Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs-Eagles: Welcome to backup quarterback heaven

TAMPA — If there is a heaven for backup quarterbacks, well, Nick Foles has seen the Promised Land.

Taking over after Carson Wentz went down with torn knee ligaments last December, Foles led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over the Patriots' Tom Brady and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

The latest clipboard Jesus is Ryan Fitzpatrick. Subbing for suspended starter Jameis Winston, he passed for a career-high 417 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score in the Bucs' 48-40 win at New Orleans last Sunday. Fitzpatrick was named the league's Offensive Player of the Week.

Sunday, it's Foles vs. Fitz instead of Winston vs. Wentz when the Bucs play host to the Eagles in a 1 p.m. game at Raymond James Stadium.

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These break-glass-in-case-of-emergency quarterbacks are at the top of their game, if not the depth chart.

Even after Fitzpatrick, 35, produced the NFL's biggest Week 1 stunner, he still seemed to know his place. The Bucs were besieged with national media requests to profile Fitzmagic. But knowing Winston will likely push him back to the sideline when he returns for the Bucs game Sept. 30 at Chicago, Fitzpatrick declined.

Of course, both Foles and Fitzpatrick have had their days in the QB1 seat.

Foles hit it big in his second pro season under Chip Kelly with the Eagles. He threw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 2013. Two years later, unhappy and contemplating a life without football, he asked for his release from the St. Louis Rams.

Fitzpatrick is playing for his seventh team in 14 seasons, having logged 120 starts. Three years ago he led the New York Jets to a 10-6 record.

But Fitzpatrick says this is the best football he has ever played.

"I just continue to become a better player whether people think that or see that or not,'' Fitzpatrick said. "I'm better right now than I've been in any point in my career and a lot of that is just mentally and whatever else. … Truly, I feel like the older I've gotten the better I've become."

It's a unique job, NFL backup quarterback. You prepare all week as if you're going to play. Watch film. Study the game plan. But in practice, you get no reps. Nobody wants you to play because it means the starter has been woefully ineffective, incurred an injury or in the case of Winston, an inquiry leading to a suspension.

But Foles and Fitz? They're the masters of the alternative quarterback universe.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson played 12 NFL seasons, all but one as a backup quarterback. He caddied his last four seasons for Brett Favre in Green Bay. He says these guys have learned from watching.

"You know, they've studied the game for so long. They're both veteran players," Pederson said. "Listen, they've started and played in this league, too. You know, you can't discount that. I think having the ability to process all that information, given the opportunity on the field, you can see what Ryan Fitzpatrick can do. What Nick Foles can do. And I think it's just a credit to them for their preparation throughout the years and on game day.''

On Sunday, Foles returns to the site of his first NFL win. It came Dec. 9, 2012 in Tampa, when as a rookie his TD pass to Jeremy Maclin with no time on the clock beat the Bucs 23-21. Foles passed for 381 yards and two touchdowns, but the Eagles finished 4-12 and fired coach Andy Reid.

"I just remember sitting at my locker after the game thinking that wasn't easy to get that win. It was really special," said Foles, who went 1-6 as a starter that year. "At that point, I didn't know how it was going to be because I hadn't won and it was a tough year for us."

Foles called Reid again in Kansas City when he decided to restart his football career. After one season with the Chiefs, he was looking for a new football home as a free agent and chose the Eagles over Tampa Bay. The deciding factor may have been his wife was pregnant and they knew doctors in Philadelphia.

Last season, the injury to Wentz, who may have been on his way to an MVP season with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions, was devastating. But the Eagles players and coaches believed in Foles, and after some tweaking to the offense to add more run pass options, he got on a roll.

"The guys rallied around Nick and supported Nick and never once doubted or wavered about what Nick was able to do and I think that's the same thing in Tampa Bay,'' Pederson said.

"When the ruling came down that Jameis was going to miss a couple weeks, I'm assuming that coach (Dirk) Koetter said, 'Ryan, we're going to give you every opportunity. You're going to …  get all the starter reps in practice so they can be prepared for the regular season.' Everything can be sort of exposed to that offense. The same way it was here in Philadelphia last year toward the end of the season where now guys rally around the backup quarterback."

What's helped Fitzpatrick is his supporting cast and the ability to take first-team reps with them during the preseason. The Bucs are loaded on offense with play-makers, from Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

"More so than my confidence in myself — because I always have that — is when you're in the huddle whether you're the starter or you're the backup, when you step in to that huddle, you can feel it,'' Fitzpatrick said. "You can feel from the play-caller. You can feel from those guys looking at you whether they have confidence in you or not and I think that's the biggest thing."

Fitzpatrick's son, Brady, was confident enough to start his father on his fantasy football team in Week 1. He was rewarded with 42.3 points.

"After all the afternoon games and the Monday Night Football game, he kept looking to see if I was the best one or not,'' Fitzpatrick said.

One thing is certain. If there's a St. Peter at the gates of backup quarterback heaven, Foles and Fitz are near the top of his list.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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Published: 09/24/18