Reporters' Notebook

FitzMagic's moment; Colts rookie shines; Reuben Foster returns

As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 3,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Darius Leonard's stunning start.

-- Reuben Foster's return.

-- "The Avengers" in Tampa?

But first, Jim Trotter examines whether the 2018 version of FitzMagic has staying power ...

Ryan Fitzpatrick is at it again, coming from nowhere to energize a franchise and a fanbase with his September play. He did it in 2011 with the Bills, 2015 with the Jets and now with the Bucs, whose improbable 2-0 start is directly tied to his incredible performance. The bearded QB with the playful personality and no-fear mentality has completed 78.7 percent of his passes for 819 yards and eight touchdowns. His score of 98.8 is the highest of any quarterback for the first two weeks of a season since Pro Football Focus began grading the position in 2006, and his four touchdown passes of 50 yards or longer are double the team's total from last year.

All of which begs the question: Is this the year his fast start will be complemented by a strong finish? It didn't happen in 2011, when he led the Bills to a 4-1 start while throwing for 1,233 yards and 10 touchdowns, then threw 19 interceptions and managed just two wins over the final 11 games. He also had the bottom drop out in 2015, when he helped the Jets to a 4-1 start and needed a victory over the Bills in the season finale to reach the playoffs. Instead, he threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in the 22-17 loss.

"In Buffalo, he made a lot of things happen, and he had to take a lot of chances, because we didn't have a lot of the supporting casts that you need," says Chan Gailey, Fitzpatrick's head coach with the Bills and offensive coordinator with the Jets. "We had a ton of injuries during those years. Our center, Eric Wood, went down for an extended period of time, and all the receivers were guys nobody had heard of. I think he's in a very different situation now."

"Unfortunately, that position gets blamed for a lot of shortcomings, and our shortcomings, in my opinion, had nothing to do with Fitz," says Curtis Modkins, the Broncos running backs coach who was Fitzpatrick's offensive coordinator in Buffalo. "He played his butt off for us. We just needed to coach better for him. We needed to play better around him. I can't answer for anyone else, but he did a heck of a job for us."

Every former coach or teammate interviewed for this column professed great affection for Fitzpatrick. They view him as a guy with a Harvard diploma and an everyman attitude. He has an authenticity that allows him to connect with everyone in the locker room, in part because he's quicker to laugh at himself than others.

"He told me this story about how he never went to this class all semester during his senior year at Harvard, but he stayed up all night studying, took the final and passed the class," says Trent Edwards, a former teammate in Buffalo. "Well, he had been drinking coffee the whole night to help him stay up, and when he gets home after the final he looks in the trash can and there, on the bag of coffee grounds he had used the whole night, it says DECAF Folgers."

Last week, after a win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles, he donned the sweatsuit jacket, jewelry and sunglasses of wide receiver DeSean Jackson. He could not have looked more ridiculous ... or more likable. Modkins was among those who reached out to him afterward.

"I texted him and said, 'What's up with that, bruh?' " says Modkins. "He told me, 'The cool kids are wearing it.' I reminded him, 'You're not one of the cool kids.' We're friends to this day. I have a lot of respect for the guy. He's a real guy, just one of us, that's why teammates love him."

Fitzgerald's greatest strength on the field is also his most glaring weakness at times: namely, his willingness to take risks. He likes to attack defenses downfield and sees the game like the wide receiver who says even when I'm covered, I'm open.

"Sometimes, he'd have games where he throws a number of picks," says Lee Evans, a teammate in Buffalo, "but I just think it's in his DNA to throw it and give his guys a chance to make a play for him."

That has never been more apparent than this season, as four of his touchdown passes have covered at least 50 yards, making him only the second player in league history to accomplish the feat in the opening two weeks of a season. He's getting the opportunity because incumbent Jameis Winston was suspended the first three games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Coach Dirk Koetter has refused to look beyond the current week, but Jackson is on record as saying Fitzpatrick should stay in the lineup as long as he has the hot hand.

But will he?

The business of football has a way of intruding on the game of football. Winston is a former No. 1 overall pick, and the Bucs are still trying to decide whether he is their long-term answer. Fitzpatrick has been down the road of placeholder or veteran backup before. In his one season with Tennessee in 2013, he sat behind the struggling Jake Locker in part because Locker was drafted eighth overall two years earlier. He started in his second and final season with the Jets in 2016 but was viewed as someone keeping the seat warm until Christian Hackenberg, a second-round pick that year, was ready to take over.

"That's what motivates him quite a bit -- that he gets passed up, that he's not consistently recognized as a top-tier talent at the quarterback position," says Edwards, who is close friends with Fitzpatrick. "He certainly uses that as motivation and as a chip on his shoulder. He keeps it more on the inside than he displays externally, but he has that on his shoulder for sure. You look at him the last two weeks and see he's thrown for 400 yards and four touchdowns each game and say, 'Wait, why is he not a franchise quarterback?' Well, the times when it's not great, obviously it's a team sport and guys rely on the guys around them. So maybe there is not consistent protection or there is not consistent route running where receivers are getting to the point that Ryan expects them to be. But if it's DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, and Dirk Koetter is calling vertical pass routes, that's exactly what he's really good at."

Fitzpatrick's bio says the odds are slim that the Bucs will commit to him as their starter beyond this season -- or even this month, if he cools off. Clubs don't typically look to the future with a guy who turns 36 in November and is with his seventh team. Still, history should also serve as a reason for us not to write him off too quickly. Sometimes, journeyman quarterbacks play their best football in the latter stages of their careers, when others have already written their athletic obituaries.

For instance, Rich Gannon was 37 and with his fourth team when he was voted league MVP. Jim Plunkett was 34 and 37 and with his third club when he got off the scrap heap to win Super Bowls. Doug Williams was 32 and playing for his third team, in his second league, when he quarterbacked Washington to a championship. Brad Johnson was 34 and playing for his fourth team, in his second league, when he helped Tampa Bay to a title. So why not Fitzpatrick?

"He's fully capable of sustaining his play -- there's no question about it," says Gailey. "I'm excited to see how it goes for him."


NFL: Tighter eye on QBs yields offensive boost. Roughing-the-passer penalties, especially the hit by Clay Matthews on Kirk Cousins in last week's Vikings-Packers tie game, have been as controversial as the helmet rule was supposed to be. Through the first two weeks of the season, there were 21 penalties for roughing the passer. Last season, there were 21 through four weeks -- that's in twice as many games.

The emphasis on eliminating roughing of the passer is no accident when you consider what else happened in 2017 -- scoring dropped, dramatically, to its lowest level since 2009, 21.7 points per team per game. Worse? The number of touchdowns scored dropped to its lowest level since 2006, to 2.39 touchdowns per team per game. That is not a trend the league, which believes more scoring pleases fans, wanted to continue. And protecting quarterbacks from injury -- while nudging defenders to be more cautious -- is one of the surest ways to preserve scoring.

It's worked so far. The 174 touchdowns scored through Week 2 is the most in NFL history, well above the 132 touchdowns scored through the first two weeks of the 2017 season, which was an unusually slow start. The league-wide marks for touchdown passes (114), passer rating (92.6), completions (1,516) and completion percentage (65.3) are all the highest they have ever been through the first two weeks of the season.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: History reveals ignorance of racist remark about Watson. The racist Facebook post that an East Texas school superintendent directed toward Texans QB Deshaun Watson following Sunday's loss to the Titans was everything coach Bill O'Brien described: outdated, inaccurate, ignorant and idiotic. It was also predictable.

We have come a long way with regards to the perception of quarterbacks who happen to be black, but statements like that of Lynn Redden -- the superintendent of the Onalaska Independent School District wrote, "When you need precision decision-making you can't count on a black quarterback" -- are another reminder that we still have a long way to go. His ignorance is reflected by the numbers.

According to NFL Research, 24 black quarterbacks have started an entire NFL season during the Super Bowl era. Of them, 17 have taken their teams to the playoffs, with six starting in the Super Bowl and two winning it: Doug Williams (SB XXII) and Russell Wilson (SB XLVIII).

Black QBs to start a full season in Super Bowl era: Randall Cunningham, Jeff Blake, Tony Banks, Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, Steve McNair, Quincy Carter, Doug Williams, Vince Evans, Kordell Stewart, Warren Moon, Shaun King, Michael Vick, Josh Freeman, Jason Campbell, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Dak Prescott.

Started in a playoff game: Cunningham, Culpepper, Brooks, McNair, Carter, Williams, Stewart, Moon, King, Vick, Garrard, McNabb, Newton, Wilson, Kaepernick, Bridgewater, Prescott.

Started in a Super Bowl: McNair, Williams, McNabb, Newton, Wilson, Kaepernick.

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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Second-round pick already looks like a steal. The size and speed were evident on Darius Leonard's tape from South Carolina State. The Colts were so convinced he was the perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' scheme that they made him a surprising pick early in the second round (36th overall) of this year's draft.

Yet, even the Colts couldn't know Leonard would make this type of impact this quickly, as the NFL's leading tackler (28) and reigning AFC defensive player of the week with 15 solo stops, a sack and a forced fumble in the Colts' 21-9 win last week at Washington.

"To be honest with you, he's got all the athletic ability, but we didn't know until he started playing -- because he missed all of spring (with an undisclosed injury) -- just how instinctive he was, in the run and pass game," Colts linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi told me on Thursday. "And he works at it. That's a hard thing to gauge, because at the (NFL Scouting) Combine, when you spend a couple hours with the kid, you don't really know.

"The thing about him is he cares about football, and he works at it."

That shows up in part, Borgonzi said, in the type of questions Leonard is already asking in meetings -- evidence he's studying tape and knows what he's looking at, which can take young players a while. On a defense that was a total tear-down project when GM Chris Ballard took over last year, the early returns have Leonard looking like a part of the new foundation.

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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Waiting for Lamp. Second-year guard Forrest Lamp is still battling back from two knee procedures and isn't ready to step into the starting lineup yet. Coach Anthony Lynn said this week that Lamp feels he isn't "up to speed," which is a negative for an interior lineman whose athleticism is a major asset.

Lamp, who had ACL surgery during his rookie training camp in 2017 then had a clean-up procedure this spring, has been a healthy scratch the first two games. The Chargers are hoping last season's second-round pick from Western Kentucky can be a contributor soon after not playing in a game in roughly two years. The offensive line remains a work in progress, especially with right tackle Joe Barksdale down with a knee injury sustained in the Week 1 loss to Kansas City.

Bolts' D wants to nip one problem in the bud. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said his unit might see a lot of the "jet-sweep" action Sunday against the Rams, since the Chargers handled the perimeter-stressing scheme so poorly in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs.

"We've got to get that corrected," Bradley said, citing that this is a copycat league in which teams will try to exploit a team's mistakes.

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Keeping their chin up through slow start. The Raiders are heading to Miami to take on the Dolphins and are hoping to avoid going 0-3. Quarterback Derek Carr said they have the recipe for success, but the missing ingredient is being able to finish the game. Carr and receiver Amari Cooper credit strong communication for their efficiency in Week 2, with Carr completing 90.6 percent of his passes and Cooper catching all 10 balls thrown his way. Now the focus is to execute down the stretch and get back in the win column.

The overall sense around the Raiders' locker room is that they are not an 0-2 team, but the record is what it is. Despite back-to-back losses to start the season, Oakland's offense has recorded some standout performances. Receiver Jordy Nelson spoke before practice on Wednesday and said he hopes he's the next one on the "rotation" for a big game after Jared Cook and Cooper put up big numbers in Weeks 1and 2, respectively. Raiders coach Jon Gruden said, overall, everyone is stepping up how and when they're needed.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: GM Lynch bullish on Foster.49ers linebacker Reuben Foster returns this week from a two-game suspension that stemmed from misdemeanor drug and weapons charges, the latter collateral damage from a domestic violence allegation his ex-girlfriend eventually said she fabricated.

Concerns about Foster's ability to keep his life together off the field go back to his days at Alabama. But 49ers GM John Lynch bet with a first-round draft pick last year that Foster can find his way and maximize his immense talent -- a process Lynch expressed optimism about when we spoke in his office a few weeks ago.

"He's been awesome," Lynch said of Foster. "What he realized is how quickly it could all go. A lot of that was out of his control, too. He (had conviction), and we did as well, that he was telling the truth and all that. But still, it was in the hands of someone else. So, I think that caused him to say, Hey, let's never put myself in these situations again.

"I think he's [done] a lot of self-reflection, worked on himself, and we've worked on giving him the resources. We're proud of him, the work he's done both on and off the field. I think he did a decent job of staying in shape, which is hard to do when all that was going on in his life. We were pleased with his maturity."

Is Foster still playing with the same reckless abandon on the field?

"He is, which is a good thing," Lynch said. "He's an impactful player -- there's no doubt about it. I think part of the maturation is also learning how to take care of yourself so that you can play like that and stay out there for 16 games, as well."

Foster -- whose shoulder and overall durability were also concerns for some teams during the pre-draft process -- played in just 10 games as a rookie.

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TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Bucs' own version of "The Avengers?" The Buccaneers' offense and Ryan Fitzpatrick have been the talk of the league. But Tampa Bay focused on improving its defensive line in the offseason. The Bucs traded for DE Jason Pierre-Paul and signed former Eagles DE Vinny Curry and DT Beau Allen in free agency. Then, with the 12th overall pick in the draft, Tampa Bay selected DT Vita Vea. Vea hasn't played a snap yet because of a calf injury, but after two weeks, it appears the defensive front is starting to gain some chemistry.

Before the start of the season, Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy told me the group reminded him of "The Avengers" -- a group that could be unstoppable, but needed time to come together first. Just like in the movies. McCoy loves superheroes, by the way, and has an Incredible Hulk iPhone case. In Week 2, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was hit 12 times and sacked three times by the Bucs. One sack came from McCoy, who appeared to run a stunt with Curry. But McCoy told me after the game, it was more chemistry than a designed play.

"That was just a feel, man," McCoy told me in the locker room after the Bucs' 27-21 win over Philadelphia. "That wasn't even supposed to be a stunt. I knew it was about to be a pass. I went to rush the guard, saw him across my face, I knew Vinny would be upfield, so I tried to just wrap off him and that's just what comes with playing with each other and that chemistry. You have to know where the next man is at and I knew where Vinny would be at and I knew they would be locking down; as soon as I started to see color flash across my face, I just kept going, man."

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Notes on comebacks: Nine teams have come back to win or tie after trailing in the fourth quarter, (five in Week 1 and four in Week 2). ... Since realignment in 2002, 116 of the 192 playoff teams (60.4 percent) began the year at either 1-1 or 0-2, including eight teams last season and six division champions: Jacksonville (AFC South), the Los Angeles Rams (NFC West), Minnesota (NFC North), New England (AFC East), New Orleans (NFC South) and Philadelphia (NFC East).

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