FLORHAM PARK, N.J. − They’ve diverted their emotions into proper compartments.
So they say, at least.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey will return Sunday to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first time. Three years have passed since Fitzpatrick threw his last pass and Gailey coached his last game for the Buffalo Bills.
Fitzpatrick and Gailey claim the visit will not be a sentimental journey. Their new team has a mission to accomplish.
Wistfulness has no place, not when their New York Jets need one more victory to reach the playoffs.
Fitzpatrick and Gailey, with the same offense from Buffalo, have made a record-breaking run together. Gailey calls the plays and Fitzpatrick quarterbacks the Jets’ best offense in 17 years.
The Jets also would clinch a wild-card berth if they tie the Bills or if the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t defeat the Cleveland Browns. With both games at 1 p.m., Gailey and Fitzpatrick should concentrate only on business this weekend.
Nostalgia can be sneaky, though.
Fitzpatrick stood at his locker stall Wednesday and told reporters he can’t afford to be selfish about his homecoming. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and Nick Mangold and Antonio Cromartie and Muhammad Wilkerson won’t concern themselves with settling somebody else’s score. The rest of the Jets simply want the postseason.
And yet Western New York was where the Amish Rifle was born and Fitzmagic came to life. It was where Gailey named Fitzpatrick an offseason starter for the only time in his career, where one his five children was born, where he made lifetime friends in his Lake View neighborhood “just from hanging out, drinking beer in the front yard and playing with the kids,” Fitzpatrick said. He beamed, then added, “Better put playing with the kids first and drinking beer second.”
Fitzpatrick paused again. His face turned serious. He raised his hands toward his chest. His shoulders actually shuddered.
“It gives me chills thinking about it,” he said, “because it was such a special place for us.
“When I signed there, people told me, ‘Oh, Buffalo?’ That’s the thought around the U.S. But when you get there and you realize what kind of place it is because the people who live there?
“Those people mean a lot to me.”
Gailey was asked Thursday at his weekly news conference if the Ralph Wilson Stadium homecoming will be emotional for him.
“No,” Gailey replied. Reporters laughed; Gailey didn’t. Reporters waited for him to continue his thought; Gailey didn’t.
When the Bills fired Gailey after the 2012 season, he choked back tears while reading a farewell statement in the field house. Gailey finished by saying, “This will be the first place that’s ever fired me that I’ll pull for.”
On Thursday, he grasped the edges of the lectern and awaited the second question.
Why won’t playing the Bills be emotional?
“It’s just another game,” Gailey said without a hint of sarcasm. “If we’re going to talk about all the places I’ve been at, we’re going to have a long list.”
Bills fans respected Gailey for his no-nonsense, passionate approach. Gailey, unlike successor Doug Marrone, didn’t need to announce repeatedly he was a straight shooter. Gailey, unlike current Bills coach Rex Ryan, didn’t yearn to stir the masses with proclamations that made folks throw up jazz hands and croon, “Ooooooo.”
But the coach who gave us Fitz also gave Bills fans fits, especially during their third and final season.
The 2012 Bills were supposed to contend for the playoffs. They made Mario Williams the richest defensive player in NFL history and signed pass-rusher Mark Anderson to go along with reclamation project Shawne Merriman.
Gailey that season tried once again to maximize a band of offensive overachievers, survivors and rejects that included running back Fred Jackson, receivers Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones and T.J. Graham and tight end Scott Chandler. C.J. Spiller, one of only two first-round picks on the entire offense, was a breakout star.
Buffalo’s offense was so thin it could be argued that losing third-year undrafted receiver David Nelson to a season-ending injury on opening day was a crushing blow.
The Bills went 6-10 and fired Gailey on New Year’s Eve. They cut Fitzpatrick three months later and drafted EJ Manuel as their quarterback of the future.
Gailey and his wife, Laurie, packed up their Allentown home on Virginia Place and moved back to Georgia. He hasn’t returned to Western New York since.
At the Jets’ training facility, Gailey allowed himself a moment to reflect on what he most fondly recalled from his time with the Bills.
“The people were great,” Gailey said. “Buffalo was a great town for us, for my family, for my wife and I.
“We still have good friends at the Buffalo Dream Center and places like that. We really enjoyed our time there.”
Over the past three years, the Bills haven’t gotten much better. This has been an unlovable season, what with the unfulfilled boasts, injuries, internal friction, public sniping, rah-rah theatrics and debates over Mario Williams mentally checking out.
The Bills are in their 16th straight season without playoffs. The Jets are an AFC East rival, but it would be understandable if Bills fans grappled to compartmentalize their rooting interests for Gailey and Fitzpatrick.
A victory for the Bills would hurt their draft position and fulfill an unproven coach’s personal grudge match against his former team.
As much as the Bills would love to win Sunday and avoid another losing record, you can be certain there will be Bills players happy for Fitzpatrick to finally experience the playoffs and for Gailey to return for the first time in 14 years.
“I’m sure it would mean a lot for them to get into the playoffs together,” Fred Jackson said.
Jackson has remained close friends with Fitzpatrick. They exchange texts frequently about life in general, but the postseason has spiked as a topic lately. Jackson already punched his first playoff ticket with the Seattle Seahawks.
“I’m excited for Fitz,” Jackson said. “He knows it won’t be easy, but he’ll be up for the challenge.
“Best thing about it is that it’s not just him against the Bills. It’s the Jets against the Bills. So he doesn’t have to do it all.”
No words necessary
Fitzpatrick and Gailey have known each other so long they don’t need to discuss what’s at stake Sunday or any emotions roiling over the team that kicked them to the curb for not being good enough.
“We won’t sit down by a cozy fire and roast marshmallows and talk about it before the game or after,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s unspoken.
“There’s definitely an understanding, with how we’ve been together and known each other.”
Their connection is a substantial reason the Jets have won five straight games. In overtime last week against the New England Patriots, Fitzpatrick completed all three of his passes for 74 yards and the winning touchdown.
Gailey struggled to explain their partnership. He said he doesn’t know what to compare it to, that he hasn’t experienced anything like this in his 38 years of coaching. Trust, Gailey surmised, is at the nucleus.
“I don’t want to get weird,” said Jets rookie quarterback Bryce Petty, “but they’re like a married couple.
“There’s a comfort level with Fitz being in there, executing what Chan wants to do. They’re just on the same page. You can tell they’ve been together and doing it for a while.”
Gailey stayed out of football two years. No coincidence that a few weeks after the Jets hired him to call plays they traded what turned out to be a sixth-round draft choice to the Houston Texans for Fitzpatrick. Jets quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo was a quality-control and receivers assistant for Gailey in Buffalo.
Gailey-Fitzpatrick synergies calmed a turbulent time over the summer. Reserve linebacker IK Enemkpali, now with the Bills, broke starting quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw with a sucker punch.
Fitzpatrick took over the job, and with personnel far superior to anything the Bills’ front office assembled for them, Gailey and Fitzpatrick have been sensational.
“Ryan knew the offense, which helped big-time,” said Decker, the Jets’ slot receiver. “Not only the relationship with Chan, but the relationship he gained with us as skill players really expedited the process.
“Everybody bought in. The biggest thing is when you have sudden change you’ve got to have guys step up. He’s led us to this point.”
Fitzpatrick has tied the Jets record for touchdown passes in a season, throwing more than Joe Namath or Ken O’Brien.
Marshall already has broken the club’s 27-year-old record with 101 catches and is one touchdown from tying AFL stars Don Maynard and Art Powell for the TD mark. Marshall would break Maynard’s yardage record with 60 against the Bills. Marshall’s nine 100-yard receiving games this year has tied Maynard’s record.
Marshall and Decker have caught touchdowns in the same game eight times, an NFL mark for teammates. Minnesota Vikings receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter did it seven times in 1998.
Running back Chris Ivory isn’t breaking Jets records, but he needs only 11 rushing yards for his first 1,000-yard season. Ivory has seven rushing touchdowns and another receiving.
Gailey’s stoicism eventually cracked.
The last question at Thursday’s news conference asked him to take Buffalo out of Sunday’s scenario and describe how it feels to prepare for a do-or-die game.
“It’s a constant battle in your heart and your brain and your gut,” Gailey said, “of extreme confidence and scared to death.”
Gailey didn’t expect to be in this situation again, not after he left the Bills. He gave retirement an earnest try, gardening and whatnot. Out of football for one year, he told The Buffalo News he was happy and almost certainly done for good.
Two factors changed his mind. The first was a mutual relationship he had with new Jets coach Todd Bowles, hired to replace Rex Ryan.
Gailey and Bowles each previously worked with defensive assistant George Edwards. Gailey was the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach in 1998 and provided Edwards’ NFL break. Gailey hired him to be his first Bills defensive coordinator in 2010.
Edwards often praised him in Bowles’ presence when coaching together on the Browns’ and Miami Dolphins’ staffs. Bowles, a defensive coach, identified Gailey as a great fit to be offensive coordinator.
Gailey revealed other NFL teams had reached out to him to return. The interest was flattering.
“Sometimes when you’re gone you think you’re forgotten,” Gailey said, “and knowing that maybe you weren’t forgotten did have some impetus” for returning to football.
Gailey on Thursday, albeit cryptically, mentioned for the first time there were specific motives to coach again, motives he prefers to keep confidential.
“I just had some personal reasons why I wanted to come back and give it another go and try to win a championship,” Gailey said. “Like I said, those are personal reasons that I’m not going to talk about.”
With Gailey calling plays from the press box, the Jets’ offense ranks eighth in the NFL, their highest ranking since 1998 and their seventh-best since the NFL-AFL merger.
Gailey turns 62 on Tuesday. He last went to the playoffs as Miami’s play-caller in 2000 and 2001. He took Dallas to the postseason in 1998 and 1999, his only two seasons there. But owner Jerry Jones fired him because of back-to-back first-round losses.
Back to Gailey’s mixed emotions of extreme confidence and terror:
“It’s because you want to make sure everything’s right,” Gailey said. “But I’m that way every week; don’t get me wrong. It’s not just this game.
“You’re struggling with that balance every week. But we’ve been doing this game for the last five weeks in a row. So it’s the next one.”
A player’s player
Fitzpatrick’s former Bills teammates won’t be surprised one bit to hear how popular he is in the Jets’ locker room.
Regardless of hometown region, education or socioeconomic differences, teammates are drawn to him. Jets beat writers on Wednesday presented him with their annual award for being such a nice guy.
“He’s the brother I never had,” Petty said.
There was a discussion Thursday in the Jets’ locker room about how common it is for athletes to be aloof, how rare it is for someone to be so personable across all demographics.
“He never takes things too serious, which is nice,” Decker said of Fitzpatrick. “We’re all not perfect. He knows he’s not perfect. But he’s a competitor, now.
“Going to battle every Sunday, he’s a guy I want to go to battle with.”
Fitzpatrick has thrown 29 touchdown passes, tying the record Vinny Testaverde set in 1998. Testaverde that year was the backup to Glenn Foley, who struggled. The Jets went to the AFC Championship Game.
Fitzpatrick was diplomatic when referring to the talent discrepancy he had in Buffalo compared to who he throws to now and the linemen blocking for him.
“It’s the same system,” Fitzpatrick said. “The offense has evolved from what we did in Buffalo, but it’s mainly personnel-driven.”
Buffalo’s offense ranked 25th, 14th and 19th when Fitzpatrick was the starter.
This year, Marshall became the first player to record six seasons of at least 100 catches. He and Decker are second in the NFL in receptions by any tandem. Ivory and Mangold are Pro Bowl first alternates.
“The biggest thing Chan does for me is have confidence in me,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can always tell the way that a play-caller chooses the plays if he’s confident in his quarterback or not.
“Sometimes, that’s difficult for a quarterback, when you feel that. I know Chan has 100 percent confidence in me, just as I have 100 percent confidence in him. It’s a little thing, but it goes a long way.”
The long journey
Fitzpatrick’s vagabond career went from Buffalo to Tennessee and to Houston before New Jersey.
Sunday will be his 105th NFL start, but he never has experienced the postseason. Archie Manning is the only quarterback to start more games and never make the playoffs.
“It’s hard not to cheer for the guy,” Petty said. “It’s seeing him survive and the journey. He’s been through a lot.
“He’s had a lot of people tell him, ‘No.’ He’s had a lot of people tell him, ‘You can’t.’ He keeps coming back. He proves himself year in and year out − in almost every situation he’s been in − and not only plays, but does well.
“There’s a lot to learn from Fitz about believing in yourself.”
To reach the playoffs with Gailey would be fitting.
“It really is fun,” Gailey said of making this run with Fitzpatrick. “But it’s so much more than just he and I. It’s happening with the whole football team.”
To clinch the playoffs in Buffalo would be fitting, too.
“Buffalo will never be just another place,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve been such a nomad, but Buffalo was the one spot we had where it was home.
“It’ll always have that special place in my family’s heart.”