The Jets having started their season strong, fans are cautiously optimistic after an offseason that saw them acquire the assistant coach of the year, a future hall of fame cornerback, and a solid draft haul. Their smartest pickup though might be QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, the bearded re-tread out of Harvard University, who had his best years under Jets OC Chan Gailey, and who had a solid showing against the Cleveland Browns. With Geno Smith being injured, and being an ineffective QB drafted under a previous regime, the Jets needed to make a smart hire for their backup QB position. Jets fans are at least somewhat familiar with ole Fitzy when he was slinging it up north for the Buffalo Bills, getting wing sauce in his beard and losing a fair amount of games, but what else do we know about the current Jets starter? Is he a smart, noodle armed, stationary “game manager” because of his actual play or is this just a stereo type of a white QB from an Ivy League school? I think his numbers show us something completely different and that the real Fitzpatrick is someone the Jets are going to enjoy.
Fitzpatrick was a star QB for Harvard University after taking over for Neil Rose in 2003. Fitz won the Ivy League championship after throwing for 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns but what might surprise some fans is he used to have some wheels too. He rushed for over a 1,000 yards in his college career setting the record for rushing yards for Harvard QB’s. Fitz entered the 2005 draft and famously aced the Wonderlic Test, getting the highest score ever for a QB, a record that still stands.
The Rams drafted Fitzpatrick in the 7th round and when their starter Jamie Martin went down with injury Fitzpatrick came in and balled out throwing for over 300 yards in his debut joining an elite club that includes Otto Graham, Ed Rubbert, Mark Rypien, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck. Fitz struggled down the stretch though throwing 5 interceptions in one game and eventually surrendered the starting job.
Fitz would bounce from St. Louis to Cincinnati as a backup before arriving in Buffalo where he once again was given the starting position due to injury after the Jets knocked starter Trent Edwards out of the game, (the Jets seem to make a habit of giving their division rivals their future QBs with injuries) Fitz would beat the jets in overtime 16-13. Fitz would hold onto the starting job until the Bills hired new head coach Chan Gailey who decided he liked Trent Edwards more. That’s right, for all the talk of their chemistry, Chan Gailey actually wasn’t impressed with Fitzpatrick’s play at first sight. Overtime though Gailey would name Fitz his starter and Fitzpatrick would have two career years putting up big numbers, 6,832 yards and 47 Td’s in 2010 and 2011. This earned him a 60 million dollar extension with the Bills and secured him as their starter. What’s interesting though is that for all the talk of Fitzpatrick being a “smart game manager who protects the football,” Fitz has turned the ball over a ton in his career. If we look at that same two year period Fitzpatrick threw 38 interceptions including a league leading 24 in 2011. This is a concerning number but one Fitz did reduce over the next three seasons with three different teams. Fitzpatrick would throw up similar numbers in 2012 but a regime change saw him released and on his way to Tennessee for 11 games where he put up average numbers with no offensive weapons.
This leads us to Fitz’s time in Houston which I feel is really interesting and the best precursor to this season because Fitz actually has weapons here. The Houston Texans aren’t all that different from the Jets. Strong D-line play, some weapons here and there but no Quarterback. Fitz storms out of the gate (well as hard as one can storm when they are throwing for an avg of 150 yards) with the Texans posting back to back games of an over 100 passer rating and tossing 3 TD’s to 0 interceptions in two wins. Before he breaks his leg Fitz has the Texans at 6-6 and has (other than a Giants game where he threw 3) kept his interceptions low. He beat every bad team on Houston’s schedule and lost to every good one. Luckily for the Jets they play a fair share of mediocre teams this year, only having to worry about the Patriots, Colts, Eagles, and Cowboys.
What’s even more encouraging is that Fitz actually thrived throwing downfield last year with Andre Johnson and Deandre Hopkins. As Michael Salfino pointed out in a NYT article Fitzpatrick surprisingly became an efficient downfield passer. “His rating on throws of at least 11 air yards from scrimmage increased to 95.4, ninth among returning starters, and included 5-for-9 for 267 yards and three scores on throws over 30 yards. Fitzpatrick threw a higher percentage of 11-plus-yard passes (34.6%) than anyone else.”
The Jets have some big bodied receivers of their own in Brandon Marshall who is one of the NFL’s biggest targets at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and Decker, 28, who stands 6-foot-3, and “averaged two more yards on passes thrown to him than the overall team average, an increase topped by only 10 other receivers in football.” Fitz had a 95.4 passer rating on throws over 11 yards. That’s 108 attempts, 52 completions, 1220 yards with 7 Td’s and 4 Interceptions. Remember folks this is over 12 games if he had played in all 16 he might of caught up to passers who are known for their deep ball like Joe Flacco and Russel Wilson who posted stats of 1602 yds 14/7 td/int and 1568 8/6 respectively. Geno has only posted a 66.7 rating on downfield passes in his career so it’s not like the Jets are losing a lot by switching to Fitzpatrick. I think it much more likely that Fitz has seemed weak-armed so far because he is getting back into throwing shape. Having an offseason with a broken leg can make it hard to get into the proper body conditioning that you are used to and I trust the Jets training staff to get him where he needs to be.
Fitz has at different times been a loose-cannon gunslinger with the football, a mobile quarterback who rushed the ball efficiently, and a deep throw passer who relied on big plays. Now Fitz has stated he wants to be more of a game manager and play within himself so I don’t expect him to be those things now. “[With] decision-making, I think I’ve come a long way,’’ he said. “The way I’m thinking about the game is maybe a little different now than it was five years ago. There is a learning process and you just come to the realization that you’ve got to focus on the things that make you successful.’’ It is important though to remember that Fitz does have the capability to fit what works for the Jets offense and Chan Gailey’s scheme. Fitz only has to be good enough to let RB Chris Ivory and the Jets Defense win them games and if he does he will be the toast of a city whose only accomplishment football wise for a while has been a one handed catch by a rookie WR. A weak schedule and a strong roster could have the Jets pushing for a wildcard with Fitzpatrick at Quarterback and it’s already off to a great start after the Jets 31-10 victory over the Browns. Time to start growing our Fitz beards!