Jim Leonhard started his NFL career with the Buffalo Bills in 2005. He played in 10 games his rookie season, made his first career start — against the Jets, coincidentally — in '06, then started six games for Buffalo in '07.
His career was on the upswing, but the Bills didn't see it that way and made no attempt to re-sign him when his third campaign came to an end.
"I was surprised. I expected to have some conversation with them and they basically said, 'We're moving on,' " Leonhard told newyorkjets.com today. "You don't forget something like that."
The 5'8", 196-pound safety, who serves as the Jets' defensive quarterback, will get a shot at the Bills for the first time Sunday at the Meadowlands. And he's not calling this one just another game.
"It's one of those things like playing your brother or something. You want to go in and do your best because I know a lot of guys still and am friends with a lot of guys there," said Leonhard, whose 28 tackles rank third on the Green & White. "You never want to lose to guys you know. It's one of those weeks you don't have to be worried about being ready."
After tying the Wisconsin school record with 21 interceptions, Leonhard went undrafted in 2005. The Big Ten's career leader with 1,347 punt return yards expected to get selected, but he waited through the weekend before inking his first pro contact with the Bills.
"They gave me my first shot, so it meant a lot to me. Obviously getting that opportunity to play and start meant a lot to me," he said. "It was a very close group of guys when I was there and that meant a lot. We didn't have a whole of success, unfortunately, but it was a good group of guys and the effort was always there."
Leonhard's second NFL head coach was Dick Jauron, a man who's led the Bills to three consecutive 7-9 seasons and is feeling the heat for the club's 1-4 start.
"Jim Leonhard is a tremendous football player," Jauron said during a conference call with Jets reporters today. "I remember scouting him, doing our draft work — saw the same player in college as you see now. Whatever he did, he did really well. When he got his hands on the ball, he was very productive with it. When he got a chance to make a play on the ball, he made the play. You trust him with the ball on punt returns, the whole thing, it just goes on and on. I have a lot of respect for him."
An underrated punt returner, Leonhard's 13.7-yard return average this year ranks second in the AFC and fourth in the NFL. He still occasionally talks to a few of the current Bills, including quarterbacks Trent Edwards and Gibran Hamdan and WR Lee Evans, a fellow Wisconsin alum who served as a Badgers co-captain alongside Leonhard. But the parting from the Bills became a blessing in disguise because Leonhard flourished in Baltimore under Rex Ryan and then followed him to the New York area.
The Bills, he said, "showed zero interest in re-signing me. Baltimore was one of the only teams that did — it was only them and Atlanta that were the only two teams who gave me a call. Obviously, it worked out. After those three years, I think it was the best for both sides to move on. I have a lot of respect for them giving me those three years, but both of us needed a change of scenery."
Back from a two-game road stand, Leonhard and the Jets hope to get back to their winning ways at the Meadowlands against the NFL's 25th-ranked offense. Despite Edwards having a number of talented playmakers at his disposal, the offense is averaging just 15.4 points an outing.
"They are struggling up front. They are struggling in protection a little bit," Leonhard said. "When you look at them across the board, you can match their skill players up with anyone in the league with Lee and T.O.," he said. "You look at those two backs [Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson] and in my opinion there are only a handful of teams that have backs as good as they have.
"Obviously they have the skill players and there's a missing link, and I think right now they're struggling a little bit."
Some in Buffalo have given the "Captain Checkdown" nickname to Edwards, but Leonhard views his former teammate as someone who's "very polished" at this stage of his career. It figures the Jets will use a myriad of looks and coverages to confuse the quarterback and a very young offensive line that has already allowed 18 sacks (next-to-last in the league). Unlike any opponent the Jets have faced this season, the Bills employ strictly a no-huddle attack.
"They can change the tempo of it. We have to get the calls in, but a lot of it times they're trying to get you to show what coverage you are in so they can determine the best play," said Leonhard. "It's kind of like Indy. They're trying to determine what you're in and call the best play. Obviously, Indy is a well-oiled machine in what they're doing and they're just kind of starting it in Buffalo."
You have to wonder if the Bills ever regret letting Leonhard go free. They'll most likely see him as a captain before the coin toss and then have to deal with him for 60 minutes of football on Sunday. The Jets are surely fortunate he's come their way.