Bengals try to Buffalo Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick

MVP candidate Ryan Fitzpatrick, the hottest deal in pro sports next to a Moneyball trailer, makes his second trip of the week to The Jungle when he brings his undefeated Bills into Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday (1 p.m. -ESPN 1530) with the NFL's most potent offense and best movie script.

But the week's first vine was offered in national radio titan Jim Rome's Jungle, a sure sign that Fitzpatrick's sniper takeout of Tom Brady and his stately Patriots last Sunday had put two lanterns in America's sports steeple.

Not only that, he was a guest Tuesday on one of his own favorite TV shows, ESPN's Pardon The Interruption and got a chance to flash that arid as Arizona Fitzy wit that makes him the Merry Prankster of NFL locker rooms. All of this is courtesy of his 103.5 passer rating that has spread out and stunned NFL defenses with a start that has made Buffalo the AFC's only unbeaten team.

The start reminds Fitzpatrick of his 2008 Jungle stint as Carson Palmer's fill-in, when he quarterbacked the winless Bengals to a 4-3-1 finish that set the table for the 2009 AFC North title. After steering the 0-8 Bills to four wins to finish last season, Fitzpatrick felt it rustle.

"It was a similar thing to what happened in Cincinnati where we came together as a group and overcame a lot," said Fitzpatrick, taking the vine during Tuesday's off day. "People were saying it was going to be the same old Bills. I can tell you we're not the same old Bills in years past. There's a new attitude. There's a lot more excitement."

Some would say that Fitzpatrick sparked the rise of Buffalo's basketball-like spread offense with a mammoth comeback last Nov. 21 right here at PBS. Taking advantage of a secondary that lost three starting defensive backs in the first half, Fitzpatrick used 316 yards to engineer the first 18-point win in NFL history after trailing by at least 17 points at halftime, 49-31, in Buffalo's second victory of the season.

Never before had the Bengals been outscored 35-0 in a half until Fitzpatrick singed them with rapid three-step throws to speedy unknown skill players that are the foundation of this year's start. Second-year receiver Stevie Johnson had eight catches for 137 yards, three for touchdowns, rookie Donald Jones had five for 70, and running back Fred Jackson raced for 116 yards.

Now Jackson is third in AFC rushing with a 6.4 average gouge and Johnson and Nelson are tied for fifth in AFC receiving with 20 catches each for a combined four touchdowns as Fitzpatrick pulls the strings on an NFL-best 38 points per game.

"I don't think that was so much the start of it as it was just a continuation of us maturing as a group," Fitzpatrick said. "These guys are good players and we've had one more year together."

Jordan Palmer, the man that backed up Fitzpatrick during those 12 starts in 2008 in which brother Carson was sidelined with an injured throwing elbow, has a hard time being surprised.

"I'm having a great time watching him play." Jordan Palmer said. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder. I don't want to say he's limited, but he uses everything he's got and he's as smart as any guy in the league. I can't believe there's a defensive coordinator smarter than him. And he's been talking about a guy like Fred Jackson for years."

Both Palmer and Fitzpatrick dispute the notion that what Fitzpatrick has now reflects on the old Bengals offense in which he failed to score more than 21 points, and had just 5.1 yards per throw with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions on 59.4 percent passing. In the first three games now he'd be one of the AFC's three Pro Bowl quarterbacks (with Brady and Baltimore's Joe Flacco) with the nine touchdowns and three picks on nearly 65 percent passing at 7.58 yards per throw.

"Totally different situation," Jordan Palmer said. "He didn't have any kind of a preseason and it's a different opportunity when he's the No. 1 as opposed to the backup and he didn't get in there until Week 5. Up there they've given Ryan the freedom to get in and out of certain things, and he's playing with a bunch of young, hungry receivers that will do anything he says in a city with low expectations. He's in the perfect situation."

Fitzpatrick agrees and says he's indebted to the Bengals coaching staff and head man for Marvin Lewis for what he learned during that run.

"Marvin gave me an opportunity and he stuck with me through some tough times and it allowed me to be able to take it to the next level," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm a lot more experienced. I feel like those 12 games in Cincinnati were my biggest learning experience and I've drawn a lot on them. I've improved mentally and physically."

Plus, in '08 running back Cedric Benson didn't sign until the last day of September and the left side of the line got cleaned out and was manned by first-time starters for the last six games.

There was no debate when Fitzpatrick's contract ran out after that season. The Bengals wanted him back. Fitzpatrick wanted a shot to play and he wasn't going to get it with Carson Palmer on his team. The Bills came at him with money that said he'd get a shot and not just be a No. 2.

Now Fitzpatrick's got a hard time believing that he doesn't know any of the Bengals quarterbacks and barely any of the receivers just 35 games after his last start for the Bengals at PBS. The Palmers were the other quarterbacks, Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry were the top receivers while Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson were rookies sitting behind them.

"I didn't really know Andre and Jerome all that well since they didn't play that much," he said. "I had a great time with Carson and Jordan. I learned a lot from Carson just sitting back and watching the tremendous amount of respect he had built in that locker room."

Fitzpatrick is still tight with Carson and like any good friend, won't divulge secrets about Palmer's trade-me-or-retire stance. He will say he thinks Palmer misses playing, but he knows he's enjoying "the quality time" with his three children.

"I'm not surprised he's not there," Fitzpatrick said. "Knowing him, he's the kind of guy that means what he says and Mr. (Mike) Brown is the same way. But I am surprised to see him not playing. We've sent many texts. But I think about half of them are serious."

That's the beauty of Fitzpatrick. He doesn't take himself all that seriously. He may have gone to Harvard, but he's Joe Harvard and not Harvard Yard. He can hide your tape recorder and pen, give you a nickname that sticks for a season, and break down the Steelers blitz package all at the same time.

It will be recalled here that he once had to dress up like The Ocho for a Friday practice after losing a bet among the quarterbacks and surfaced in a skin-tight orange jump suit. Now in Buffalo he admits, "It's a different dynamic with the quarterbacks. There are only two of us for one thing."

Now after every Friday morning practice he and his offensive linemen go to a hamburger place called Uncle Joe's and punish the breakfast special. He paid the first week and since the Bills beat the Chiefs, he's been paying ever since and doesn't mind taking the hit in the wallet.

Besides, he's so popular in Buffalo now he's got the media lobbying for the Bills to sign him to a lucrative long-time deal.

"I didn't realize how big that win was over the Patriots," Fitzpatrick said. "I mean, I knew it was big because it's a division rival and they're a great team. But when I saw that no one had left Ralph Wilson Stadium 20 minutes after the game, I knew what it meant. I'm happy for the city."

Some like to call Fitzpatrick a blue-collar match for the town, but like the Harvard thing, he's uncomfortable with labels. He considers himself just a guy that grew up in Arizona with two hard-working parents and opted for the Ivy League when no major programs came calling.

Even though he says three-fourths of the interviews like to start out with his Harvard background (Fitzpatrick is the first Crimson quarterback in about 700 years of football to throw an NFL pass), it's not a subject he's crazy about because he hates to be thought of as smarter than everybody else.

But he's enjoying the run. Stevie Johnson is a big Rome favorite so that was a fun gig and he really likes watching Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on PTI. On Tuesday when Kornheiser got on him about his beard, Fitzpatrick gave it right back about Kornheiser needing it for his bald head.

"I've been on the other side. I've been there when it hasn't been good. If they're not calling you, you know why they're not calling you," Fitzpatrick said after emerging from the dust of two 0-8 starts. "I think it gives attention to our team and the city and that's nice."

But since he is Fitzpatrick, he has also been watching tape as well as getting taped. Even though he's facing six different defensive starters than he did back on Nov. 21, Jordan Palmer thinks Fitzpatrick has an advantage Sunday because he's not only played against defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, cornerback Leon Hall, and safety Chris Crocker, he's practiced against them.

But Fitzpatrick already sees a difference from last November. Just 14 players remain from that club he quarterbacked in '08, but he's got the numbers down if not the names.

"They're really bringing the pressure up front. That seems to be the biggest difference. The line is playing well," Fitzpatrick said. "Is Frostee (Rucker) still there? Oh yeah, so that's No. 92 making those plays. I was there with Domata (Peko) and (Jon) Fanene, so not everybody is gone.

"I don't know if you can say (I've got an edge knowing what Zimmer does). What I do know is how much those guys respect him and how hard they play for him. That's half the battle."

He may know some of the guys, but no one well enough to take to the Cobblestone Café in Fort Thomas, Ky., and get one of those peanut butter cookies. Or to go to dinner with Saturday night before the game, like he did back in November with the Palmers. He'll probably hook up with non-football friends from Cincinnati, which shows what can happen in 11 months in the NFL.

He hasn't been really keeping an eye on Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, but he's seen some numbers.

"I know how hard it was for me to come in as a rookie and play in the NFL," Fitzpatrick said of his stint off the bench with the Rams in 2005. "And he's already had some good games."

Now Dalton would like to do another thing that Carson Palmer couldn't:

Beat Fitzpatrick.

"You know how this league goes," Fitzpatrick said from the top of the world. "It can change in a hurry."

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