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Jets’ low-risk off-season moves pay off as Marshall, Fitzpatrick shine

The Jets aren’t 4–1 and headed to New England to face the Patriots for the division lead this weekend without Brandon Marshall or Ryan Fitzpatrick.

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Ryan Fitzpatrick spent most of February on the couch. He had broken his left leg against the Colts in mid-December, and he faced something of a career crisis as the off-season unfolded. Namely, how many NFL franchises could possibly be looking for a backup quarterback who had played for three teams in the previous three seasons, the last of which ended with him getting carted off the field?

The answer: at least one.

Brandon Marshall endured an uneasy February, too. His 2014 season with the Bears ended in early December, a couple weeks before Fitzpatrick broke his leg, after a savage blow Marshall suffered against the Cowboys sent him to a local hospital with broken ribs and an injured lung.

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Marshall had still managed eight touchdowns in 13 starts, but after reports surfaced of an ugly feud between him and quarterback Jay Cutler, it seemed likely at least one of them was destined to leave town. Teams that sought Marshall had to balance his considerable talent with his considerable baggage, including a long history of domestic violence allegations (no charges have been filed) and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.

One team felt comfortable above all others. They didn’t just trade for Marshall. They reworked a new contract for him (three years, $26 million, $9 million guaranteed).

The team in both cases was the Jets.

In the span of two days this March, they traded for a backup quarterback in Fitzpatrick and a enigmatic receiver in Marshall. Even the Jets didn’t know exactly what they were getting, but they only surrendered a fifth-round pick for Marshall and a conditional selection (it looks like a sixth-rounder) for Fitzpatrick. They even received a seventh-round choice in the Marshall trade.

Low risk has, so far, led to incredible reward. Fitzpatrick became their starting quarterback, and he has not only managed games, he has helped win them. This season, he has thrown for 1,177 yards and nine touchdowns. Marshall, meanwhile, has settled into an important role as Fitzpatrick’s top target, especially in the red zone, with 37 receptions for 511 yards and four scores. He has been as solid as any receiver in the league.

So much attention centers on the Jets’ defense (which is dominant) and Chris Ivory (who is having an All-Pro year). But the Jets aren’t 4–1 and headed to New England to face the Patriots for the division lead this weekend without Marshall or Fitzpatrick. They might be more like 1–4.

Back in February, Fitzpatrick, the ex-Bill and ex-Titan (and ex-Bengal and ex-Ram), didn’t know where he would play in 2015. He figured it wouldn’t be in Houston, so he could add “ex-Texan” to the list. He spent most mornings at the Texans’ facility, rehabbing the broken leg, and most evenings at home, where his wife, Liza Barber, was expecting their fifth child. His oldest is five years old now, his youngest, born after the trade, is six months.

“I was trying to get over the fact that it was going to be my fourth team in four years,” Fitzpatrick said last week at a table inside the cafeteria at the Jets’ facility. “I had to pick up and move the family again. We were becoming well-traveled.”

He sighed. “That’s kind of been our life,” he said.

While on that couch at home, Fitzpatrick noticed that Chan Gailey had been hired as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Gailey had been his coach in Buffalo for three seasons, from 2010 to ’12. Meanwhile, Jets owner Woody Johnson had lured Maccagnan away from Houston, where he had become familiar last season with Fitzpatrick.

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The dots all seemed to connect. Fitzpatrick could teach the offense to the Jets’ other quarterbacks, including their maligned starter Geno Smith. He could also push Smith for the starting job and mentor any young quarterbacks the Jets drafted. Beyond that, Fitzpatrick had a reputation as one of the league’s smartest players. Former Jets linebacker Bart Scott loved to call Fitzpatrick “Evolution” and “The Brain” when Fitzpatrick played for Buffalo, after Scott learned that Fitzpatrick had gone to Harvard.

The Jets flirted briefly with Brian Hoyer, a free agent who left Cleveland and signed with Houston, which effectively ended Fitzpatrick’s chances of staying with the Texans. So the Jets traded for Fitzpatrick on March 11.

They had dealt for Marshall, who declined to be interviewed last week, a day earlier. “My perspective or what I thought of Brandon was only what I saw on ESPN and the incidents in Denver and all that negative stuff that surrounded him,” Fitzpatrick said. “I tried to come in without any judgment.”

Asked, then, for his first impression, and Fitzpatrick needed only one word. “Unbelievable,” he said.

Even though the Jets liked Marshall, they did a thorough background check on him before they committed to the trade. Their front office personnel talked to their counterparts around the league who had been with Marshall in any of his previous stops, in Denver (2006–09), Miami (2010 and 2011) and Chicago (2012–14).

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One recommendation cemented Marshall’s value. It came from the Jets’ new head coach, Todd Bowles. He was an assistant in Miami from 2008 to 2011, and the interim coach that final disastrous season after Tony Sparano was fired in December. Where Marshall’s intensity sometimes struck teammates the wrong way, Bowles liked that even when the Dolphins’ season tanked, Marshall still showed up every morning before 6 a.m. He still implored Miami to play for pride. Bowles told Maccagnan he wanted Marshall. He vouched for him. Of Marshall’s checkered past, Bowles, behind his desk last week said, “He’s misunderstood.”

When New York traded for Marshall on March 10, he stopped by that same office, where Bowles sat behind a desk cluttered with papers and near walls lined with photographs of his players. “We talked about what I was trying to build here, and what he was walking into,” Bowles said. “Like the quarterback situation.”

The Jets arrived this spring for offseason workouts, Fitzpatrick and Marshall among them. Players always say this, but Fitzpatrick swore that the team he saw on those fields hardly resembled the outfit that went 4–12 the year before. The secondary had been overhauled, anyway. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie were both back in Jets jerseys, along with nickel corner Buster Skrine and former corner Marcus Gilchrist, who had been moved to free safety. That combined with a defensive line among the most feared in football struck Fitzpatrick right away.

“Scary talent,” he said.

His role then was to mentor Smith and teach everyone the offense, like a translator in an advanced Spanish course. “Then one day,” Fitzpatrick said, “everything changed.”

That day would be Aug. 11, or the day when a backup defensive lineman named IK Enemkpali sucker-punched Smith over a $600 debt. The punch made more impact than Enemkpali ever had, breaking Smith’s jaw and altering the course of this Jets season. Fitzpatrick may have been brought in to be the backup, but he became the starter that day. Pundits across the country picked the Jets to finish fourth in the AFC East, while tabbing the Bills and Dolphins among potential surprise playoff teams. (The Patriots, of course, were expected to win the division on their league-wide tour of revenge.)

Fitzpatrick didn’t talk much about the punch. He still doesn’t. He plowed ahead immediately. He had to. “That’s the thing,” he said. “The media can run with a story forever. But we can move on in a day.”

“It was almost normal for me, anyway,” he added. “I’ve been in so many different situations where I’ve had to step in, where I haven’t been the guy.”

There’s a name for what happened next: Fitzmagic.

The Jets stomped the Browns in Week 1 and upset the Colts in Week 2 and dominated both the Dolphins in Week 4 and the Redskins in Week 6. Their only loss came in Week 3, against the Eagles, with Ivory injured.

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Fitzpatrick, the alarming seven interceptions notwithstanding, has provided a steady hand. Against Washington, his 99.2 QBR led the NFL, and he even scrambled in for another score. He doesn’t have to throw for a million yards. The Jets, after all, boast both the NFL’s top-ranked defense and top-ranked rushing offense. But he has to provide the Jets another dimension, a reason for defenses to not key solely on Ivory and the run game. Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick lobbed a compliment Fitzpatrick’s way this week. He called Fitzpatrick a “smart player” and said “they put a lot on him in terms of running the offense.”

“Ryan has been running our show,” Revis said. “He’s smart. He’s also savvy. I’ll tell you what, he plays with a lot of poise, too. You don’t ever seen Ryan get rattled. Plus, he’s got the beard.”

Indeed. Fitzpatrick’s beard falls somewhere between mountain man and too expansive to fit inside a chinstrap. It’s not the NFL’s bushiest beard. But it’s close. And no one has benefited from the beard more than Marshall, who’s on pace to become the Jets’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Jerricho Cotchery (1,130) in 2007.

Marshall has at least six receptions in all five games (a Jets record) and four consecutive contests with more than 100 receiving yards (the most for a Jet since Don Maynard in 1969).

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“Dude, Brandon is a straight warrior,” Revis said. “I don’t know if anybody works harder than that guy. We go at it in practice like you wouldn’t believe. Jerseys will get ripped.”

The Fitzpatrick–Marshall connection has other benefits as well. It has opened space in the middle of the field for Eric Decker to operate, and he has 18 catches for 239 yards and four touchdowns. It also takes pressure off Ivory (460 yards, four touchdowns, 5.5 yards per carry) and the offensive line. Marshall told reporters last week that Ivory was the best back in the NFL. He’s a big part of that emergence.

So here they are, days away from their biggest test this season, the quarterback no team wanted as a starter and the receiver that three teams had already shipped elsewhere leading the most surprising team of this still very young NFL season. “I didn’t know how good we’d be,” Fitzpatrick said. “I still don’t know how good we can be. But that’s the exciting part about this. We’re playing with confidence, and we’ve got all the talent in the world.”

They’ll find out soon enough. Next up: New England.