Ryan Fitzpatrick has played his way into the spotlight, leading the Buffalo Bills to a surprising 4-2 start and on Friday, earning a big multiyear extension – and a Grey Cup winning coach has played an important part in his rise.
George Cortez spent 17 seasons in various coaching positions in the CFL, winning four Grey Cups as an assistant coach with the Calgary Stampeders. Now, he tutors Fitzpatrick in his role as the Bills quarterbacks coach.
Although Bills head coach Chan Gailey barely knew Cortez, he hired the 30-year coaching veteran last year, on a glowing recommendation from offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris, who worked with Cortez for the old Ottawa Rough Riders in 1990.
Cortez's résumé boasts the names of many distinguished quarterbacks, and also includes 13 years in the U.S. college ranks. While at the University of California, Berkeley, he tutored defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In the CFL, Cortez developed championship signal-callers such as Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris.
"It's just the kind of guys I've had through the years, guys who are confident in the huddle," Cortez said sheepishly. "But yes, you always think if you do a good job and you're successful, people will take notice."
Many of his quarterbacks – current and past – say Cortez is not just knowledgeable about the position. The avid reader of history books is a walking encyclopedia on just about any topic.
"He's known around the building as Google George," Fitzpatrick said with a laugh. "For every story you have, he's got a better one and a historical reference that somehow relates to it.
"He'll randomly ask me, 'Hey Fitz, didn't Harvard, in 1837, change their mascot?' " the Harvard University alumnus said. "But he brings a lot of experience and puts a lot of work into it. He really helps to make me prepared."
Dickenson, now the Calgary Stampeders offensive co-ordinator, remembers his former coach's old stories as much as he does the thorough preparation.
"He's just so detailed. We weren't going to be surprised by a defensive look," he said. "George knows something about everything. We would go to Winnipeg, and he'd tell a story about the history of Winnipeg or why that building was put up."
The 60-year-old from Port Arthur, Tex., graduated from Texas A&M University and coached high-school squads in the football-crazed state. Working in Canada, he came to admire much about the cities in which he plied his trade. During stints in Ottawa, Regina, Montreal and Calgary over 17 seasons, he enjoyed curling, the Montreal Canadiens and the Rocky Mountains.
On Sunday, his Bills face the Washington Redskins (3-3) at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, and Cortez will likely flash back fondly to the many CFL games he was a part of at the stadium.
He jokes that using the Toronto Blue Jays locker room over the tiny one for visiting CFL teams is a nice NFL perk. He still marvels at the many luxuries afforded him in his new job.
"In the NFL, there are quality control guys and administrative guys who do so many of the things you do in the normal course of your job in the CFL" Cortez said. "We have as many coaches on offence here than you have on an entire team in the CFL. So you have time to do more coaching-specific things here."
His starting quarterback in Buffalo has 1,477 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 95.3 this season, which ranks third in the AFC. Fitzpatrick earned a new six-year deal, signed Friday, worth $59-million (U.S.) making him the team's long-term starter.
"He has really taken ownership and always has opinions on how he can make things better," Cortez said of Fitzpatrick. "He's really the same guy he's always been, but his ownership of the offence has been a big deal."