In our “MythBusters” series, SI.com’s NFL team uses tape, statistics and conversations with some of the NFL’s most knowledgeable voices to debunk storylines that have inexplicably gained traction. In this installment, Doug Farrar debunks the notion that the Jets are lost with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback.
MYTH: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a replacement-level replacement for Geno Smith, and the Jets have little hope with him under center.
REALITY: With a few tweaks, Fitzpatrick could be an above-average starter in the right offense.
In the NFL, no term is more complimentary and pejorative at the same time than “game manager.” The game-manager quarterback is there to keep things under control, to follow the lead of his coaches explicitly, to use his veteran acumen to understand what is happening on the field at all times and to avoid coloring outside the lines and moving too far into his limitations. He’s an athletically limited player, to be sure, but he’ll have a job in the league as a backup and spot starter as long as his arm holds up and there’s a need for his relative reliability.
Throughout his career, Ryan Fitzpatrick has been a game manager—both good and bad. A seventh-round pick out of Harvard in 2005, Fitzpatrick has bounced from team to team over the last decade. In the last three seasons, he's played for Buffalo, Tennessee and Houston, and his numbers over that time are more impressive than you might think. He ranks 20th among all starting quarterbacks from 2012 through '14 in completions (1,167), attempts (720) and passing yards (8,337). He ranks 19th in touchdown passes over that time with 55, and his three-year quarterback rating of 86.1 ranks 14th. Last year for the Texans, he ranked 16th in Pro Football Focus’s quarterback rating metrics and 16th in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted per-play stats. But due to a protracted quarterback battle with the Texans that found him on the outside looking in, he was sent to the Jets for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in March.
That transaction didn’t make headlines at the time, though it certainly became far more important when then Jets linebacker IK Enemkpali used Geno Smith’s face as a punching bag on August 11, sidelining Smith for 6–10 weeks. Immediately, Fitzpatrick became the Jets’ starter, and the immediate response to that notion was somewhere between “The Jets are done for” and “Well, maybe he’s better than Geno.” In truth, Fitzpatrick is the right kind of quarterback for a team with a strong defense and running game, a good offensive line and receivers who can make gains after the catch and occasionally go deep.
The Jets may fit that description. The acquisition via trade of possession receiver Brandon Marshall and via draft of Ohio State speedster Devin Smith gives the team more weapons than it had last season, and Fitzpatrick is not a developmental player. Everyone knows what he is and isn’t,especially new Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who was Buffalo’s head coach from 2010 through 2012. Gailey has always been a wizard when it comes to bringing the best out of marginally talented quarterbacks, and that worked with Fitzpatrick before. Problems arose when both Gailey and Fitzpatrick tried to test the limits of the quarterback’s talents, and he led the league in interceptions with 23 in 2011.
Under head coach Todd Bowles, things should be a bit more manageable. Bowles is a defensive coach who will undoubtedly put Fitzpatrick on a strict “don't screw it up” regimen.
“Ryan’s been a pro, he’s been there before,” Bowles said soon after Fitzpatrick was named the starter. “He’s had a lot of games under his belt, he knows the system, he knows how to throw the ball and he understands the game.”
As for Fitzpatrick, he seems to get that it’s all about letting the run game and defense do the work, making the occasional explosive play, and limiting mistakes—in other words, the perfect game manager.
“I think knowledge and being comfortable in the system is going to help me,” Fitzpatrick recently remarked. “That being said, I’ve got to be able to make all the throws, I have to be able to get us in the right plays, the right protections. I’ve got to be able to understand all those game situations, make smart plays, all that different stuff. There’s a lot of comfort for me in Chan’s system. There’s also a lot I’ll continue to get better at in terms of game situations and being a smart quarterback.”
Smart quarterbacking is good, though tagging Fitzpatrick as an Alex Smith clone may be underrating his prospects. Smith almost never throws the deep pass, and when he does, the results generally aren’t pretty. In 2014, Fitzpatrick completed 20 of 38 passes over 20 yards in the air for 687 yards, six touchdowns and three picks. He's a good play-action player who is surprisingly mobile, and as long as he doesn’t color outside the lines, things should be fine.
What are those lines, and what are Fitzpatrick’s attributes and limitations? Let's take a closer look.
The first play comes in Week 13 against the Titans in 2014, with 4:55 left in the first quarter of Fitzpatrick’s best-ever game, in which he threw six touchdown passes. A lot of these were simple reads and open throws, but two plays bear mention. On this play, running back Arian Foster runs an up-and-out, Fitzpatrick is pressured to his front side, and he makes a well-timed seven-yard touchdown throw despite the fact that he’s rocked off his base by the pressure. This is one of several instances I saw where Fitzpatrick displayed the raw arm strength to make throws requiring quick timing without perfect mechanics. That he tries to do so too often is another matter, but we’ll get to that soon.
With 11:11 left in the fourth quarter of that same game, Fitzpatrick drifts left as he waits for Andre Johnson to pry himself open from cornerback Jason McCourty. As Johnson does so, Fitzpatrick throws a great bullet to the boundary side, knowing that Johnson would have the physical advantage to the edge. Again, he does have a good combination of short-area velocity and accuracy—not only does he fire the ball where it needs to go with good timing, he understands the importance of throwing the ball to the side of the receiver’s advantage.
However, Fitzpatrick consistently shows the most vulnerability in his predilection for making dangerous throws under pressure. It’s a repeated problem, and it's the primary aspect of his play that undoes him as a potential starter.
The first example we’ll show happened with 5:54 in the second quarter of Houston’s Week 4 game against the Bills. Fitzpatrick is first pressured by right end Jerry Hughes, and then sandwiched by left defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Under pressure and off his base, Fitzpatrick throws up a deep duck with folded-over throwing mechanics that is picked off by Buffalo cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins may have won that battle with a more accurate throw, but it's just as easy to argue for the checkdown. Hero Syndrome isn’t a plus, even when you have a plus arm.
This pick came with 11:17 left in the first quarter of the Texans’ Week 5 game against Dallas. Houston goes with a 3x1 set with Foster on the outside left. It’s clear that the play calls for a clearout to the backside, because it's a quick throw and Fitzpatrick doesn’t even look to the left. One problem: Foster keeps running up the field as Fitzpatrick obviously thinks he’s going to run some sort of comeback route. Second problem: He throws the ball against his body before his body is fully turned, taking off some of the torque. The confusion over the outside route isn’t any one player's fault, but this is another example of the passing game zigging when it should have zagged.
This interception by Steelers tackle Brett Keisel is a good indicator of Fitzpatrick’s tendency to break down in his overall mechanics. In Week 7, with 1:03 left in the first half, Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds thumps right tackle Derek Newton, forcing pressure to Fitzpatrick’s front side. Fitzpatrick responds with an off-balance throw in which his feet aren’t planted, and the relative lack of velocity causes the ball to bounce off Keisel’s hand, then off linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and back to Keisel. Far too often through his career, Fitzpatrick has made marginal short- and middle-distance throws under pressure, and it’s something he needs to correct if he’s to make an impact as a starter at any time during his career. The best quarterbacks maintain the integrity of their mechanics even under pressure; it's a key to consistency. In Fitzpatrick's case, it’s his Achilles’ heel.
Here’s the ideal Fitzpatrick throw—the one Bowles and Gailey and his teammates hope they see frequently. It's Week 3 against the Giants, with 2:21 left in the third quarter. The Texans operate out of a one-back, one-tight end Pistol backfield, which gives Fitzpatrick a play-action opportunity. He looks deep safety Stevie Brown off to the left, where Andre Johnson is running a quicker in-route. Fitzpatrick’s real target is Damaris Johnson, who’s running a deep vertical route from the right slot. Johnson outruns slot cornerback Trumaine McBride, and Brown’s delay over the top—caused by Fitzpatrick's field awareness—is the deciding factor. The result: A 44-yard touchdown.
There's good and bad to Fitzpatrick’s game, but there's enough good for the veteran to give football another shot, and for the Jets to have a measure of hope in 2015.
“If I didn’t want to be here and if I didn’t love this game and I didn’t have confidence in myself, then I wouldn’t be standing in front of you guys,” he said at his first press conference as the Jets’ starter. “I would be on vacation with my five kids and sailing off into the sunset with a career that nobody would probably have thought I would have had. But for me, I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done. I feel like there is so much more that I can continue to improve on and get better with and I’m really excited for the challenge.”
So should he be. Ryan Fitzpatrick may have found the right place at the right time.