Jim "Mouse" McNally, one of the NFL's most respected assistant coaches, did not completely retire when he left the Bills in 2008. McNally surreptitiously has been helping to coach the Jets' offensive line from 300 miles away.
"Cat's out of the bag now, huh?" Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan said with a chuckle. "God dang it."
Callahan mixed his metaphor, but there's no mistaking his respect for McNally, who coached NFL offensive lines for 28 years.
Callahan, a respected O-line coach himself, described McNally as being "like a golf pro" in his ability to scrutinize technique subtleties, labeled him "an encyclopedia of line play" and said McNally is "certainly one of the best coaches in modern football."
McNally, 66, technically is considered a Jets consultant. But the players call him "Coach." He breaks down Jets game and practice footage on his computer with Hudl software, which allows him to download video and playbook information through a secure Internet connection.
He's helping the Jets prepare for Sunday afternoon against the Bills in his backyard. The game will give McNally rare personal contact with the team he has been monitoring from afar since last summer.
"I look at practice every day," McNally said. "I look at the games. Then I talk to Coach Callahan about what I saw and the game plan and stuff like that."
McNally is in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He grew up in suburban Kenmore, where he first was tagged "Mouse" in neighborhood pickup games. The nickname stuck when he stopped growing at 5-foot-8.
McNally's tenacity was evident by his compulsion to walk on as an offensive lineman for the University at Buffalo. He eventually played both offense and defense. On the coaching staff was a young Buddy Ryan, father of Jets head coach Rex Ryan. That link and a long relationship with Callahan are why McNally is helping a hometown rival.
McNally attended training camp at SUNY-Cortland last year as a guest. Callahan asked McNally to speak to his linemen. Eventually, McNally was breaking down film.
"I didn't purposely try to work for the Jets," McNally said. "Just my relationship with Callahan -- he's such a great friend of mine. It's something that keeps me busy. I don't do it full time.
"I'm kind of under the radar here in Buffalo. It was a convenient way to stay involved in pro football."
McNally rose to coaching prominence for his innovative methods. He spent 15 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, mentoring future Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz and four-time Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya. McNally also established his annual coaching clinic there, turning Cincinnati into what Callahan called "the Mecca" for O-line instruction.
"Technique was his greatest strength," said Ross Tucker, who started at left guard for McNally with the Bills in 2006. Tucker spent six seasons in the NFL and now is an ESPN analyst. "He had some technique things I never heard of that were effective and helpful."
One of McNally's inventive concepts was the "lazy forearm," an effective way to fend off a double team while keeping separation. Tucker explained it as a violent upward motion that pries a defender's shoulder back.
"He was innovative," Tucker said, "and he was creative from an X's and O's standpoint."
McNally's prized pupil in Buffalo was undrafted tight end Jason Peters. The Bills converted him to tackle, and McNally turned the raw specimen into a star. Although Peters became a contractual headache and forced the Bills to trade him, he has been selected to the past three Pro Bowls.
McNally was supposed to be on scene for "Hard Knocks" training camp this summer at SUNY-Cortland, but health issues prevented it. He underwent an emergency appendectomy and a serious follow-up surgery and myriad tests that sent him in and out of the hospital in June and July.
He has been getting out a little more now. He has been working with local high school teams such as St. Francis, Canisius and Kenmore West. He works as a fundraiser for his alma mater. He also has a website, where you can locate one of his upcoming clinics, learn about his annual camp and find instructional DVDs at CoachMcNally.com.
"I went from doing things all day long to sitting around the house and maybe taking a walk around the neighborhood," McNally said. "I've learned how to calm down a little bit. I don't have to leave the house at 6:30 in the morning. It's given me a perspective of that football life I had of 43 years of 'Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!' "
The Jets are thrilled he hasn't stopped completely. He doesn't need to zoom around the practice field like he did when he wore a whistle around his neck.
A steady bit rate from his telecomm provider will do just fine.
"He's been tremendous for me," Callahan said. "He's a wealth of information and knowledge and experience. That's invaluable in so many ways. You're talking about one of the greatest line coaches of all-time.
"He easily could have faded away, but it's great he's still a part of the game. He has so much to give. He's unselfish that way in terms of sharing information and trying to get players better and coaches better, whether it's working with his youth leagues or the New York Jets."