Fitzpatrick, Running Game And Physical Defense Are Reasons For Optimism

By Jeff Capellini
WFAN.com

They say preseason results don’t matter.

Yeah, right.

Try telling that to the Jets and their fans, a collection of forever tortured souls that has put up with an incredible amount of stupidity over the last two months.

You better believe Saturday night’s win over the Giants had meaning. If nothing else, it served as an indicator of what this revamped roster is capable of. The 28-18 victory, especially the dominant first half in which Gang Green’s starters pounded Big Blue’s expected regulars in every facet of the game, should go a long way toward calming some fears about this team on both sides of the ball.

Are the Jets going to be world beaters this season? I say probably not. But it’s beginning to look like they could be very competitive on a weekly basis, as in a squad capable of winning as many as 10 games or making the playoffs if everything goes right.

That’s not half bad considering the dark cloud that was following the Jets around in the wake of a series of buffoonish episodes orchestrated by some of their high-profile players, incidents that weren’t supposed to happen under the regime that replaced the perceived lawlessness of the Rex Ryan era.

Star defensive end Sheldon Richardson took his team to the woodshed not once but twice — first by getting suspended four games for violating the league’s drug policy and then, 12 days later, after allegedly taking part in a high-speed street race on a Missouri highway, an incident that ended with his arrest but not with him informing the Jets of what had happened. They found out in stunning fashion 16 days later — and after Richardson told everyone within earshot that he’s not a problem child.

As crushing as those sagas were — and still could end up being should the NFL decide to discipline Richardson for the alleged street racing — they paled in comparison on the you-can’t-make-this-up scale to the bizarre incident of expected starting quarterback Geno Smith getting cold-cocked in the locker room by a reserve defensive lineman over a matter of a $600 plane ticket.

That one had everyone screaming “Same old Jets,” even though it had nothing to do with the Jets missing the playoffs after an 8-5 or 9-4 start, the type of nonsense that has helped define this franchise for decades. Due to his broken jaw and subsequent surgery, Smith, a player who desperately needs to take the next step in his development, will not be available until Week 3 at the earliest.

That said, though, the punch heard ’round the NFL opened the door to Ryan Fitzpatrick getting the starting nod, a move an extremely large percentage of the fan base — not to mention NFL analysts — was clamoring for anyway. The Jets haven’t had this type of maturity under center since Chad Pennington’s body betrayed him back during the early part of the century.

Now in his 11th season, Fitzpatrick’s résumé suggests he is what his record says he is — 33-55-1 as a starter. However, his individual statistics playing for mostly bad teams seem to indicate he can be the calming influence the Jets need at the most important position on the field, if only as a short-term solution.

Those who believe in Fitzpatrick, myself included, like to cite his past success under current Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. I have said if you look at what Fitzpatrick did in Buffalo with Gailey from 2009-12 — 11,654 yards, 60 percent completion, 80 touchdowns and 64 interceptions in 55 games — it’s reasonable to expect 3,000-plus yards and 22-25 TDs, with a respectable completion percentage and QB rating with the Jets. Gang Green has more talent at wide receiver than anything Fitzpatrick ever had to work with in Buffalo.

Fitzpatrick put his first-team reps to good use on Saturday night, completing 9 of 14 for 127 yards and two TDs — with no turnovers — during his two quarters of work. And while it’s true he has yet to really throw the ball down the field with accuracy, a fact that has led many alarmists to say he has suddenly lost all of his arm strength, he has only been working with the starters since Aug. 11.

In other words, people need to stop assuming the other shoe will drop with this quarterback, a player who is a lot better than many give him credit for and, as a result, is largely respected league-wide. If Fitzpatrick is efficient — and a QB doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards a game to be efficient — he should be a boon to a team supposedly built on defense and a power running game in the first place.

And while we’re on the topic of winning football games in traditional fashion, the Jets’ defense on Saturday looked like what many expected in the wake of the mid-January hiring of defensive guru Todd Bowles as head coach, dominating the point of attack and limiting Giants running backs Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen to a combined 37 yards on 12 carries.

Eli Manning completed 12 passes but for only 91 yards. He was pick-sixed by Antonio Cromartie, a play that basically put a stamp on the butt-kicking that Saturday night was, and sacked twice in his two quarters.

Meanwhile, the Jets’ running game was revved up from the start, with Chris Ivory averaging 6.3 yards per carry during his half of work and veteran Zac Stacy — who is hoping to challenge Bilal Powell early for meaningful second banana carries while Stevan Ridley continues to work his way back from a serious knee injury — finishing with a workman-like 84 combined yards and a receiving touchdown.

Assuming first-round pick Leonard Williams is back sooner rather than later from his knee injury, Saturday night should be viewed as a rousing success on every level. The Jets need Williams and others, including slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, to get healthy so they can hit the field against Cleveland at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 13 ready to get to work.

Thursday’s final preseason game — against Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles — will only be important to the drama-driven media and those players hoping to make the final 53-man cut. The Jets will need to be down to 75 by Tuesday, and at this point it’s still hard to know who will be the first into the scrum should health or inconsistency derail the starters on the offensive line, at wide receiver and at linebacker — positions in which the Jets will require max production if they are to be successful this season.

If nothing else, Saturday was a fairly good barometer. The Jets looked terrible during their first two preseason games. Practices were filled with intensity, but also a lot of mistakes. Yet, they came out focused against the Giants and executed at a level not previously seen under Bowles.

The Jets have a balanced regular season schedule and very little margin for error in a league that is all about parity. Saturday night’s effort, however, should allow those on the ledge to take a step or two back and exhale a little bit.

Yes, there’s a ton of work still to do, but at least the Jets appear to all be on the same page. When was the last time anyone could say that?

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

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