One of the more surprising stories in the NFL this season owes a chapter to Georgia Tech.
The Buffalo Bills (4-1) feature six coaches and one player with ties to Atlanta. Leading the team is Chan Gailey, who coached the Yellow Jackets from 2002-07. He has since hired five assistants who also coached at Tech, and picked up former quarterback Joshua Nesbitt as a free agent. Without a superstar, the Bills are tied atop the AFC East with the New England Patriots, whom they defeated 34-31 in Week 3.
Gailey’s hires and personnel decisions seem to be working.
“When you get to know somebody and know what kind of person they are, you know what kind of makeup they have,” Gailey said in an email. “You want the good ones around you. We couldn’t get them all, but we were able to get a few, and we’re fortunate with the ones we have.”
On offense the team features former longtime Jackets assistants Curtis Modkins, who serves as offensive coordinator, and Joe D’Alessandris, who coaches the offensive line, just as he did for the Jackets when Gailey coached there. Stan Hixon coaches the wide receivers, just like he did at Tech (1995-99).
On defense, the team features former assistant Giff Smith, who coached the defensive line at Tech (2004-09) and does the same for the Bills.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Smith, who left Tech after the 2009 season and said he watches as many of the Jackets’ games as he can. “I’ve got a good group of guys that I work with. The coaching part is no different than college. If you can help them be successful they’ll do whatever you want.”
Eric Ciano, once the strength-and-conditioning coach at Tech, hold the same job for the Bills. He said the biggest difference between helping a college team and a pro team is the amount of time he gets to spend with the players. He works mostly with the skill players, a unit that has helped the Bills score 32.8 points per game, the third-highest average in the NFL.
“At the college level you only have so much time with them,” he said. “Here, it’s purely just football. That is their job. The guys are here from 7 a.m. until 7 at night. I’m able to spend more time with guys, able to individualize with these guys. That’s probably the nicest part of it. You seem them more often, see them all the time.”
One of the players he sees is Nesbitt.
Nesbitt, who led the Jackets to the since-vacated ACC championship in 2009, plays on the scout team as a defensive back. His goal is to give the other teams as good a look as possible so they know what to expect on the field. He hope the hard work pays off with a spot on the game-day roster.
He said being surrounded by so many familiar faces — Gailey and his staff recruited and signed him at Tech — made the transition from college to the pros easier.
“It’s always better when you know people from where you are,” he said. “It makes the whole situation better.”
Gailey took over a team that hadn’t hit the nadirs of a Detroit, which may be the most surprising team this season, or an Oakland, franchises considered to be the worst in the NFL for the past few years. Perhaps worse than being included in that debate, the Bills simply became an afterthought. Tucked away in upstate New York, they were overlooked or mostly forgotten outside.
It’s hard to fathom for fans of the team who were there for the “Glory Days,” a stretch of four consecutive Super Bowls fueled by Pro Bowlers on offense and defense. That streak, which ended in 1993, has never been matched. Of course, they lost each of those games, also a unmatched streak.
Brian Koch lives in Acworth but grew up in Buffalo, where his family had season tickets during those heady days. He has seen the highs. He watched Frank Reich lead the team back from a 32-point deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers in 1993 in a playoff game simply known as “The Comeback.” He keeps the ticket stub from that game in the nightstand at home.
He’s also seen the lows. He was in Nashville in 2000 for the “Music City Miracle,” and has a stub from that wild-card playoff game as well. That was the last time the Bills appeared in the postseason. Just like their Super Bowl losses, it was an agonizing loss, this time to the Titans, featuring a long lateral back across the field that led to the 75-yard game-winning touchdown run with just a few seconds remaining.
Koch now spends his Sundays listening to Bills games on satellite radio, tailgating in his driveway in Acworth while sitting in his new black, Ford truck.
Always hoping for the best, as fans are wont to do, after 11 long years this success is almost unbelievable.
“I was not expecting this whatsoever,” he said.
Ciano said after that win against the Patriots, the fans hung around the stadium for more than an hour, soaking in the atmosphere.
The key, according to the coaches, is the determination of the players. They lost a lot of close games last year and seem determined to not let those happen again, according to Gailey and Smith.
Plus, the coaches and players have good chemistry.
“We have good coaches here,” Gailey said. “We’re fortunate we’ve got some great guys that I’ve known before and we work well together and I trust. Every coach has a great part in the success that we’re having.”
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