Old age in real life and in football are two entirely different landmarks. Once an NFL player enters his 30's, the proverbial clock -- fairly or not -- begins.
There are exceptions all throughout the league, and one position seems impervious to the dreaded expiration date – the quarterback.
"I think in the last four or five years, I've really gotten better every year and I think as funny as it sounds, I think my best football is still ahead of me," Ryan Fitzpatrick said at the conclusion of his first minicamp with the Dolphins last April.
Football is more than the box score, but data agrees with Fitzpatrick; he's trending upwards. For the first nine years of his career – from 2005-13 – Fitzpatrick posted the following stat line: 59.8 completion percentage, 6.5 yards per attempt, 4.1 percent touchdown rate, 3.6 percent interception rate and a 77.5 passer rating.
From 2014-19 – the last six years – Fitzpatrick's numbers are markedly improved. Since his 32nd birthday, Fitzpatrick has a 60.8 completion percentage, 7.4 yards per attempt, 4.8 percent touchdown rate, 3.1 percent interception rate and a 86.3 passer rating.
Narrowing that focus even further, the last two years with Tampa Bay and Miami respectively have provided the best two-year stretch of Fitzpatrick's storied 15-year career. With a 63.5 completion percentage, 7.9 yards per attempt, 4.9 percent touchdown rate, 3.3 percent interception rate and 90.4 passer rating, Fitzpatrick's gradual progress is tangible.
The most recent sample size is perhaps the most encouraging regarding Miami's bearded 37-year-old signal caller. Since his re-insertion back into the lineup in the second half of the Washington game in Week 6 last year, Fitzpatrick threw 19 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. He completed 63.1 percent of his passes and rushed for 229 yards and four touchdowns on 52 carries.
That 12-game stretch produced 23 total touchdowns, a rate of 1.92 touchdowns per game; the franchise's highest single-season rate since Dan Marino's 1.93 touchdowns-per-game mark in 1994.
Advanced metrics agree with both Fitzpatrick's claim and his stats.
From Week 6 on, Fitzpatrick was Pro Football Focus’ 10th-highest graded passer and 12th overall quarterback. He ranked second in first downs over that stretch and 11th in touchdown passes. Cumulatively, Fitzpatrick was PFF's 16th-graded quarterback for the 2019 season.
Among quarterbacks with at least 20 downfield throws, Fitzpatrick ranked ninth in passer rating on passes that traveled 20 air yards. On throws in which the ball came out in less than 2.5 seconds, Fitzpatrick's 14 touchdown passes were sixth-best in the NFL.
According to PlayerProfile.com, the Dolphins' quarterback had the seventh-most completed air yards in football and ranked 13th in completion percentage while under pressure. He finished eighth in rushing yards per game among quarterbacks and fourth in touchdowns via the ground.
Fitzpatrick's 2019 film is littered with clinical teaching tape, like his touchdown strike in the waning moments of the Washington game.
Operating from 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) Fitzpatrick motioned Mike Gesicki into the backfield from his pre-snap boundary alignment. Fitzpatrick aligns his feet, hips and eyes to the flat, displacing the safety and creating a throwing window to Parker, who is running a post and beats his man off the line. The result was a touchdown to pull the Dolphins within a point with 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
In the Week 15 game at The Meadowlands, Fitzpatrick drilled a gorgeous seam throw to Parker for another Miami touchdown. The Dolphins were in 11-personnel again and a 2x2 alignment (two eligible receivers to either side).
Fitzpatrick has a favorable matchup with Parker in the slot. Fitzpatrick first to Mike Gesicki, who is running a corner route on the opposite side of the field. Once the safety turns his hips and takes a step to the boundary, Fitzpatrick turns back to the field and fires a 25-yard frozen rope to Parker for the score.
Fitzpatrick's understanding of the defensive coverage and how the route concepts are designed to attack that particular coverage is a weekly showcase – a skill set that benefits the entire quarterback room of the Dolphins.
The processing and intelligence in Fitzpatrick's game translates both on the field and in the locker room. Head Coach Brian Flores praised his quarterback's football acumen and work ethic at the conclusion of Fitzpatrick's first minicamp with the team.
"I think Ryan is a great leader," Flores said. "He's shown that already. He's been in the league a long time. He's smart. He works hard. He embodies a lot of the qualities that we're looking for in our players – not even our players, everyone in this organization. That leadership is something that I think this team needs. We need that from not just one player but we need that from everyone on the roster."