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Team delivers strong message to locker room

Ryan Fitzpatrick showed up at One Bills Drive for voluntary workouts on Monday in his blue "FredEX Delivers" T-shirt. He swears it was a coincidence.

"Really, I had no idea this was happening," the Bills' quarterback insisted after a news conference to announce running back Fred Jackson's two-year contract extension.

Fitzpatrick loves his T-shirts, which were all the rage in the locker room a year ago. But he has an even deeper appreciation for Jackson, whom he considers his all-time favorite teammate.

So it was fitting for Fitz to be on hand, clad in his best Fred garb, for the big announcement.

The Bills have thrown around a lot of money over the last year or so. They signed Fitzpatrick, Kyle Williams and Stevie Johnson to lucrative extensions. They made the biggest splash in NFL free agency by signing Mario Williams, then got Mark Anderson as well.

But as team morale goes, this was the most meaningful move of all. Jackson has been a good soldier and popular teammate, an undrafted free agent who turned himself into an NFL star and wanted to be paid like one.

Jackson wanted more money last summer, though his deal had two years to go. Management said it would take care of him. He took Buddy Nix at his word. He went to work and was performing like a league MVP when a broken leg ended his season after 10 games.

Management made a powerful statement by investing heavily in the roster this offseason. It was time to get serious, to put up the financial resources for a playoff run. You knew every player on the team was watching to see if Nix kept his promise to Jackson.

The promise came through Monday. Jackson got a two-year extension, believed to be worth $9 million. That's about right for a running back of his age (he turned 31 in February) and credentials.

"This is huge," Jackson said. "I get the opportunity to be here another three years. I'm happy about that. We're doing some tremendous things here. I just want to be part of it."

Jackson said he couldn't imagine playing anywhere but in Buffalo. He was undrafted and underestimated, dismissed as unworthy of the big-time. He spent two years in indoor football before getting his chance.

He reflects the city's blue-collar ethos, and Bills fans love him for it. The bond was apparent after the New England game here last year when the fans chanted Jackson's name as he lingered on the field, holding his young son in his arms.

"Our fans have been with me through thick and thin," Jackson said. "That's what I want to do. I want to be there for them. They've always supported me and I want to continue to be there for them and play well."

The big question is how much he will play. C.J. Spiller showed promise as a feature back during Jackson's absence down the stretch. The Bills would like to divide their touches more evenly. Jackson says he can't conceive of slowing down at this point. He said he feels like he's 17 years old.

There's no reason Jackson can't produce at the level he did before his injury a year ago. But if the Bills ease his load while getting more production from Spiller, it'll be good for the offense.

What they don't need is a running back controversy. Jackson made it clear last summer than he should be the nominal No. 1 back. He has earned that, along with the money. As long as the Bills keep the distinction clear, there should be no problem.

By signing Jackson to this extension, the Bills are saying it's all about the team now, about winning. Jackson believes they're on to something special. His biggest fan on the team thinks so, too.

"You can feel the atmosphere around town, the momentum from all the signings," Fitzpatrick said. "It means a lot to the guys in our locker room for Buddy to say 'Fred's our best player, we'll get a deal done' and be true to his word."