FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Ryan Fitzpatrick was circling the Jets’ facility in his truck early Wednesday evening, waiting from word from his agent, Jimmy Sexton, whether he would be the Jets starting quarterback or have to find work elsewhere. Sexton was negotiating a one-year, $12 million contract, but the Jets’ first team meeting of training camp was approaching, at 7 p.m. If the deal wasn’t done by then, the Jets were threatening to rescind their offer.
Fitzpatrick kept driving round and round until, finally, he got word. He had a deal, but he only had six minutes to get to the meeting. He raced to the facility, where a confused-looking security guard waved him through the front gate. He hurried to a locked door, texted Brandon Marshall for his building code and sprinted to the meeting, arriving about just on time.
“Sorry I’m late, coach,” Fitzpatrick told Todd Bowles.
“That’ll be a $12 million fine,” Bowles replied.
Fitzpatrick took his seat, Bowles later caught him up to speed on the day he missed, and so, when the Jets took the field Thursday for their first official practice, there was Fitzpatrick taking the first-team reps, talking strategy with his receivers, giving advice to the other quarterbacks. He appeared a tad rusty throwing the ball, but that was to be expected. Then he met with the media, calling reporters by name, acknowledging that it was good to be back.
“It felt like I haven’t been out there for seven months,” Fitzpatrick joked.
For five of those months he had been engaged in one of the more unique contract standoffs in recent memory. A journeyman for much of his career, he had a breakout year for the Jets in 2015, throwing a franchise-record 31 touchdown passes but falling short of making the playoffs. So when contract negotiations began with the Jets this offseason, there was a disagreement over his value. The Jets’ initial offer was in the range of what the Eagles paid Chase Daniel, a career backup—three years and $21 million—to basically pay Fitzpatrick as a starter for one year and two more years as a backup, so he could mentor a younger quarterback. Fitzpatrick wanted a one-year deal worth $12 million and a chance to prove himself again. Reports surfaced that Fitzpatrick had his house up for rent, that he wasn’t returning Marshall’s texts. People around the league debated how much he was worth.
All the while, Fitzpatrick sat at home, chasing his five children, playing golf, walking all 18 holes, trying to stay in shape at 34 years old. He lived about 10 minutes from the Jets’ facility but was barred from it. He missed OTAs and minicamp, as the negotiations dragged on, as Marshall and Eric Decker, his two star wide receivers, lobbied the Jets to sign him.
Fitzpatrick wouldn’t budge. He explained on Thursday, “How could I look myself in the mirror every morning and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll try to play good this year, and next year I’ll collect some checks and teach the young guys?’ That’s just not who I am. It’s not in my nature.”
He added, “I’d much rather bet on myself.”
The Jets ultimately relented because their only other option was starting Geno Smith, an unknown commodity. In the end, it seemed, not much harm was done, except to one person. As the Jets took the field Thursday, as Fitzpatrick and the quarterbacks stretched on one side of the field, Smith warmed up 15 yards away, on his own. His red jersey stood out in a sea of green and white. Smith had been the Jets’ presumed starter last year, until a teammate broke his jaw in a locker room fight and Fitzpatrick took over. Smith had been the presumed starter again this spring and much of the summer, too … until Fitzpatrick walked into that meeting Wednesday. Marshall approached Smith that night, just to check and see if he was O.K.
When the Jets marched Smith out to meet the media on Thursday, he tried his best to put on a good face. “I’m kind of pissed off, but it’s not a detrimental thing,” he said. “It’s not something where I’m pissed off at anyone, because we all want to be out there. There’s 53 guys on the team; every guy doesn’t always get to go out there. We all know that [only] one quarterback gets to go out day one. That just adds fuel to the fire, but not in a negative way. I don’t want that to become a headline or something like that, because it’s not what I’m trying to say. It’s more as a competitor, as a quarterback, knowing what I’m capable of. Really believing in myself. Knowing the work I put in over the offseason. You want to be out there.”
Smith acknowledged that other teams from around the league would be watching how he responded, how he handled himself. Some had speculated that the Jets would trade him. A reporter asked if Smith would consider asking the Jets to trade him, since he would be a backup here. “Would I ask for that? Who knows,” Smith said. “But right now, no.”
Bowles had already stated that Fitzpatrick was the team’s starter, and that he would be patient as Fitzpatrick re-gained his touch. Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in his first practice—one during seven-on-seven drills and two in full-team drills. On one, the linebacker Jordan Jenkins tipped his pass and made an acrobatic catch. On another, cornerback Dexter McDougle had to make a slick diving grab. On the third one, though, Fitzpatrick lobbed a lame-duck pass high and slow and into coverage, and McDougle came down with the ball.
“There’s some rust, naturally, to be knocked off,” Decker said.
A sign of maturity, Fitzpatrick responded nicely after his first interception. After the other quarterbacks took their reps, the next time Fitzpatrick stepped in, he lofted a beautiful 40-yard pass to Marshall down the left sideline. A chant broke out: “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!”
After practice as the players walked off the field, Marshall walked alongside Fitzpatrick and complemented him on his first day. He told Fitzpatrick it looked like he was playing golf out there. His delivery, his timing, his rhythm, his touch—it all looked so smooth.
Marshall gushed to the media that that ball Fitzpatrick threw him “was the best deep ball he’s ever thrown me.” He smiled wide talking about having his friend back. Even if Fitzpatrick wasn’t exactly perfect on his first day, Marshall knew what they were capable of together.
“You wanted all this money,” Marshall said, “you better throw some touchdowns.”
Five Things I Thought About the Jets
1. Marshall showed up to camp looking much slimmer and more explosive on the first day. This spring he weighed about 244 pounds, and Bowles challenged him to lose some weight. Marshall arrived to camp around 225, thanks to what he called the Todd Bowles Diet. Since it was so successful, would Bowles market his plan? “If [Marshall] gives me half the proceeds,” Bowles said, grinning.
2. Maybe that has something to do with the bet Marshall made with Antonio Brown on an Instagram video over who would have more receiving yards this season. If Brown won, Marshall would give him a Porsche. If Marshall won, he wanted Brown’s Rolls-Royce. “I love competition,” Marshall said. “There are games within the game, if you follow me. There are a few guys in the league that really take pride in their work, it’s their life’s work and they want to push. You always want to advance the position.”
3. It seemed everyone wanted to joke about Ryan Fitzpatrick’s new contract. Todd Bowles made a crack when Fitzpatrick walked into the team meeting Wednesday. After practice Thursday, Eric Decker said, with Fitzpatrick back, they hadn’t “had a chance to celebrate yet. Maybe he’ll take us to dinner with that new contract.”
4. In between reps on Thursday, a few times Fitzpatrick chatted with Christian Hackenberg, the quarterback who may someday succeed him, the quarterback the Jets picked in the second round of this past NFL draft. While Fitzpatrick said he wanted to prove himself, he clarified that he enjoyed teaching the younger guys because others had helped him along the way. He often answered their questions, but, he said, “a lot of it is the example, the way that I’m going to work every day.”
5. Given the contract standoff, and given Fitzpatrick was only on a one-year deal, a reporter asked whether he would want to stay with the Jets long-term. Fitzpatrick smiled. “That is way in the future. Ask me that like Week 17, if things are going well.”
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