DETROIT — The versatile scheme run by new Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is famously QB-friendly, an approach that has allowed him to find some measure of success with every quarterback he has had, from Troy Aikman to Tyler Thigpen.
But Gailey is not a miracle worker. His system takes time—perhaps less time than more complex attacks, like the one New York ran under previous O.C. Marty Mornhinweg, but enough time. It asks the quarterback to play on instinct, to lean on the rapport he’s created with his wide receivers.
Geno Smith could have a hard time finding that connection while on the shelf, rehabbing the broken jaw he sustained during a locker-room dust-up with former teammate IK Enemkpali.
“It's an offense that allows you to be who you are and make decisions and reads,” said rookie QB Jake Heaps, the Jets’ third-stringer with Smith out, though he did not play in Thursday’s 23–3 preseason loss to Detroit. “It allows you to see the field versus saying, You to throw to A, B, C on every given play.
“It allows you to read the coverage and really talk to your receivers and get on the same page with them. Once you’re on the same page, you’re able to make route adjustments and different things, which is different for each guy.”
Heaps made sure to note that he believes Smith will hit the ground running whenever he can (the initial timeline had Smith out for 6-10 weeks). The reality is that Smith may not be able to make up for lost time.
Among the obvious reasons why New York traded for Ryan Fitzpatrick in March was his familiarity with Gailey. The two were together from 2010-12, when Gailey held the head-coaching post for Buffalo. Fitzpatrick started all but three games during Gailey’s Bills tenure, throwing for a combined 10,232 yards, 71 touchdowns and 54 interceptions.
While those numbers are not particularly awe-inspiring, they are worthwhile again now. Fitzpatrick threw just two passes in one series before resting Thursday, because the Jets wanted to see more of rookie backup Bryce Petty and, more to the point, because there’s no mystery when it comes to Fitzpatrick.
He will need ample reps in the coming weeks with New York’s first-team offense—Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Chris Ivory and others. When it comes to learning the system, though, Fitzpatrick is well ahead of the curve. “Chan really knows Fitz and Fitz knows Chan and they have a good feel for one another,” Heaps said. “They have a good dialogue and conversation with one another that goes beyond just this off-season and training camp. That really helps them to be on the same page and communicate.”
Fitzpatrick, Petty and Heaps all hammered home the same idea following the Jets’ loss: familiarity. Finding a rhythm in Gailey's attack only comes when the QB and his receivers reach that point of having an almost unspoken bond. That’s true of many passing attacks throughout the NFL, but doubly so in an offense like this one—as Heaps noted, Gailey does not often predesign specific reads. Rather, he allows the quarterback to figure out where his comfort spot will be from play to play.
“It's a game-by-game deal,” Fitzpatrick said of how the Jets will attack opposing defenses. “Our identity is yet to be seen. The beauty of Chan’s system is you can see different things against different defenses each week.”
From Heaps: “Each quarterback likes different concepts, likes different things and coach Gailey doesn’t put a square peg in a round hole. He sees what their abilities are and makes adjustments and talks to them accordingly. That's really cool to see.”
There is a learning curve for Gailey, too, inherent in moving to a new team with different pieces. He started chipping away at that challenge as it pertained to Smith during off-season workouts and into training camp.
They may not slip back to square one when Smith can suit up again, but Gailey will be in a far more comfortable place with Fitzpatrick.
“He did well,” head coach Todd Bowles offered of Fitzpatrick’s brief appearance against the Lions. “He commanded the offense ... [he was] calm, cool and collected. He did his job.”
And it is Fitzpatrick’s job, no questions asked at the moment. Should he settle back into Gailey’s system over the next two or three months, Smith may never get the gig back.