Their NFL pedigrees are polar opposites — one was the first overall pick in 1987; the other was a seventh-round afterthought nearly two decades later — yet Vinny Testaverde and Ryan Fitzpatrick share a common bond that will forever link them in Jets history.
It was 17 years ago that Testaverde, whose career had been marked by so many unfulfilled expectations, enjoyed his best season as he came off the bench to lead the Jets to a dramatic playoff run that ended oh-so-close to a Super Bowl berth.
Testaverde now marvels at how Fitzpatrick has embraced a similar set of circumstances and produced his finest work in leading the Jets to within one win of getting to the postseason.
“I’ve caught quite a few games this year, and certainly looks like he’s found his home in the right system with the right players around him,” Testaverde said by phone from his home in Tampa. “Sometimes it just takes a while for a guy to find the right place. I definitely relate to what he’s going through right now.”
Like Fitzpatrick, Testaverde came to the Jets as a veteran backup with no initial expectations of being the starter. Coach Bill Parcells had anointed Glenn Foley as his starter after the 1997 season, in which Foley replaced an ineffective Neil O’Donnell. And Testaverde, then 35, wasn’t even signed until late June, after he had been released by the Ravens.
Testaverde could never have envisioned that he’d enjoy his best season, but he did like the fact that he could adjust to his new surroundings without the weight of expectation as the starter. But it certainly was a dream come true to be with the Jets, who were his favorite team while he grew up in Elmont. Testaverde was 5 when his childhood idol, Joe Namath, won the Jets’ only Super Bowl title.
“Not being the No. 1 guy, you can kind of sit back and take everything in and see how the team looks through different eyes, through the backup’s eyes,” said Testaverde, who starred at Sewanhaka High School and went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Miami in 1986. “You just get to kind of take a breath a little bit and understand the big picture of the team and see how everything will unfold.”
Testaverde replaced the injured Foley by the third week of the regular season and went on to have the best statistical season of his career with 29 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 101.6 rating. The Jets qualified for the AFC Championship Game against the Broncos in Denver and appeared on the way to an upset win after holding a 10-0 lead in the third quarter.
But a combined six turnovers, including two Testaverde interceptions, contributed to a 23-10 loss and more heartbreak for Jets fans so used to post-Super Bowl III disappointment. Parcells told Newsday on Wednesday that it was the most crushing loss of his entire coaching career.
Testaverde said the loss still haunts him.
“For sure, because that was my one shot,” he said. “When I think back over the course of my career, if I could go back and play one game, that would be the game. Or at least the second half. Tough conditions with the wind, we had some unfortunate things go against us, but that’s football. We were 30 minutes away from playing in the Super Bowl, but there was still a lot to be proud of and thankful for. Just the journey, the things that took place, the fun we had, the laughs we had, the cries, and everything else in between. You develop a bond with your teammates that continues to this day.”
Testaverde now hopes to see the quarterback to whom he so closely relates bring the Jets their first title since Namath’s famous upset of the Colts. Despite not knowing Fitzpatrick personally, he see so much of himself in the Jets’ quarterback, who is with his sixth different NFL team. When Testaverde, the first overall pick for Tampa Bay in the 1987 draft, was signed by the Jets, it was his fourth team (he was with the Browns in 1995 when they moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens).
Fitzpatrick, traded from Houston for a sixth-round pick, got his chance to start when Geno Smith suffered a broken jaw in a locker-room fight with linebacker IK Enemkpali on Aug. 11. After never winning more than six games in a season, Fitzpatrick has the Jets at 10-5 and is tied with Testaverde for the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (29). He can break the mark in Sunday’s game in Buffalo, and a win over the Bills would guarantee the Jets a playoff berth.
“You put in your time, put in the hours of hard work, and you go through some losing seasons, and you didn’t have the greatest season for different reasons,” Testaverde said, relating to Fitzpatrick’s similar circumstances. “People are saying one thing about you, and the same things people were knocking you for, people are now patting you on the back for doing. There are things you can’t control, but I was going to work hard at the things I could control.”
He sees Fitzpatrick in a similar light, a veteran quarterback who has remained true to his beliefs and leadership qualities, regardless of the circumstances.
“[Teammates] figure it out if you’re not being real,” Testaverde said.
His advice to Fitzpatrick: Enjoy the journey, because it might never come again.
“When you’re playing football, when you’re in the mix and you’re going through your career, you don’t realize that one day it’s coming to an end,” said Testaverde, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in his first game of the 1999 season and never won another playoff game. “Just appreciate everything you go through, whether it’s good or bad, because you’re only going to do it once in your life. Whether you win a Super Bowl or not, just appreciate the times with your teammates.”
Fitzpatrick does. “This whole year has been awesome and a lot of it is just the team that we have,” he said. “Coming to work every day is great because we have guys that love the game of football and love playing together. It’s great to be in this situation.”