Squint real hard at Ryan Fitzpatrick and you might be able to see Nick Foles in five or six or seven years. (It might take Nick that long to grow a comparable beard.)
Fitzpatrick, the 35-year-old quarterback who will lead the Tampa Bay Bucs against the Eagles Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, has never been a Super Bowl MVP, but he has been both good and bad, and sometimes in-between, in an NFL career that stretches back to 2005, with seven teams. This will be the sixth team for which Fitzpatrick has started against the Eagles, something no other QB has come close to doing, in the history of the franchise.
Maybe Foles will rocket into free agency next spring, get a starting-quality deal somewhere, and establish himself as a full-time franchise QB. Or maybe, as he heads toward his 30th birthday on Jan. 20, Foles is who he is – capable of astonishing stretches of excellence when his confidence is up, his weapons are fully charged and his protection is good and capable of looking dreadful when one or more of those elements drifts away.
Fitzpatrick, like Foles, is playing this week because his team's franchise QB is out – Jameis Winston will serve the second installment of a three-game NFL disciplinary suspension. Last week Fitzpatrick shocked the Saints and won NFC offensive player of the week honors by throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-40 road victory. But he remains the guy who lost the Jets' starting job in 2016 by throwing 12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions while compiling a 69.6 passer rating.
"Confidence is a big thing, and just knowing that — last week, I'm not going to get too high on my performance, when you have a bad one, you can't get too low, but having confidence in yourself, and making sure the guys around you in the huddle have confidence in you," Fitzpatrick said this week in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters.
This statement resonated with Foles when a reporter relayed it, the reporter asking if confidence comes and goes for an accomplished NFL QB, or, if, say, you win the Super Bowl, you just get it and keep it.
"You don't get it and keep it; I think that's life … day-to-day there's struggles," Foles said. "I think I've said that before. I think people expect since you've done it before, you should know how to do it every time, but each day's a new day. Each struggle's a new struggle. And we are humans.
"That's why I have a lot of conversations with my wife [Tori], I pray, I get in the Bible and read the word, because there [are] a lot of things going on that we have to deal with, as people. I think people look at us as professional athletes and think we don't deal with that, but we do.
"You do lose your confidence at times. But you have to know how to get it back. What does that take? For me, it's always leaning on Christ and talking to my wife, even though sometimes I probably drive her crazy. But she's always been there for me, so I'm going to continue to do those two things."
Like Foles, Fitzpatrick has been willing to adjust his ego to his situation over the years. He started three games as a Rams rookie – including that Dec. 18, 2005 game against the visiting Eagles – then didn't start again for two years.
How long ago was Dec. 18, 2005? Mike Bartrum, the long snapper who also played some tight end, caught the game-winning touchdown pass in a 17-16 Eagles victory, from quarterback Mike McMahon. The Eagles' punter that day was Sean Landeta, who is now 56 years old. (And who also can probably still drop one inside the 20 if needed.) A Brian Dawkins interception of Fitzpatrick set up the winning points. Ryan Moats ran 12 times for 78 yards.
"I remember I was terrible in that game," Fitzpatrick said. "I know we lost … It's hard to even remember back or even think — I'm in such a different situation now, too, with the offense I'm in and the guys that I'm with."
Fitzpatrick became a full-time starter in Cincinnati, in 2008, just in time to quarterback the Bengals in a famous meeting with the Eagles, a 13-13 tie, after which Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb expressed surprise that there was no second overtime, that the game was allowed to end in a tie.
Fitzpatrick has a 1-3-1 record against the Eagles, winning only for Buffalo in 2011, on a day when Michael Vick threw four interceptions. He said he really learned to be a quarterback during his three years as the Bills' starter under head coach Chan Gailey, but Buffalo didn't do a lot of winning. Gailey was fired and Fitzpatrick bounced from Tennessee to Houston to the Jets over the next three seasons. He signed with Tampa last year to back up Winston after Foles opted to come to Philly to back up Carson Wentz.
Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks played with Fitzpatrick in Houston in 2014, when Fitzpatrick compiled a career-best 95.3 passer rating. Brooks recalled the QB's "sneaky wheels" – and indeed, he ran for a touchdown last week in New Orleans, and later legged out a critical third-and-11 first down to put the game away. Brooks also recalled an equally sneaky sense of humor.
"We made, like, a big first down, and pretty much the game was sealed. So we were kind of jogging to the ball. He was like 'Hurry! I want to snap the ball! Hurry, I want to snap the ball!' "
Brooks said the Texans didn't stop to wonder why, they just huffed and puffed their way to the line, exhausted.
"So we're all just waiting for the ball and he said, 'Oh, I was just [bleeping] with you guys. We're in victory [formation],' " Brooks said. "That's just the kind of guy he was – he was in control of the moment, we had won the game. He wanted to have a little fun."
Fitzpatrick and the Texans played the Eagles in 2014, a 31-21 Eagles victory at Houston, best remembered as the game in which Foles suffered a broken collarbone that ended his season and, it turned out, his chance to establish himself here as the long-term starter.
As a QB who has bounced from the Eagles to the Rams to the Chiefs and back to the Eagles since 2015, Foles understands Fitzpatrick's journey, he said.
"It's not easy to go to a new team and build a relationship with guys, and then go in and play, and play at a high level," Foles said. "I think Fitz has done an amazing job of doing that, throughout his career. … Every person dreams of playing for one team. When I got drafted here [in 2012], my dream was to stay an Eagle my entire career, but that didn't happen. … I think he's a testament as someone who's just continued to work, continued to impact a locker room, and then when he gets an opportunity to play, he does some pretty special things."
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the only opposing quarterback in history to start against the Eagles for five teams, and he'll make it six on Sunday at Tampa.
Fitzpatrick (1-3-1) vs. the Eagles, through the years:
2005: As a St. Louis Rams rookie, Fitzpatrick completed 10-of-24 passes for 69 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 17-16 Eagles victory at St. Louis. His passer rating was 45.8 and he was replaced in the fourth quarter by Jamie Martin.
2008: In an infamous 13-13 game at Cincinnati, after which Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb told a press conference that he hadn't realized NFL games could end in ties, Fitzpatrick completed 29 of 44 passes for 261 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. He was sacked eight times. His passer rating was 89.3.
2011: At Buffalo, Michael Vick threw four interceptions and Fitzpatrick led the Bills to a 31-24 victory, completing 21 of 27 passes for 193 yards, a touchdown, an interception. He was sacked once, and his passer rating was 93.4.
2014: At Houston, Nick Foles broke his collarbone, effectively ending Foles' chance to become the Eagles' long-term starter, but the visitors managed to win, 31-21, helping promote the wildly erroneous view that they could prosper behind Mark Sanchez. Fitzpatrick was 13-for-27 for 203 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and an 82.8 passer rating. He was sacked four times.
2015: The visiting Eagles managed a 24-17 victory over the Jets, despite nearly blowing a 24-0 lead. Fitzpatrick was intercepted three times while completing 35 of 58 passes for 283 yards, two touchdowns, and a 62.6 passer rating. He took one sack.