Longevity has a way of creeping up on people. Often you don’t give a whole lot of thought to how long you’ve been working in a particular job or have been involved in any certain activity until someone else provides a reminder.
For Chris Palmer, that moment came last year, when he was an offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers.
“One of the coaches’ wives came up to me one day and asked, ‘How long have you been coaching?’ ” Palmer recalled. “I told her, ‘This will be my 42nd year.’ She said, ‘You’ve been coaching longer than I’ve been alive.’ ”
Palmer paused and then, with a laugh, added, “Wow! I don’t know if that’s a compliment or what.”
He actually didn’t care, because he knew that to still be doing something he loves for so many years made him a lucky man. And to be doing it in the NFL, where coaching turnover is an unfortunate staple of the business, is a remarkable accomplishment.
At 65, Palmer will spend his 43rd year in the profession and 24th in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.
His aptly titled role, senior offensive assistant, is designed to allow coach Rex Ryan, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the rest of the offensive staff to take advantage of all that he has done and seen in a variety of coaching capacities at the professional and collegiate levels.
Palmer has been a head coach in the NFL (Cleveland, 1999-2000), at two colleges (University of New Haven, 1986-87, and Boston University, 1988-89), and in the defunct United Football League. He has been an offensive coordinator for three NFL teams (Jacksonville, 1997-98; Houston, 2002-05, and Tennessee, 2011-12) and has made several stops as a position coach in the professional and college ranks.
“I can say, ‘We did that in 1994 and here’s how it all came out,’ ” Palmer said. “There’s a lot of ways to do things. I’ve seen the good and the bad.
“Basically, my job here is to help Greg in any capacity that he deems worthy.”
For instance, during offseason workouts and classroom sessions, he will spend most of his time helping two position coaches: Tony Sparano (son of the former Dolphins head coach and current 49ers tight ends coach with the same name) with tight ends and Sanjay Lal with wide receivers.
While in San Francisco in 2014, Roman’s final season as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, Palmer’s duties included preparing a preliminary game plan for each opponent a week before Roman and the rest of the offensive staff would assemble the final version.
“And as things go along, my role will” continue to “be defined,” Palmer said. “From that standpoint, I’ll do whatever they need me to do.”
One area in which he knows he won’t be involved is with the Bills’ quarterbacks. That will be left to quarterbacks coach David Lee and Roman.
But Palmer, who is working for his 10th NFL team, expects to have enough to keep him busy through the coming months.
“There’s more senior assistants, not only in the pro game, but they’re doing it in the college game as well,” he said. “It gives us another set of eyes. I think, in today’s environment, it’s always good to have extra coaches, so if someone gets ill or something happens, you’ve got someone that can fill in.”
Buffalo has long had a special place in the heart of the Brewster native. During his seven seasons as offensive coordinator at Colgate University (1976-82), he became familiar with the region because “it was an excellent area for us for recruiting.”
Two players, in particular, he remembers with Western New York connections are Clarence native Mark Murphy, who had a standout career as a safety in the NFL and is the president of the Green Bay Packers, and Bills medical director Dr. John Marzo, whom Palmer coached when Marzo was the Raiders’ quarterback.
“Having coached at Cleveland, there’s a Midwest flavor here, and the people are hard-working, blue collar,” Palmer said. “I enjoy that part of it.”