Labriola On

Labriola on Fitzpatrick vs. Tomczak

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It was 1996, and after conducting a three-way open competition for the starting quarterback job, Coach Bill Cowher announced that third-year pro Jim Miller won the job, Mike Tomczak would be the backup, and Kordell Stewart would continue in the role that had come to be known as “slash.”

• Miller lasted exactly one half of one game as the starter, because at halftime of the opener in Jacksonville vs. the Jaguars, Cowher made the switch to Tomczak, a veteran who had 12 seasons of NFL experience at the time.

• The Steelers still lost that game to the Jaguars, but Cowher decided to stick with Tomczak, likely believing a veteran’s hand would steady a team that was coming off an appearance in the Super Bowl, and, after adding Jerome Bettis to the cast on offense, certainly had the pieces to at least go far into the playoffs again.

• Cowher’s decision initially looked to be a wise one, because the Steelers rebounded from that opening loss and went on a five-game winning streak. While it wasn’t as though Tomczak was carrying the team, but he was playing some of his best football as a pro.

• In his first start that season – in what turned into a 31-17 victory over the Ravens at Three Rivers Stadium – Tomczak completed 72 percent of his passes (18-for-25), which was a career high. The following Monday night, Tomczak out-played Jim Kelly in a 24-6 win over the Bills, and then six days later he threw two touchdowns passes in the first quarter to stake the Steelers to a 20-0 first half lead that ended in a 30-16 victory over the Houston Oilers.

• The Steelers were rolling, and Tomczak was the toast of the NFL. A guy who once had been on the receiving end of a nationally televised Mike Ditka sideline tantrum during his seasons with the Chicago Bears all of a sudden was the quarterback of a team that looked very capable of defending its conference championship.

• Then came a Monday night game in Kansas City, and Tomczak put on a show for Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, and Dan Dierdorf.

• In that game, Tomczak completed 20-of-32 (63 percent) for 338 yards, with no touchdowns, one interception, and he was part of a franchise record offensive performance because the game marked the first time in 64 seasons of Steelers football in which the team had a 300-yard quarterback, a 100-yard rusher (Bettis), and a 100-yard receiver (Charles Johnson) in the same game.

• Steelers vs. Chiefs in those days always seemed to be played in Arrowhead Stadium and typically evolved into run-the-ball/defensive struggles, and this one was no different. But in bringing the Steelers back from a 7-6 halftime deficit, Tomczak posted his fifth career 300-yard game and also averaged 22 yards on each of his seven third-down completions.

• People would have believed it insanity at the time, but on the flight home from Kansas City, Cowher should have announced a quarterback change to his team. Go back to Miller. Or cast the team’s lot with the inexperienced Stewart. But it was time to move on from Tomczak because he had peaked and was about to fall back into the kind of quarterback he always had been, the kind of quarterback his 11 previous NFL seasons indicated he was.

• For the record, those previous 11 seasons told this tale: 52.3 completion percentage, 58 touchdowns, 77 interceptions, 66.8 passer rating.

• The winning streak extended one more game for the Steelers, but Tomczak already was leaking oil, so to speak. He completed only 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in that game, but the Steelers defense had 10 sacks and two takeaways in a 20-10 victory over the Bengals.

• The Steelers were 5-1 after that victory over Cincinnati, but it wasn’t even Halloween yet and the best part of the season was over. During the next two-and-a-half months, the Steelers went 5-5, and Tomczak reverted to the caliber of quarterback he had been throughout his career. He threw 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, and he surpassed 200 yards passing in four of those 10 games.

• Then in the playoffs, Tomczak completed 58 percent of his passes for no touchdowns, four interceptions, and a rating of 40.9. Tomczak would play three more seasons with the Steelers, but with the exception of a five-game stretch at the end of 1999 he was returned to his role as a backup. And in those five starts, the Steelers were 1-4.

• This bit of history is recounted here in advance of the Steelers’ trip to Tampa for a Monday night game against the Buccaneers. The expectation for the 2018 Buccaneers was that Jameis Winston, the first overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, would be the starting quarterback and that veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick would serve as the backup.

• But on June 28, Winston was suspended for the first three games of the regular season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. In announcing the suspension, the NFL "concluded that Winston violated the personal conduct policy by touching (an Uber) driver in an inappropriate and sexual manner without her consent and that disciplinary action was necessary and appropriate."

• No one knew it at the time, but FitzMagic was born.

• Throughout the training camp/preseason period, the Buccaneers prepared to open the regular season with Fitzpatrick, a 35-year-old, 13-year NFL veteran who was going into his second season with what is his seventh different team.

• While playing for seven teams over 13 seasons makes it fair to refer to Fitzpatrick as a journeyman, his 119 starts in 133 career NFL games makes him more than a career backup. And his degree from Harvard certifies him as a smart guy, but nothing in his past predicted his start to the 2018 regular season.

• Before the Buccaneers first play of 2018, Fitzpatrick had completed 2,411-of-4039 passes (59.7 percent), with 173 touchdowns, 136 interceptions, and a rating of 79.8. He also had been sacked 231 times.

• But sometime before Sept. 9, Fitzpatrick morphed into FitzMagic. In leading Tampa Bay to a 2-0 start, he has completed 78.7 percent of his passes for 819 yards, with eight touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 151.5. He has been sacked twice on the way to his 61 pass attempts so far this season.

• Fitzpatrick has been successful through the first two weeks of 2018 by being decisive in his reads and then getting the ball out quickly to a trio of talented receivers in Michael Evans, DeSean Jackson, and tight end O.J. Howard. He ranks first in the NFL in passing yards, first in average gain-per-attempt, second in touchdowns, and first in passer rating.

• His past tells us that this pace is unsustainable, that Fitzpatrick will end up with statistics more reflective of a journeyman than a franchise quarterback, that he will likely end up following the path – to some degree, at least – Mike Tomczak took for the Steelers back in 1996.

• The question is: will that statistical correction start on Monday night?

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