TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insisted all along that they weren't overly concerned about having to open the season without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston.
That's because Ryan Fitzpatrick not only is an experienced backup who's one of just four players in NFL history to throw touchdown passes for seven different teams, but he has proven he can win games, too.
No one, however, could have anticipated him launching his 14th season quite the way he did, throwing for a career-best 417 yards and four TDs without an interception on the road to key a 48-40 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Fitzpatrick also ran for a touchdown, improving to 3-1 as a starter since joining the Bucs before last season.
With Winston suspended for three games for violating the league's personal conduct policy, the 35-year-old with 120 starts will also lead Tampa Bay (1-0) the next two weeks against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
"He's a down-to-earth guy. He's got a great sense of humor. He's witty, he's intelligent, he's well-spoken. He backs up what he says with how he plays. The players respect him. He doesn't try to come on too strong, but at the same time he's a good leader," coach Dirk Koetter said Monday.
"When we talked, I think earlier in the year, about the difference between Jameis' leadership style and Fitz's leadership style, there's different ways to do it, and there's two good examples of it," Koetter added. "Both (are) good leaders, and we've had other good leaders step up so far."
Fitzpatrick entered the NFL in 2005 as a seventh-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams. He's also played -- and thrown TD passes -- for the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and New York Jets.
He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in May 2017, willingly accepting a role as backup to Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He started three games a year ago, winning two, while Winston was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
"Fitz is comfortable being in there, he's not going to get rattled," Koetter said.
"After a guy (has) played a certain amount -- I don't know what the cutoff is, but Fitz has played a lot. I think that experience of, `OK, I know how fast the game is going to be. I know when I'm going to have to throw the ball away. I know when I'm going to have to eat it and take a hit. I know when it's time to scramble."' Koetter added.
"I just think that best thing overall that Fitz is doing right now is when the play does break down, he's making good decisions with the football whether it be throwing it to a safe spot or becoming a runner."
Against the Saints, Fitzpatrick joined Mark Rypien as the only quarterbacks to throw for at least 400 yards with zero interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown in the same game. In addition to being 21 of 28 passing, including a pair of TDs of 50-plus yards, he targeted Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson 12 times, completing all of those throws.
"To hit them all 12 of those times is pretty unusual," Koetter said.
Evans finished with seven receptions for 147 yards and one touchdown. Jackson had five catches for 146 yards and two TDs.
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