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Fitzpatrick Focuses On Now

Ryan Joseph Fitzpatrick has the most feared head-first slide in Cincinnati sports since Peter Edward Rose. With the Pro Bowl quarterback already on the shelf and Fitzpatrick doing the backing up, the fear has to be for the throwing shoulder that Fitzpatrick lowers lower than November gas prices.

But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is unfazed with just two healthy quarterbacks.

"He doesn't lower his shoulder into anybody unless he needs to pick up the first down," Lewis said this week. "Other than that he's going to dive and get down and if he has to he's going to slide feet first. He's making good decisions. A lot of teams carry two quarterbacks."

It is that toughness and resourcefulness that has won Fitzpatrick friends in the huddle during the five games he has started in place of Carson Palmer. The 6-2, 225-pounder has eschewed the hook slide and bowled his way to a 7.2-yard average on 24 runs that have usually ended with him diving or lowering the boom.

"He's got heart, man. He's got heart," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "I like him. (He can run) any time. Hopefully he won't have to lower it too much. He can run all he wants as long as he doesn't take those rushing yards away from Ced (Benson)."

Fitzpatrick seamlessly mixed the run and the pass in the Bengals' first two drives during Sunday's 21-19 victory over Jacksonville, and threw in three of his own runs for 52 yards.

"Maybe it's something I need to think about," Fitzpatrick said. "It's never happened to me and hopefully I'll be able to continue to avoid it."

What he and the Bengals can't avoid is a decision after this season, when Fitzpatrick becomes a free agent. The Bengals have to decide if he's good enough to keep and Fitzpatrick knows he has to play well enough to either get other teams interested in him as a No. 1 or the Bengals to re-sign him as the backup.

Throw into the mix the possible surgery on Palmer's throwing elbow and what could be an unknown timetable and status and the issue is complicated.

But Fitzpatrick and the Bengals have no time for such consuming thoughts. Both parties are just looking for wins and yet Fitzpatrick could see himself coming back.

"Absolutely I could see it," he said. "But it's something I'm not thinking about. We're trying to win all the games we've got left. I'm just trying to prepare and focus on that. The only thought in my head is I need to play well and for me that's going out there and getting wins. Then figure out what happens."

He got his first one in his eighth NFL start Sunday and along with the relief came a flood of text messages and phone calls. He spoke with his good friend from the St. Louis days, current Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte, a well-traveled former Bengal who is living proof at the age of 37 of the opportunities available for competent backups that can immediately find themselves starting.

"It's hard to think about," Fitzpatrick said. "I feel like this experience will only help me in terms of the game experience I've been able to get. I think there has been an improvement since the Cleveland game as far as me being comfortable out there and the decision-making."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi says Fitzpatrick has improved steadily. In the four starts since he threw three interceptions in the Sept. 28 loss to Cleveland, Fitzpatrick has thrown just three interceptions compared to his three touchdowns. In the last two games, the Bengals are 14-for-27 on third down after he converted just 13 in his first three starts.

"In the pocket, generally," said Fitzpatrick, when asked what he feels more comfortable doing compared to that first start. "How fast decisions are now being made, rather than having to think through some stuff back there. When you're standing in the pocket, you have to react to things. It's just playing and different scenarios becoming second nature to me."

While the Bengals wait to see how Fitzpatrick pans out, they already approached three other significant free-agent-to-bes before this season in wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, kicker Shayne Graham and right tackle Stacy Andrews, and all indications are there appears to be a gulf wide enough that there isn't anything imminent.

Although the deadline has passed to raise a player's base salary under this year's salary cap, the Bengals still have until the end of the season to use '08 as a year to prorate a signing bonus.

And they have other starters at the end of their deals in defensive tackle John Thornton, linebackers Rashad Jeanty and Brandon Johnson, and running back Cedric Benson.

But it looks like the season is now on the front burner and while the Bengals may continue to feel out Houshmandzadeh, Graham and Andrews, it appears they plan to deal with the bulk of the questions when the season over.

Which means Fitzpatrick is just going to keep running. Back at Harvard when he was the 2004 Ivy League Player of the Year, his coaches loved it when he ran the ball. Of course, he was bigger than a lot of linebackers. The day he knocked out two Dartmouth defensive backs, head coach Tim Murphy once said from Harvard, "(it) is legendary around here."

"I would think I would be more prone to injury trying to slide," Fitzpatrick said. "It's something I've never done. I feel like I've avoided the contact pretty good in terms of getting down and doing the dive.

"I'm sure I'll take a shot here and there, but getting the extra yards and picking up first downs is worth it. In college it was a lot different because the guys weren't as big. It's more about picking and choosing in the NFL, that's for sure."

Which will also happen after the season, too, for both Fitzpatrick and his team.  

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