from Drew Brees for 35 yards. It took less than 3 1/2 minutes for the Saints to reach the end zone for the first time, and Brees finished with 439 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The Bucs’ defense made plays when it needed to, however. Late in the second quarter, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who stepped into the No. 1 cornerback role for injured Brent Grimes, forced a fumble. Safety Justin Evans scored to make it 31-17 with 4:27 remaining in the first half. Then in the third quarter, linebacker Kwon Alexander knocked the ball loose from Saints receiver Michael Thomas at the Tampa Bay 35. Ryan Smith recovered, setting up Jackson’s second touchdown.
“It’s football. You don’t want to start a game like that,” Evans said. “They play professional football, too. But at the end of the day, you’ve just gotta bounce back and try to keep it going.”
As for what the defense thought of Fitzpatrick’s performance?
“I mean, he’s Fitz-magic. He stepped up when he needed to step up,” Evans said. “That’s what our coaches talk about — make the plays when you’re supposed to, and he did.”
The Bucs now have the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles coming to town, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 on Monday Night Football. Though their defense has to make big strides in the coming weeks, getting one win out of a gantlet of games featuring three 10-win teams is a huge step in the right direction.