Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick got thrown into the fire Tuesday with news that third-year quarterback Geno Smith broke his jaw in a locker room fight.
Fitzpatrick was traded to the Jets from the Houston Texans in March, making the Jets his fourth team in four seasons.
With 24-year-old Smith in the mix, it was assumed that the 32-year-old Fitzpatrick would be the No. 2 quarterback, at least for the start of the season. With Smith out six to ten weeks to repair his jaw, Fitzpatrick is suddenly thrust into a starting role.
After a successful offseason, the hope had been that Smith could catapult the Jets into a playoff push with a breakout third season. The Jets revamped their defence with the additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, and No. 6 draft pick defensive end Leonard Williams, and improved their offence by adding wide receiver Brandon Marshall and running backs Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy. With a new head coach in Todd Bowles and new offensive coordinator in Chan Gailey, the Jets are part of an improved AFC East, with hopes to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Surrounded by talented receiving corps and a strong defence, Smith could be the final piece to the puzzle if he could move from a below-average quarterback with potential into a realised above-average quarterback.
Going into the season, Jets GM Mike Maccagnan said of Smith, “we’re kind of committed to trying to make him a success.” According to ESPN’s Rich Cimini, Smith had been taking all of the reps with the starters in training camp.
Now that pressure falls on Fitzpatrick.
The Jets know what they’re getting in Fitzpatrick. He’s a largely average quarterback with little leg speed and a below-average arm. However, he pieced together the best seasons of his career under Gailey with the Buffalo Bills, and quietly had a solid season last year with the Texans, throwing 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 63% completion rate (all better than Smith).
Khaled Elsayed of ProFootball Focus argued that Fitzpatrick was actually an upgrade over Smith, citing Fitzpatrick earning PFF’s 15th-best quarterback grade in 2014.
Fitzpatrick actually could be a good fit for the Jets receivers, too. According to ProFootball Focus, Fitzpatrick was the sixth-best quarterback in “intermediate passing” — passes from 11-20 yards. This matches well with Brandon Marshall, the Jets’ best receiver, who, according to Football Outsiders, averaged 12.7 yards per reception and caught 49% of his passes in the mid-range.
At the very least, Fitzpatrick also offers a simple quality — he’s a known prospect. Though he’s a high-floor, low-ceiling type of prospect, he’s been in the league long enough and doesn’t quite have the penchant for turnovers that Smith, still a raw prospect, has. The Jets know what they’re getting in Fitzpatrick.
With a seemingly elite defence and a talented offence that needs someone to deliver them the ball, the pressure now falls on Fitzpatrick to merely put together an average season at quarterback. Fitzpatrick sounded confident in a press conference Tuesday after the news about Smith broke, saying:
“If I didn’t have confidence in myself, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you guys. I’d be on a vacation with my five kids, sailing off into the sunset with a career nobody thought I would have had. For me, I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done. There’s so much more I want to improve upon.”
Whereas Fitzpatrick previously had the luxury of waiting for his turn, knowing he’d get his shot if Smith failed to perform early in the season, the roles have been reversed. Fitzpatrick has roughly half the season to prove he’s the quarterback the Jets need. If he’s successful in the first half of the season, he could be leading the charge into the postseason, even when Smith returns.
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