TAMPA, Fla. — Inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room Thursday morning, a gift was draped on each player’s chair. It was a black T-shirt bearing the likeness of the swashbuckling quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and imprinted with one word (sort of): “Fitz-Torious.”
An N.F.L. locker room is almost always inflexibly team-centric, a setting in which the individual is spurned for the greater good. But not this week in Tampa. Not by a long shot. Not when the entire region is gripped by a craze called FitzMagic.
Here in Tampa, anything related to Fitzpatrick, the unlikely savior of the 2-0 Buccaneers, is a cause for celebration.
And so, on Thursday, players pulled their new T-shirts over their heads and took selfies with broad grins. It was the kind of spirit that has moved the team’s fans — men and women — to flock to recent games sporting long, faux beards in tribute to Fitzpatrick’s bushy, Gilded Age hirsute appendage. It is why the public-address system at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium repeatedly played the aspirational 1970s song “Magic” as Fitzpatrick threw for four touchdowns during a stunning upset of the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.
The Buccaneers, who came into this year with a 26-54 record since 2012, have opened the season with consecutive victories over stacked teams who reached the playoffs a year ago. Dismissed after years of feeble play and embarrassed this summer when their franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston, was suspended by the N.F.L. after a female Uber driver accused him of groping her, the Buccaneers have astonishingly been vaulted into first place by the record-setting performances of a 35-year-old backup playing on his seventh team.
Fitzpatrick has been so impressive — he is the first N.F.L. quarterback to start a season with 400 passing yards in back-to-back games — it seems highly unlikely he will be benched when Winston, the first overall pick of the 2015 draft, returns from his three-game suspension next week. Suddenly, Winston’s future in Tampa is far from secure.
“You can’t take the hot man out,” wide receiver DeSean Jackson said last week when asked if he expected Fitzpatrick to remain the starting quarterback. “You have to kind of honor it.”
Coach Dirk Koetter has declined to discuss his thinking about who will be the No. 1 quarterback. He is not, however, oblivious to the groundswell of public opinion.
“I’m happy to announce that FitzMagic is alive and well,” Koetter said after his team’s season-opening victory in New Orleans.
Last week, when asked if he had ever seen a quarterback perform at the high level that Fitzpatrick has achieved in the last two games, Koetter was succinct: “No,” he said. “It’s just a pretty amazing start.”
Laughing along with the improbability of it all, and simultaneously stoking the FitzMagic movement, has been the genial Fitzpatrick, whose N.F.L. career has been a cavalcade of stirring resurrections and disheartening collapses.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride,” Fitzpatrick, who joined Tampa Bay in 2017, said. “I’ve had so many ups and downs in my career. So when it’s going good, you learn to just try to have fun.”
A father of five and a Harvard graduate, Fitzpatrick has walked the talk, showing up for his postgame news conference after Tampa Bay’s last victory wearing an outfit he borrowed from the locker of the more predictably flamboyant Jackson, who caught a 75-yard touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick on the game’s first play. The outfit included gold-frame opaque sunglasses; a thick, cable necklace and diamond pendant; and a black silk jacket with white trim that was unzipped halfway to his waist.
“We just have to stay humble,” Fitzpatrick deadpanned. “We can’t change who we are.”
Asked if any of the wardrobe was his, he replied, “The chest hair is mine.”
Later, in one of the few serious moments of his appearance, he insisted he could play at a high level for more than two games.
“Whether people think it or not, I’m better now than at any point in my career,” he said. “A lot of that is mentally. Some things are ingrained over time.”
He added: “I truly feel like the older I’ve gotten, the better I’ve become.”
Chan Gailey, who was Fitzpatrick’s head coach when both were with the Buffalo Bills from 2010 to 2012 and was also the Jets’ offensive coordinator when Fitzpatrick had probably his best season, in 2015, agreed.
“Because he hasn’t always been a starter, he doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body,” said Gailey, who made Fitzpatrick his starter in Buffalo and with the Jets. “He hasn’t taken as many big hits as other 35-year-old quarterbacks. Can he still be a good N.F.L. quarterback for an extended period of time? Yes, he can.”
The Buccaneers’ success this season has been about more than Fitzpatrick’s rebirth. The offensive line has been much improved from last year’s 5-11 season, which has given Fitzpatrick, who has been sacked just twice, the time to look downfield for fleet receivers like Jackson and Mike Evans. It has led to four touchdown passes of at least 50 yards.
The Buccaneers have also seemed more aggressive over all, which may be traced to the offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, who took over the play-calling duties this year from Koetter. And more plays are being changed at the line of scrimmage, perhaps a result of having a quarterback with 14 years of N.F.L. experience.
Koetter also implemented an uncommon off-season and training camp routine. He broke his team into groups of eight, mixing coaches with players, and had the groups hold meetings during which people took turns talking about their backgrounds or upbringing. The goal was team unity.
Tight end Cameron Brate likened the meetings to “a college freshman orientation,” although he added that they went far deeper.
“You play with guys but you don’t know personal details of their lives,” Brate said. “It was really eye-opening. A football team is built on communication and trust and truly being able to understand where someone is coming from and being able to open up to them. It created new pathways of communication and enhanced our trust in each other.”
Fitzpatrick cited the meetings as pivotal as well, and in turn many of his teammates have gone out of their way to credit him with having a knack for strengthening the team chemistry, too.
“He’s very sociable and he finds a way to talk to all the guys in this room,” guard Ali Marpet said, standing at his locker. “He’s funny and knows how to include everyone in a conversation. That’s a unique ability.”
Monken noticed something else, and it has been said before about Fitzpatrick during the high points of his career on other N.F.L. teams.
“He commands the huddle,” Monken said. “I see the calm he brings to the team.”
The Buccaneers face yet another tough opponent Monday night when the winless Pittsburgh Steelers visit. The Tampa Bay fans, who have rooted for just one winning team in the last eight years, will no doubt be in full throat — even if some of those throats are obscured by long, fake beards.
If all goes well for the home team, the lyrics of “Magic,” by the band Pilot, will waft down from the stadium grandstand, a chorus only recently memorized by a new generation of Buccaneers fans:
Oh, ho, ho,
It’s magic, you know
Never believe it’s not so.
But the game is also the Buccaneers’ only scheduled national television appearance in the regular season. Koetter, perhaps longing for a reprise in the postseason, has enthusiastically tried to rouse the fan base into making an impression on viewers — if not the league. The lilting vibe of Pilot’s “Magic” is fine, but is there another level?
“It’s ‘Monday Night Football,’” the coach said. “Let’s rock this place.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.