By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/15/2005

Two weeks ago, everybody wanted to be Ryan Fitzpatrick's best friend. Even old high school friends called from Arizona, causing Fitzpatrick to wonder: "How did they get my number?"

Miracle comebacks, 300-plus yards passing, and NFC player of the week laurels will do that. Especially for a rookie quarterback from Harvard playing in his first NFL game, which was the case Nov. 27 in Houston.

Fitzpatrick didn't have that problem a week ago, following a less-than-scintillating but hardly disastrous showing in a 24-9 loss to Washington. After that contest, Fitzpatrick half-jokingly remarked that the phone calls would slow to a trickle.

If that were the case, then what would happen following his five-interception day last Sunday in Minnesota? Would those old high school friends throw away his phone number? Would people duck their head to avoid eye contact when Fitzpatrick walked by?

Actually, Fitzpatrick said he has received more phone calls this week than last.

"People just calling me, telling me they still support me, that they still know I'm going to do well," Fitzpatrick said. "So I've been getting a lot of encouraging phone calls, which is good."

He has gotten similar feedback out and about in St. Louis.

"I've run into some people, just like walking around (Tuesday)," Fitzpatrick said. "A lot of people were saying, 'Just stay positive. Keep your head up.' That type of thing. The St. Louis community, the few (people) that I've talked to, have been very supportive with me."

Fitzpatrick says the encouraging words have helped. "Just in the sense that you know that people still believe in you," Fitzpatrick said. "And I'm not a guy that's going to start doubting myself. Even after the past couple weeks. I'm still going to remain confident in my ability."

That is good, because Fitzpatrick remains the Rams' starter, a position he could hold for the final three games of the season. There's no doubt he has been put in a difficult spot. Throwing 45 times in an NFL game - as Fitzpatrick did in Minnesota - is tough on any quarterback, much less a rookie.

Since the Houston game, the caliber of the opposing defense has risen substantially.

Washington is one of the league's better blitzing teams. Minnesota has one of the league's top secondaries. This Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, Fitzpatrick will face another of the NFL's top blitzing defenses in Philadelphia.

"They're real aggressive," Fitzpatrick said. "They'll pressure a lot."

So the crash course continues for Fitzpatrick, who hopes to put lessons learned the hard way against the Vikings to good use against Philly.

"Certain throws that maybe I could get away with in college, I can't get away with now," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm not going to be able to thread the needle on certain things because the guys are faster and more athletic. So just knowing my limits, knowing my boundaries. And when I can and can't make a throw."

And when in doubt, check it down to an underneath receiver.

Injured starter Marc Bulger helps Fitzpatrick whenever possible, but does so mainly during the week.

"A lot of times, quarterbacks just want to be left alone (on game day)," Bulger said. "After interceptions, you know what you did wrong. You don't need eight assistant coaches running over to you, and three players telling you what you did wrong."

It's the same approach Kurt Warner took with Bulger when Bulger began playing in 2002.

"Which was telling me his experiences with certain plays, and the mistakes he made, and how he tried to prevent himself from making them," Bulger said.

Even so, it's tough to transfer that knowledge on game day for a young quarterback. The speed of the game is so drastic, it's like putting game tape on "fast forward," and then trying to make sense of it. Decisions must be made on defensive looks you've never seen before. Sometimes plays are called that haven't been run in practice.

"You can study the playbook all you want, but you can never study enough to go out there and do well on the field," Fitzpatrick said. "It's about the experience."

So even in these tough times, Fitzpatrick is relishing every chance he gets to play in an NFL game. After all, this is a guy who came into camp as the No. 4 quarterback in late July, just hoping to make the final roster.

"This stuff is great for me," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm lucky, and I'm glad that they're giving me the opportunity, and have confidence in me to go out there and get the job done.

"I just need to continue to progress and get better every week. The timing with the receivers is starting to get a lot better. And hopefully we'll see some results this weekend."