FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
The chemistry between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Nick Mangold began almost instantaneously — for obvious reasons.
“It’s the beard,” Nick Mangold said, pawing his full, light brown beard, whose length and bushiness lies somewhere between Grizzly Adams and Rubeus Hagrid. “That’s the attraction: beard-minded people stick together.”
An actual phrase to describe the bond between teammates who sport two of the greatest beards you’ll ever see in an NFL locker room. Who knew?
Fitzpatrick, who actually trimmed his beard midway through the season to change the mojo after a slump dropped the Jets’ record to 5-5, offers a more conventional explanation for the relationship that has blossomed into what both men now consider a lifelong friendship. And, more importantly for the team’s sake, an alliance that is at the heart of a resurgence by the Jets that has them at 9-5 and with a decent shot at making the playoffs.
“I think we’re very like-minded people,” the quarterback said. “Our personalities, our sense of humor, and just the way we view the game of football are similar. So everything sort of just matched up.”
Same devotion to beards. Almost the same age — Fitzpatrick just turned 33; Mangold will be 32 next month. Devoted family men who live in the same neighborhood a few miles from the Jets’ training facility. Same dry wit that regularly cracks up teammates. Same taste in movies — both Star Wars freaks. Same taste in TV sitcoms — Seinfeld is their favorite. A no-brainer.
Same passion for football. And same intellectual outlook on the game.
In a league in which the quarterback-center relationship often is indispensable — if vastly underrated and underappreciated — the Fitzpatrick-Mangold partnership has paid major dividends. Fitzpatrick is in the midst of his best NFL season, and the presence of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and tailback Chris Ivory has been instrumental in his career renaissance. But the offensive line also has been a critically important factor, and with Mangold handling the complicated blocking protections and directing traffic in the trenches, the quarterback-center relationship is vitally important.
It also helps that offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, the Bills’ former head coach, had Fitzpatrick as his quarterback in Buffalo.
“Ryan’s comfort with Chan’s system, having been in it and knowing it really well, has not only helped him but us as a team,’’ Mangold said. “The familiarity factor is very big, and it’s helped us as far as the trust factor and being comfortable with what we’re doing.”
That Mangold and Fitzpatrick are so like-minded — or “like-bearded,” as the center says — has made the transition incredibly smooth for Fitzpatrick, who was thrust into the starter’s role immediately after incumbent Geno Smith was literally knocked out of the lineup by linebacker IK Enemkpali’s punch in a fit of pique during training camp.
“The center is a guy you usually bond with, and there’s a lot of back and forth with them,” said Fitzpatrick, who enters Sunday’s game against the Patriots with a career-high 26 touchdown passes. “You spent a lot of time with them. I actually have a couple of guys [with previous teams] that I’ll always consider best friends. Eric Wood in Buffalo is one and Chris Myers in Houston last year is another. We became really close, and this year with Nick, it’s the same thing.”
Mangold notes that this is the first time in his career he has played with a quarterback who is almost the same age.
“When I came into the league at 22, Chad Pennington was the quarterback, and he was 29 by then,” Mangold said. “Then Mark, when he came in, he was 21. He was a baby.
“Favre was like 48,” Mangold cracked about Brett Favre’s only season with the Jets in 2008, when the former Packers star was 39. “And then Geno.” (Smith was 23 when he started for the Jets in 2013.)
Mangold said the chemistry with Fitzpatrick has only grown over time.
“I think you get to know somebody and you spend time with him, there’s just the bond that develops,” he said. “I think it starts by having to deal with the whole football side of life, and then you get to go outside of it, hanging around his kids and everything. He brought his kids to my daughter’s first birthday party, and I see his kids in the locker room. This is the first time I’ve had a quarterback my age, and it’s kind of pleasant.”
Mangold is known for his dry wit, but he thinks Fitzpatrick actually has him beat in that department.
“No one really knows him, so he comes in fresh and no one’s expecting it,” Mangold said. “He just hits them with [his dry sense of humor]. It’s good to see.”
They’re accomplished practical jokers, too. After the Jets’ comeback win over the Cowboys in Week 15, Fitzpatrick was being interviewed on national television, and as he was speaking with reporter Tracy Wolfson, Mangold jumped into the picture and let out a loud shriek. Fitzpatrick then laughed loudly, jumped up and down and asked Wolfson, “Is this live?”
The two are huge Star Wars fans, and there was much discussion after Fitzpatrick took his two oldest sons to see the movie on Monday. Fitzpatrick dressed up for the event, reaching into his locker to show his costume. “I wore my Chewbacca hat,” he said.
As for their mutual love of Seinfeld, which took dry wit to an art form and created one of the most popular television shows ever, there are many shared laughs. Mangold, in fact, celebrated George Costanza’s famously inventive pre-Christmas holiday of “Festivus” on Dec. 23.
“I’ve got the Festivus pole, although Ryan doesn’t have that,” Mangold said. “I’m the only one dumb enough to buy a pole.”
One of the most important Festivus customs: the airing of grievances, where those who “celebrate” the holiday are encouraged to voice their complaints about others. Anything to criticize Fitzpatrick about?
“No grievances so far,” Mangold said.
Just a rock-solid relationship that has been at the heart of the Jets’ surprising season. The quarterback and center can only hope it continues well into January. And perhaps even the first Sunday in February.