FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — When Bill Parcells signed Vinny Testaverde as a backup a few weeks before the Jets’ 1998 season began, the coach fully expected the veteran quarterback would simply be a good insurance policy in the event his young starter, Glenn Foley, was injured.
“I thought Vinny was a good quarterback. I’d played against him before, and he did a good job,” Parcells told Newsday Wednesday from his home in Jupiter, Florida, reminiscing about what turned into a truly memorable season. “I don’t know that I looked at it like he would have the kind of year he had. I just think things unfolded a certain way.”
If that sounds strikingly familiar to the situation Parcells’ protégé, Todd Bowles, faces with the Jets, it should. Just as Parcells viewed Testaverde, the No. 1 pick of the 1987 draft, strictly as a backup behind his starter, Bowles came into the season anticipating that Ryan Fitzpatrick would be an insurance policy behind Geno Smith.
But look now. Just as Testaverde, then 34 and on his fourth NFL team, went on to have a career year in 1998, throwing 29 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions after taking over for an injured and ineffective Foley, Fitzpatrick is in the midst of his own career renaissance. The circumstances may have been different, with Smith being literally punched out of the lineup by linebacker IK Enemkpali, but the results are stunningly similar.
Heading into Sunday’s game against the Bills, where a win would guarantee the Jets their first playoff berth since 2010, Fitzpatrick has a career-high 29 touchdown passes and only 12 interceptions.
“He’s done a really good job, and I think Chan Gailey has done an excellent job with him,” Parcells said of Fitzpatrick and his offensive coordinator, the former Bills head coach. “There’s a lot of familiarity there, and that has helped. Once [Fitzpatrick] got the opportunity, he took advantage of it, just like Vinny did.”
Testaverde also had the benefit of working with a solid veteran offensive coordinator and a former head coach. Dan Henning, Parcells’ trusted play-caller, had previously been the Falcons’ coach and did a terrific job playing to Testaverde’s strengths.
“Dan did a very good job for us,” Parcells said.
Just as Gailey was prepared to go with Smith through the entire offseason and into training camp, Henning prepared Foley as his starter, with Testaverde taking reps as the backup. Testaverde appeared comfortable from the start with Henning’s offense, but it wasn’t until back-to-back losses to start the season, coupled with a rib injury to Foley, that Parcells turned to Testaverde, the former schoolboy star from Elmont who wound up having his best year not far from where he grew up.
Fitzpatrick, 33, is now playing that role with the Jets, finally putting the pieces together with his sixth team and thriving in an offense that suits his strengths. This despite the fact that it wasn’t until Aug. 11, when Smith suffered a broken jaw during a locker-room fight with Enemkpali and unwittingly created the next — and, as it turned out, the best — opportunity for Fitzpatrick.
And Bowles, who considers Parcells one of his most important influences, has himself done an outstanding job, making his mentor proud.
“I think Todd’s done an excellent job with the team, although the game is a lot different now than it was in 1998,” said Parcells, who texts regularly with Bowles throughout the season, offering quick reminders of what the Jets’ current coach should focus on in any given week. “Football is played differently today, but I’m happy for Todd.”
But as Parcells frequently reminds Bowles, there is work to be done.
“Lookit, they haven’t even won the division or gotten into the playoffs,” Parcells said. “I don’t want to jinx him. I’m superstitious, you know. So I don’t want to talk about his chances. They’ve got a long way to go to get there.”
And even if they do get into the tournament, they are only one loss away from agonizing frustration. Parcells should know. He won Super Bowl titles with the Giants in 1986 and 1990, and nearly pulled off a third title run with Testaverde’s Jets.
They beat Tom Coughlin’s Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round to earn an AFC Championship Game berth against the Broncos. And after keeping the game close in the first half, the Jets succumbed to Denver at Mile High Stadium, losing 23-10, as Testaverde threw two interceptions and no touchdown passes.
There is still anguish from the former coach about that lost opportunity.
“That’s the most disappointing game I was ever in,” Parcells said. “I thought we had a good chance.”
How long did it take Parcells, now 74, to get over it?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Every once in a while, you still think about it.”
Comparing the career seasons of Vinny Testaverde (1998) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (2015):
29TD passes 29