Why the Jets Need Fitz, and Fitz Needs the Jets
In the business world, everyone is worth whatever someone is willing to pay them. That's basic free-market economics, and something a Harvard man like Ryan Fitzpatrick can surely understand.
So far, the NFL free market has told Fitzpatrick he’s worth $24 million over three years. That’s what the Jets have reportedly offered the 33-year-old to return for a second season. This is on the lower end of starting quarterback money and, for some reason, it has left Fitzpatrick, a lower end starting quarterback, miffed.
He has refused to sign the deal. As a free agent, that’s his prerogative. But in no way is there a victim card to be played here. Pro football isn’t about charitable contracts; if the Jets were to offer Fitzpatrick more money out of “good faith,” they’d be ridiculed for wasting cash and cap room.
What makes Fitzpatrick a lower end starting quarterback is that he’s erratic—both his throwing mechanics (and therefore accuracy) and his decision making. He’s a poor man’s Brett Favre, which is to say, he can be a liability.
Not surprisingly, Fitzpatrick’s career has traveled down a classic journeyman path. The 2015 Jets were his fourth different team in four years. Of the many systems he has encountered, the one he’s had the most success in, without question, is Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s. Before playing under Gailey in New York, Fitzpatrick served as Gailey’s starter during his three-year stint as Buffalo’s head coach.
The scheme’s defining feature: spread formations. Last season the Jets went four-wide receiver personnel on about a third of their snaps—far and away the most in the league. When you spread out, the defense has to spread with you. That compromises the D’s ability to disguise, both in blitz and in coverage. This, plus the increased spacing that naturally comes from spreading out, simplifies the game by defining throwing lanes and minimizing the types of crowds that Fitzpatrick, when he gets reckless, is wont to attack.
When you spread, you also detach your eligible receivers from the formation, which leaves no one in to help the O-line pass protect. So most of the plays are structured for the ball to get out quickly. This is an indirect, but highly effective method for managing a quarterback’s decisions.
If Fitzpatrick does indeed sit out this season (and history says he won’t; almost no players in their primes have ever actually done that), then Geno Smith will be tasked with keeping the seat warm while the coaches and front office monitor second-round rookie Christian Hackenberg’s development behind the scenes. When Smith entered the NFL, he played in a Marty Mornhinweg system that was almost antithetical to Gailey’s. Instead of spreading horizontally and going with quicker drop-back timing, Mornhinweg stretched vertically and asked Smith to make deeper drops.
On the surface, this seems more challenging—and, in some ways, it is. Deeper drop backs demand more patience and mental toughness in the pocket. A quarterback must be able to make throws with bodies around him. Smith has turned the ball over entirely too much in his career, particularly under Mornhinweg (35 interceptions and seven lost fumbles in 31 career games). But those are just some of the results. When evaluating Smith’s process, the outlook is much brighter. For an inexperienced player, he’s pretty adept from the pocket. The foundation is there; the question is whether Smith can be steady enough and give himself a chance to build on it.
This is where it gets complicated. Smith fits in a deeper drop passing game, but not necessarily in a spread game like Gailey’s. The upside of deeper drop backs is the reads can be more defined. Deeper drops come with more bodies in protection and so fewer eligible receivers to consider downfield. Plus, the reads naturally develop slower, which can help an inexperienced quarterback.
In a system where the ball comes out quickly, more of the QB’s decision-making process gets transferred to the pre-snap phase. Pre-snap awareness usually comes from experience, which Smith still lacks.
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This is why a spread works for Fitzpatrick. Choices in the pre-snap phase are made more through logic than instincts. There’s a greater emphasis on football IQ (Fitzpatrick’s strength) and a lesser emphasis on what you might call moxie (Fitzpatrick's double-edged sword).
The Jets are committed to being a spread offense. This off-season they signed long-time Bears running back Matt Forte not just for his smooth running prowess, but also his flexibility in the passing game—both from the slot and split wide. This, plus the healthy return of lithe (albeit unproven) third-year tight end Jace Amaro from the torn labrum that sidelined him for all of last season, will add dimension to Gailey’s spread sets. The only difference is those sets will now occur out of three-receiver personnel instead of four-receiver. Depending on how well Amaro does as a blocker, this could also give the Jets more freedom for using non-spread formations.
Most likely, Fitzpatrick will re-sign and start in the season opener. Other quarterback-needy teams have passed on him. All that can happen from here is the Jets lowering their existing offer. Don’t expect that, however. That would be a slap to a veteran QB who already values the “principle” of things enough to play chicken with eight figures sitting on the table. Anger Fitzpatrick more and he really might walk. That’s a problem because the Jets are built to win now, and win with a spread passing game. Like a couple of co-dependent high school sweethearts, Fitzpatrick and the Jets need each other too much.