After more than 30 years in the family business, Jeremy Bates needed to get away. Burned out by football, perhaps disillusioned by the cutthroat nature of the NFL, the one-time rising star in the coaching ranks bolted after the 2012 season. Only 36, he disappeared from the football landscape for four years, losing touch with some of his closest friends in the game.
"What the hell is Jeremy up to?" Jon Gruden, his first NFL boss, often asked Jim Bates, Jeremy's father and a retired coach.
Jeremy went from the Chicago Bears to the grizzly bears of Montana. During his sabbatical, he spent five months hiking the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail. With a 40-pound backpack, he walked on two surgically repaired knees from New Mexico to Colorado to Wyoming to Idaho to Montana to Canada. He endured blizzards, lightning storms at high elevation and the ever-present danger of rattlesnakes and bears.
Only 200 people a year navigate the CDT, and he did it alone. It was a harrowing time for his family, which heard from him every week or so. He grew a beard and a ponytail -- "his mountain man look," his father said -- straying from the image of the clean-cut football prodigy who impressed coaching heavyweights Gruden and Mike Shanahan with his work ethic and X's and O's acumen. Maybe he had lost his way. A map got him from New Mexico to Canada, but sometimes people need to find themselves even when they're on a marked trail.
"Football is a 24/7 commitment and he just needed some time off," Jim Bates said. "When he first walked away, it was real tough on him, but I think it really helped him. I think he's really matured and he appreciates the game that much more. ... It was a very, very valuable time for Jeremy, and he's real excited to be on the football field again."
Now 40 and clean-shaven, Bates came down from the mountains, so to speak, to coach the New York Jets' quarterbacks for Todd Bowles, who plucked him out of the thin air to preside over the development of Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. If Bates thought 15 to 20 miles a day on the CDT was a challenge ... well, this is the NFL version of Mount Everest.
The polarizing Hackenberg, whom the organization hopes can win the starting job ASAP, has yet to take a regular-season snap. His mechanics were a mess when he came out of Penn State, and he spent his rookie season on the bench, languishing on the scout team. Job No. 1 for Bates is to fix Hackenberg.
"Can this kid throw the ball like he did as a freshman at Penn State? Can he regain his confidence? I don't know, nobody knows," said Gruden, who hired Bates as a quality-control assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. "Is there enough talent in New York to find a quarterback right now? I don't know, but if there is, Jeremy will develop it. That's what I do know."
From the fast track to crashing out
Gruden and Shanahan are huge fans of the former wonder boy, who worked three years for each coach. Bates was the Denver Broncos' quarterbacks coach when Jay Cutler made the Pro Bowl in 2008, dazzling Shanahan with his knowledge of defenses and pass-protection schemes. Shanahan was fired after the season, so Bates joined Pete Carroll at USC and followed him a year later to the Seattle Seahawks.
Bates was an offensive coordinator at 34, seemingly on the fast track to becoming a head coach, but he was fired after one season -- a playoff year, no less. There was reported strife between Bates and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs; Carroll, in an out-of-character move, sent Bates packing.
After sitting out a year while getting paid by the Seahawks, Bates reunited with Cutler, this time in Chicago. It was another one-and-done, as the Bears cleaned house despite a 10-6 record. Bates, known for his intensity, chafed some people in the organization, a source said. Former Bucs quarterback Shaun King, recalling their days in Tampa, told the Chicago Tribune that Bates "had that cocky, I-know-more-than-you attitude. We would give him a hard time about that."
Bates headed for the hills, deciding to explore another meaning of the word "hike." In addition to the CDT, he tackled the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail last year. Why the detachment?
"That's a good question," he said last month. "There were a couple of things going on at the time. I don't think you can mess with your life's journey, if you will. I think at the time it was the right time for me to step aside, find out some things about myself and have the opportunity to do some things outside football."
It was the first time he was away from football. He had played quarterback in high school and went on to Rice University after a one-year stop at Tennessee, where he was Peyton Manning's teammate. Actually, his education began long before college.
Because of his father, who coached at seven colleges and for seven NFL teams, Bates grew up around the game. He was a 3-year-old ball boy at Texas Tech, sleeping in the dorms during summer camp and hanging around at practice. At 17, he was a ball boy for the Cleveland Browns, whose quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, became his pupil when he coached the Jets' quarterbacks in 2005 under Herm Edwards.
In a way, Bates has been victimized by bad timing, as he walked into three one-and-done coaching situations. It's the ugly part of the business, and it took a toll on him. Before hiring him, Bowles wanted to make sure his head was in it. After all, a four-year absence is practically a generation in the NFL.
"You have to see if he has the desire to come back, why he left, why he wants to come back, where he is mentally," Bowles said. "Then you have to make an executive decision. Jeremy was all the things I was looking for."
Always a hunch he would return
Coaches and players describe Bates as bright, meticulous, demanding and direct. He already has a comfort level with new offensive coordinator John Morton, as they worked together on Carroll's staff at USC.
Josh McCown said Bates tweaked his footwork in 2012, when they were together in Chicago. Bates taught him to throw from a shoulder-width base, improving his velocity. That adjustment, McCown said, "helped propel me to play into my late 30s because I felt like I got a little more juice on the ball. I give him a lot of credit."
Hackenberg, who has struggled with accuracy, revamped his footwork and showed signs of improvement in the spring. The Jets hope it's the Bates Effect.
"This guy knows what he’s talking about," Gruden said. "This guy is a hard-ass guy, he’s a tough guy. He’s not going to let you step with your right foot if he wants you to step with your left foot. If he wants a little stagger in your feet, have your feet staggered. If he wants you to read a progression this way, you'd better read it that way or he's going to jump your ass."
While away from the game, Bates lived in Colorado and was into snowboarding. As for football, he didn't go cold turkey. He did his own "projects," according to his father, exercises that involved breaking down game tape. He also attended a couple of camps with Shanahan, who always had a hunch Bates would return to coaching.
"It's not going to take long for Jeremy to get back into the swing of things," Shanahan said. "He was a very bright guy who was always on top of his game. To get a guy like Jeremy, with his background and his mentality of X's and O's, I think they got themselves a pretty special guy. He'll be at the top of the food chain when it's all done."
Bates, in his only media availability since being hired, was reluctant to talk in detail about his four-year hiatus. He wants to focus on now. He's reunited with his first love, hoping he can scale new mountains.
"At the end of the day, I think it made me a better person," he said. "I think it made me a better teacher. I look forward to being a coach."