Eric Wood was a rookie first-round pick with the Bills in 2009 when he met Ryan Fitzpatrick, who also was playing his first season in Buffalo. Along with Fred Jackson, they became central figures in the offense and built a strong friendship that withstood the test of time.
Their personal relationship will be pushed aside Sunday while the Bills and Jets settle professional differences. The Bills hope to beat the Jets again, knock them from the playoffs and finish 8-8. It would mark first time since 2000, when their 16-year playoff slump began, that the Bills finished .500 or better in consecutive seasons.
My heavens, somebody plan the parade.
Fitzpatrick returns to Ralph Wilson Stadium with loftier goals, of course, after guiding the Jets to a 10-5 record and within a win of the postseason for the first time in his 11-year career. Wood sounded like many in Buffalo who will have mixed emotions when seeing Fitzpatrick on the opposite sideline.
“I can’t root for their team, but he’s probably the easiest guy to root for because of the type of guy he is,” Wood said Wednesday. “When Fitz is part of your team, he’s everybody’s favorite person from Rick the mail guy to the management. He brings it every day. He’s smart. He’s fun. He treats everybody the way you should be treated. He’s a great dad and a good friend. There’s a lot of good things to say about Fitz.”
It sounds about right.
Fitzpatrick, playing for his fourth team in four years, always had a soft spot for Buffalo. The feeling was mutual. He was appreciated for his intelligence and integrity as much as his ability. He was a Harvard man who came across like a Buffalo guy, an underdog who persevered and overcame long odds and questions about his arm.
Jackson was beloved for similar reasons after playing for Division III Coe College and turning himself into a quality NFL back. Neither quite reached superstar status and refused to carry themselves like they did. Jackson, released by Buffalo in training camp, clinched his first career playoff berth after signing with Seattle.
Nobody should be surprised if Fitz pulls a win out of his beard Sunday.
“It will be the first time that I’ve been back there in a different jersey, playing in front of those fans,” Fitzpatrick told reporters in New York earlier this week. “I mean, it’s got some extra meaning to me just because I was there for four years, and the fans were so great to me and my family.
“There’s a little bit of extra meaning there, but I don’t think there needs to be with just the significance and importance of this game in terms of what’s at stake”
Good man, Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Long after he silenced his critics and succeeded, he never came across like he was too big for the people around him. He stayed true to his roots and understood the long-suffering souls sitting in The Ralph. He was just another guy after buying a home in Lake View, where he played touch football with kids in the street.
Knock, knock: “Can Ryan come out and play?”
When he could, he often did. And Fitz definitely could play.
He never had the strongest arm, but looking back, he was underrated in terms of overall effectiveness. Fitz understood the game better than most. Even his poor decisions were calculated, but it took time for his gunslinger mentality to give way to safer, high-percentage plays that help teams win.
Fitzpatrick came into his own this year with the Jets after inheriting the starting job from Geno Smith. Smith suffered a broken jaw when he was socked in a locker-room dispute with IK Enemkpali, who was waived by the Jets and subsequently signed by the Bills. Fitz responded, at age 33, with a career year.
“I think I understand my game a little bit better,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think I’m much more of a patient quarterback. There’s just been a tremendous amount of growth for me. And it hasn’t all been peaches and roses. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, even since I left Buffalo.”
This season, there have been far more ups than downs. Fitzpatrick he has a winning record for the first time in his career. He has thrown for 3,724 yards, leaving him 108 yards shy of his single-season high. His 29 touchdowns, tied for most in Jets’ history, already are a career high. New York has won five straight.
The Jets are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when Rex Ryan was coaching his second season in New York. The same year, the Bills finished 4-12 with Fitzpatrick guiding the team to all of its wins in his 13 starts.
Certainly, Fitz has benefited from two quality receivers. Brandon Marshall has 101 catches for 1,376 yards and 13 touchdowns. Eric Decker has 75 catches and is 23 yards away from 1,000 yards receiving. He has 11 touchdowns. The Bills had Stevie Johnson and not much else during Fitz and Gailey’s time in Buffalo.
“He’s well-liked everywhere he goes, not only in football but just … period,” Marshall said on a conference call. “He’s just a great guy, salt of the earth. As far as football, he’s everything you want in a teammate. He’s accountable. You can depend on him. He loves the game and has a lot of passion. His preparation is amazing.”
Many, including me, believed Fitzpatrick needed to leave after the Bills selected EJ Manuel in the first round in 2013. The rationale at the time: The Bills were starting another era with a new quarterback, and keeping Fitzpatrick around could become a distraction and could stunt Manuel’s growth.
Looking back, it was misguided.
The Bills should have kept Fitzpatrick to help develop the kid before it became apparent Manuel couldn’t play. Buffalo would have had a proven quarterback who could have stepped in and increased their chances of winning. Who knows? Maybe the Bills would have reached the postseason last year.
Bills fans are reduced to watching former players reach the playoffs. I would imagine many pushed their allegiance to the Bills aside last week and cheered for the Jets against the Patriots. It would be something if Fitz and the Jets and Jackson and the Seahawks wiggled through the playoffs and played for the Super Bowl.
For whom would you root?