Bill Cowher's admiration for new Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and willingness to vouch for him came long before the former Steelers coach hired Gailey in Pittsburgh more than two decades ago.
In fact, the respect flourished when the two men coached against one another in the 1980s, when both were little-known NFL assistants -- Cowher in Cleveland and Gailey in Denver. The unlikely bond was cemented in part by two signature moments in NFL history.
"We go back to 1986, the year of The Drive," said Cowher, referring to his days as the Browns' special-teams coach, when John Elway famously beat the Browns in Cleveland in the AFC Championship Game. The Drive was Elway's iconic 98-yard march for a touchdown to tie the score in the final seconds of regulation. Denver went on to win it in overtime to give Elway his first of five Super Bowl berths.
"I was the special-teams coach for the Browns and [Gailey] ]was the special-teams coach for the Broncos," said Cowher, now an NFL analyst for CBS. "The next year, I got moved to the defensive backs coach and Chan coached the Denver receivers. So I coached directly against him both years."
That second year was remembered for The Fumble, another devastating moment in Browns history and another glorious one for the Broncos.
After quarterback Bernie Kosar rallied Cleveland with four second-half touchdown passes, the Browns were about to go in for the tying score when running back Earnest Byner fumbled the ball at the Broncos' 1-yard line in a 38-33 loss.
While both games were remembered for those historic flashpoints, they also were building blocks for what eventually would become a Cowher-Gailey partnership in Pittsburgh and a springboard for Gailey's own head-coaching career.
"I brought Chan in [in 1994] as my receivers coach, and he coached it for two years," Cowher said. "Then after the Super Bowl , I let Ron Erhardt go and I made Chan my offensive coordinator."
Gailey ran the offense for only two years before being hired by Jerry Jones as the Cowboys' head coach, but he left an unmistakable impression on Cowher.
"Chan was one of the best offensive coordinators I had in my 15 years that I was the head coach in Pittsburgh," Cowher said. "He did a great job for us. He's resourceful, he's creative and he's a great teacher."
Cowher thinks the Jets have a terrific man leading their offense in Year 1 of the Todd Bowles era. Gailey, 63, has had two unremarkable stints as a head coach in Dallas and Buffalo, but Cowher is convinced that his former assistant is uniquely suited for the task ahead.
The Jets open their season Sunday against the Browns, with Gailey at the controls of an offense that was forced to make a major change even before his first play call of the regular season. He already has switched quarterbacks, now going with his former starter in Buffalo, Ryan Fitzpatrick, after Geno Smith was punched in the jaw by Ikemefuna Enemkpali on Aug. 11.
Cowher is convinced that good things will happen regardless of who's at quarterback.
"Chan's never going to complain about what he doesn't have. He's going to try to exploit what he has," Cowher said. "He has a great rapport with players but he is extremely competitive."
And not just on the football field. "I've played racquetball against him before, and he's one of the biggest competitors I've ever been around," Cowher said.
When it was suggested that Gailey shows a far calmer demeanor on the outside, Cowher replied, "Not on the inside. Trust me. There's another side of him, and I know it and I know it hasn't changed over the years."
Gailey will need that competitiveness to help him through what could be a difficult transition for the Jets' offense. It starts with the uncertainty at the unit's most important position. Fitzpatrick has achieved only modest success as an NFL starter, but Bowles has made it clear that Smith isn't assured of getting his starting job back if Fitzpatrick plays well early.
"[Fitzpatrick] has handled this type of situation before," Gailey said. "He'll do a great job with it."
He will need some help from his play-caller, though. Gailey has proved to be an imaginative, resourceful coordinator in drawing on a lifetime's worth of football knowledge. He has succeeded with quarterbacks as different as Fitzpatrick, a traditional drop-back passer, and Kordell Stewart, who relied as much on his mobility as his arm.
He was Fitzpatrick's play-caller in Buffalo, where the former Harvard star blossomed before leveling off and bouncing around. He joined the Jets after an offseason trade with the Texans.
Like all play-callers, Gailey will make decisions that will be second-guessed. But the man who gave him his first job as an NFL offensive coordinator believes Gailey's overall body of work will be positive.
"In football, a lot of times you measure a team by its offense," Cowher said. "Are you a passing team or a running team? How's the quarterback? So when you talk about the offensive coordinator, it's a lot like the head coach and the quarterback. They get too much credit when they win and too much blame when they lose. But Chan is a hard worker, and he's so competitive that I think he's going to do a good job."
The Jets will need it. The defense is well-stocked with a formidable front seven and a much-improved secondary, but the X-factor with this team is the offense, specifically the quarterback. Gailey knows it.
The key to success for the offense? It's all about evolution.
"I think that process evolves every day. Every practice, that process evolves," he said. "And I think it has to. I think it'll evolve all the way through. You can't quit evolving and getting to know each other from Game 1 to Game 19, you can't. You've got to evolve the whole time and get to know each other better and get a feel for each other better. That's just part of the process."
Game 1 to Game 19?
That's no mistake in describing a 16-game season. Gailey simply adds three playoff games, which gets you to the Super Bowl. Which, of course, is the ultimate goal.
Gailey's offense is a long, long way from that, but he will be relentless in his attempts to get there. His old boss won't count him out.
"I absolutely believe in Chan Gailey," Cowher said. "Failing is not an option in his mind."