“Harvard Guy” Ryan Fitzpatrick Rides High in the NFL
Led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05, the resurgent Buffalo Bills are treating their long-suffering fans to something resembling a dream season.
The Bills had victories in four of their first six games, including an upset of the top-tier New England Patriots, and they lead the American Football Conference in scoring. A year ago at this time, Buffalo had a record of 0-6 and would not post a win until November.
Fitzpatrick, who was named a Bills co-captain in early September, has played a key part in resuscitating a franchise that has had just one winning season in the past decade. After backup stints with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals, he signed with the Bills in 2009 and became their starting quarterback a year ago.
In this season’s opening game, Fitzpatrick threw four touchdown passes in a 41-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs. A week later he sparked a turnaround in which the Bills erased a 21-3 Oakland lead, scoring on each of their last five possessions to gain an improbable 38-35 win. Fitzpatrick passed for three of the scores.
The Bills then pulled the upset of the young season, overcoming a 21-point deficit to defeat the New England Patriots, 34-31, on the final play of the game.
Fitzpatrick threw for two touchdowns against the Patriots, completing 27 of 40 passes for 369 yards. His opposite number, New England’s Tom Brady, passed for four touchdowns but was intercepted four times. The Bills’ victory broke a 15-game losing streak to the Patriots, dating back to 2003.
In Brady’s 11 seasons as the Patriots’ field general, New England had never lost after leading by 21 points. It was the first time in National Football League annals that a team had come back from at least 18 points behind to win in successive games.
The Bills’ two defeats have both been by three-point margins: a 23-20 loss to the Bengals, on a last-second field goal, and a 27-24 loss to the New York Giants. Sandwiched between those games was a rousing home victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-24, in which Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 27 pass attempts.
His completion rate of 66.3 percent puts Fitzpatrick in the NFL’s top five in that category. The Bills are the AFL’s highest-scoring team, averaging 31.3 points per game.
After a bye week, Buffalo next faces the Washington Redskins (3-2 at this writing), the New York Jets (3-3), and the Dallas Cowboys (2-3). The regular season ends with a rematch against New England at the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium on January 1, 2012.
In his Harvard days, Fitzpatrick started 21 games and led the Crimson to victory in 18 of them. He captained the undefeated 2004 team, won the Bushnell Cup as Ivy League player of the year, and set total-offense records that still stand.
A Harvard education may open doors on Wall Street, but in professional football, not so much. A Boston Globe profile quoted Fitzpatrick as saying, “I’m the Harvard guy everywhere, every day, but you know what, there’s worse things to be called.…I know that sometimes people use it as a kind of joke or sarcastic comment, but I take a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that I went to school there.”
Fitzpatrick was taken by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL draft. He scored a 48 (out of 50) on the Wonderlic, an intelligence test for prospective pros, completing it in a record nine minutes. (The average score is about 20.)
Two other alumni currently play in the NFL: Matt Birk ’98, a six-time Pro Bowl center for the Baltimore Ravens, and Desmond Bryant ’09, a reserve defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders.
Harvardians who have achieved success at the professional level include Pat McInally ’75, a kicker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1976 to 1985 (and the only player to score a perfect 50 on the Wonderlic); Dan Jiggetts ’76, an offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears from 1976 to 1983; and Isaiah Kacyvenski ’00, a linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks, the Rams, and the Raiders from 2000 to 2007.
In the pro coaching ranks, Marv Levy, A.M. ’51, was Buffalo’s head coach from 1986 to 1997, guiding the Bills to four consecutive AFL championships.
Fitzpatrick still has his old Harvard number (14). He grew a beard last season, leading Buffalo sportswriters to dub him “The Amish Rifle.” He’s still bearded, and is one of the few pro players to wear a wedding ring on the field.
He is married to Liza Barber ’05, who co-captained the Crimson women’s soccer team in 2004 and was an all-America selection. A Buffalo Bills website has Fitzpatrick saying, “I have to admit, the girl I left Harvard with was better than the degree.…It is easy for me to stay grounded, because I have a wife who reminds me daily that she is the only college all-American in the household.”
The oldest of their three children is named Brady.
Update: The Bills defeated the Redskins, 23-0, on October 30, with Fitzpatrick completing 20 of 27 passes for two touchdowns. Two days earlier he'd received a six-year contract extension worth $59 million. He is currently among the AFC's top three quarterbacks in passer rating, completions, and touchdown passes.