PHOENIX, Ariz. — Usually during free agency the player visits the team before signing on the dotted line.
But on Sunday here at the site of the NFL's spring meeting the Bengals visited with old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick to apparently express their interest in him rejoining them in the backup quarterback role he served in 2007 and 2008 behind Carson Palmer.
Fitzpatrick was seen talking to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in the lobby of the Arizona Biltmore on Sunday night, but both declined comment. Fitzpatrick, released by the Bills on the first day of free agency on Tuesday, lives in the Phoenix area during the offseason.
Not only did Fitzpatrick meet with Lewis, there were indications he also met with Bengals president Mike Brown and his family, underscoring just how interested the Bengals are in replacing Bruce Gradkowski with one of their own. Fitzpatrick is not only a popular locker room figure who understands chemistry and his role in backing up Andy Dalton, but if need be because of injury he can come off the bench and win a game.
Just a few hours earlier Lewis had said about Gradkowski moving to the Steelers, "Bruce did a great job for us; tremendous. We were able to push through that, but we have got to keep after it and keep trying to get better."
Brown, like Harvard's Fitzpatrick a former Ivy League quarterback, has high regard for him. So does Lewis and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. Lewis has often pointed to Fitzpatrick's leadership and resourcefulness in the second half of a 2008 season Fitzpatrick started 12 games for the injured Palmer. After Fitzpatrick piloted the Bengals to a 4-3-1 finish, Lewis said Fitzpatrick taught him to adjust the team to the strengths of the quarterback instead of the other way around.
Fitzpatrick, 30, signed with the Bills after the '08 season with the lure of possibly starting for a team that has now had nine quarterbacks start at least eight games since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Sure enough, Fitzpatrick got into the lineup late in '09, won the job in the third week of '10, and secured a six-year, $59 million contract extension when the team was 5-2 in October 2011.
But the Bills have gone 8-18 since and were on the hook to pay Fitzpatrick $10 million this season. The club tried to restructure but it didn't happen in the wake of one of the oddest incidents in NFL history. In a conversation with Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik that was taped and made public, Bills general manager Buddy Nix said, "We're still struggling here with our quarterback. I say struggling. We're not really struggling. He's going to have to do something, or we'll have to. You can't afford to pay that kind of money to a guy that's fighting for probably a backup job."
It was a rough week for Fitzpatrick. He felt a strong connection to the Bills and Western New York. He joined Kelly last year in becoming only the second Bills quarterback to throw 24 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons. He finished his career in Buffalo ranking third on the team list in touchdown passes with 80 and fourth with 11,654 yards. After speaking with Lewis, Fitzpatrick approached Bills president Russ Brandon and engaged in a half-hour conversation.
He told Buffalo News sports columnist Jerry Sullivan after he was cut that he feels like he's got a balance between respect and pride.
"I'm a very competitive guy," Fitzpatrick told Sullivan. "I want to be out there playing. I wanted to finish what I started there. I had so many guys help me in my career. I learned from some great ones. They weren't maybe (Tom) Brady or (Peyton) Manning, but they helped me a tremendous amount.
"I see myself being a very valuable guy in that regard. For me, pride is never going to get in the way. But respect and pride can maybe go hand-in-hand. It's probably more respect than pride."
Just as Fitzpatrick arrived in the lobby, news broke that left tackle Jake Long moved from Miami to St. Louis for a reported four-year deal for $34 million that jumps to $36 million with incentives. Long's agent, Ben Dogra, also represents Bengals right tackle Andre Smith, and it now appears those negotiations are going to begin.