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Tara Sullivan

Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is no journeyman. His is a story of equal parts determination and talent

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, relegated to backup in Week 8, has taken his demotion with typical class and dignity.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the Dolphins’ starting quarterback anymore, not since coach Brian Flores decided the future is now, switching to rookie Tua Tagovailoa in Week 8. Fitzpatrick is back to being a backup, a veteran, trusted presence ready to mentor Tagovailoa, as well as step in to play again if needed.

But if the past 16 years have taught us anything about the bearded man with the Harvard degree, Fitzpatrick will make his way back to the pocket again. Written off more times than an ancillary character in a horror flick, Fitzpatrick always manages to reemerge. Having already started for eight teams, the pending free agent could extend his own NFL record if he signs somewhere else this offseason.

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His is a story of equal parts determination and talent, one that started when a kid from Arizona lit up the game film for a coach in Cambridge and grew as that kid turned four years and a perfect senior season in the Ivy League into a seventh-round NFL Draft selection. But if that part of the story was somewhat of a surprise, considering how under-recruited Fitzpatrick was, he hasn’t stopped defying the odds since.

Fitzpatrick made the opening day roster for those 2005 St. Louis Rams, and since then, has started at least one game for them, the Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets, Buccaneers, and, until midway through this season, the Dolphins. He has led wild comebacks and dramatic playoff runs and lifted cellar-dwelling teams to respectability, authoring his own brand of football known as Fitzmagic. He’s tough, willing to absorb and deliver hits as a runner. He’s strong, able to wing it downfield with the best of them. And he’s beloved, voted team MVP by five pro locker rooms.

That’s why, no matter how much longer the 38-year-old manages to play, his unique career path has been a marvel to behold and a rarity to be respected. His is a singular road of achievement we aren’t likely to see again, a reminder that as much as sports is about winning and losing, there is a special place in the record books for unpredictable success stories like his.

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“I think I’m objective because I’m a coach, and I watch a ton of football, but I absolutely believe he’s one of the 15 best quarterbacks on the planet,” says Harvard coach Tim Murphy, who recruited and coached Fitzpatrick and remains close with him to this day.

“I said it about 10 years ago and I still believe it. People can paint a picture of him as a journeyman, but that’s circumstance. He’s thrown a touchdown with [eight] different teams, that’s history. With the Bucs, he had three consecutive games throwing for over 400 yards. That’s history. Look at the teams he’s played with — he took a bad Jets team to a really great year, a bad Buffalo team to a really great year. He did good things for the Bucs when they couldn’t play a lick of defense …

“With the right organization he could have been a franchise quarterback.”

Fitzpatrick led the 2015 Jets to a 10-6 record and a second-place finish in the AFC East.Kathy Willens

That Fitzpatrick only missed one stop in the AFC East is a credit to the best franchise quarterback of all time. With Tom Brady now gone from New England and the Patriots struggling to stay afloat behind Cam Newton, the experts at Pro Football Focus actually predicted Fitzpatrick’s next free agent contract would complete that division circle in Foxborough. Bill Belichick certainly isn’t giving any public hints as to his long-term quarterback plan, whether he wants Newton back for another year of stop-gapping, whether he sees Jarrett Stidham as an answer, or whether there is a draft pick he covets.

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But one thing is for certain: Belichick, who has game-planned for Fitzpatrick as often as he has for any NFL quarterback in his career, knows what that challenge entails.

“He’s a tough, competitive guy,” Belichick said Friday, “probably as tough as any quarterback in the league in terms of being willing to block, not sliding, getting tough yards, things like that. He’s mentally tough. He can shake things off and continue to compete. I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done.”

So does Newton. Drafted six years later and about 250 picks earlier — Newton was the first overall pick by the Panthers in 2011 — the two are still equal members of a very exclusive club.

“I’ve never really met him, but he’s one of my favorite kinds of players to watch outside of us playing him,” Newton said. “His energy, man. I got an opportunity to watch him in Tampa, and I know the Fitzmagic didn’t start there, his stint in Buffalo I believe is where it took off, but his energy, anybody who has that kind of aura about himself, that swag, nerdy, quirky whatever you want to call it, Fitz is a person from afar that I see as a dude I know I can hang out with.

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“I respect his game a lot, he’s such a cerebral football player, being an intellectual, going to the school he did go to, it shows up in how he plays. He knows how to manipulate the defense in a lot of ways that a lot of quarterbacks wish they can, including myself. He’s a person who I will always root for.”

He’s a person Murphy just loves talking about, the one he hears about more than anyone among loyal Harvard alumni, not to mention his own wife, Martha. It was Martha who did the play-by-play as Tim drove their rental car to an event in Los Angeles about a year ago. It was the final Sunday of the 2019 season, when the Patriots desperately needed to beat Miami for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

“She’s dictating the last-second, length-of-the-field drive he had to beat the Patriots at home, who badly needed the win, against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady,” said Murphy. “In my heart of hearts I believe if he had ended up with a team that really needed a quarterback and had the continuity and experience of Belichick and the Patriots, he could have been one of the top 15 quarterbacks of all time.”

There are measures beyond statistics that explain how Fitzpatrick has stuck around so long. At Harvard, where the team elects only one captain each year, Fitzpatrick won with the closest to a unanimous vote as Murphy ever had. At Miami, where Flores can start only one quarterback each game, FItzpatrick won the respect of everyone when he accepted his demotion with grace and class, even amid his self-described heartbreak. Flores said simply, “He’s a special guy.”

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Said Murphy: “I just love this kid.”

Where that “kid” ends up next year remains to be seen, but if past is prologue, he’s sure to land somewhere. It’s what he does.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.