Rex Ryan vs. his old team will be the prevailing storyline heading into Sunday’s Jets-Bills game, but there’s another intriguing subplot that may hold more significance, even if it may not carry the raw emotion and attendant verbal jabs from Buffalo’s bellicose coach.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will have plenty of his own emotions churning for the run-up to Sunday’s win-and-get-in game for the Jets. It’s the first time the Jets’ quarterback, who has enjoyed a storybook season so far in leading his team to the precipice of the playoffs, will play the Bills in Buffalo since he was unceremoniously booted out of town along with head coach Chan Gailey after the 2012 season.
Fitzpatrick and Gailey will return to Buffalo for the first time against a dramatic backdrop — for the Jets, anyway. While the Bills are out of the playoffs and will finish out a highly disappointed season after some major preseason hype from Rex, Fitzpatrick and Gailey, now the Jets offensive coordinator, can enjoy a measure of revenge against the team that gave up on them not so very long ago.
“It’ll be the first time that I’ve been back there in a different jersey, playing in front of those fans,” Fitzpatrick said on Monday, a day after leading the Jets to a dramatic 26-20 overtime win against the Patriots at MetLife Stadium. “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 Fitzpatrick will be careful not to let his emotions get in the way of the primary task at hand.
“I don’t think there needs to be with just the significance and importance of this game in terms of what’s at stake for us,” he said.
Fitzpatrick already found out how not to play in a game against another former team; he was admittedly too hyped up before and during the Jets’ 24-17 loss to Houston, where he played last season. Fitzpatrick was open about his frustration at being traded from the Texans, and wanted to show coach Bill O’Brien what he was missing.
Instead, Fitzpatrick had one of his worst games of the season, throwing two interceptions just 10 days after losing to Rex’s Bills at home. Jets coach Todd Bowles was so irate immediately after that loss to the Texans that he initially declined to say that Fitzpatrick would remain the starter. A day later, Bowles said Fitz was still his guy, and he hasn’t lost since.
During that five-game winning streak, Fitzpatrick has been better than at any time during his career, throwing 13 touchdown passes and just one interception. Against the Patriots, he had three touchdown passes and led the Jets to the game-winning drive in overtime after Patriots coach Bill Belichick curiously chose to kick off to the Jets despite winning the coin toss.
Bills fans may not recognize the Fitzpatrick that takes the field on Sunday compared to the one that flamed out after a second straight 6-10 season in 2012.
“I think I’m a much smarter player, just again from experience and being on the field, being in a couple different systems, gaining a new perspective on things, offensively and defensively,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think I understand my game a little bit better. I think I’m a much more patient quarterback. There’s just been a tremendous amount of growth for me. It hasn’t all been peaches and roses, I mean there’s been a lot of ups and downs, even since I left Buffalo. But, through all those experiences I’ve tried to learn from them and I think they’ve all helped me along the way.”
They have helped him achieve a career year. Fitzpatrick only got the Jets’ starting job because linebacker IK Enemkpali slugged Geno Smith over an unpaid $600 airline ticket in the Jets’ locker room on Aug. 11. But he has taken full advantage of the situation, throwing for a career-high 29 touchdown passes and just 12 interceptions. Fitzpatrick has also won more than six games in a season for the first time in his career.
Rex wound up claiming Enemkpali on waivers, but it’s clearly the Jets getting the last laugh on this one. While Fitzpatrick has produced his finest work and put his team in position to reach the playoffs, Enemkpali is a bit player for Ryan with just 12 tackles since returning from a four-game suspension for attacking Smith.
But Fitzpatrick understands there is work ahead, and any personal motivation for this week’s game can’t override the broader goal of getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when Ryan was the Jets’ coach.
“I didn’t play well in that [loss to the Bills in November], but you can’t dwell on it,” Fitzpatrick said. “Obviously they got us in the first one and we’ve got to play a better game, I’ve got to play a much better game this time around.”
Payback awaits in Buffalo.