By Steve Lichtenstein
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Sorry, kiddies, there’s no such thing as magic.
Not even Fitz-Magic.
For the first third of the season Jets fans were amazed at how quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick came into town waving his somewhat erratic wand of a right arm and, presto!, a legitimate NFL offense appeared where none previously existed.
The Jets were 4-2 heading into Sunday’s game at Oakland. Despite a disappointing loss at unbeaten New England last week, Jets fans still believed in “FitzMagic” and his merry band of capable cohorts such as running back Chris Ivory and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.
We were particularly thrilled by Fitzpatrick’s Houdini-esque escapes from sure capture in the pocket and subsequent reappearance downfield with a new set of downs in tow. Just two weeks ago Fitzpatrick pulled off the trick with such flair against Washington — ending it with a head-first dive into the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown — that it turned the game upside down.
Such daredevil theatre, unfortunately, comes with risks.
Fitzpatrick, who apparently has no idea how to slide despite over a decade of performing on this vicious stage, took an unnecessary hit by Oakland safety Charles Woodson at the end of a 12-yard scramble on the Jets’ opening drive on Sunday. His left thumb got the worst of it. The reports as of this writing indicated he suffered torn ligaments, with an MRI scheduled for Monday to clarify the full extent of the damage.
If the injury sidelines Fitzpatrick for a lengthy period, well, his judgment not to slide on that play just may have made the Jets’ playoff aspirations disappear.
Jets coach Todd Bowles was all smiles after that Washington win, telling the media that he needed to send Fitzpatrick to “baseball school in the offseason.”
The joke is on Gang Green right now.
That’s because Fitzpatrick’s understudy is Geno Smith. The third-year quarterback’s act has gotten old. His stats may have looked respectable — 27-for-42 for 265 yards and two touchdowns — on Sunday, but he made sure to cover all his old hits during the Jets’ 34-20 embarrassment.
There was the gratuitous second-quarter interception by Woodson on a deep ball in which Smith underthrew Marshall by a good five yards. There were the trio of sacks Smith took on third downs in the second half that stalled opportunities for a potential comeback.
And for an encore, Smith took a wallop from Raider cornerback David Amerson at the end of a 29-yard run when the right sideline was merely a step away. While that collision did not force Smith out of the game, it most surely could have. Bowles noted in his postgame press conference that Smith would undergo tests for a sore shoulder that was most likely related to that hit. In addition, Smith will get his abdomen checked out after a spear by Raiders linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong caused Fitzpatrick to re-enter and take a pair of snaps with one functioning hand on the Jets’ final possession.
It’s unfathomable to me that Fitzpatrick and Smith don’t understand the importance of avoiding big hits. Okay, maybe not Smith, whose Football IQ isn’t on a par with your normal NFL quarterback.
But doesn’t Fitzpatrick — a Harvard grad — watch his peers? They slide, they run out of bounds, they curl into a womb if necessary.
For as much as the NFL does to protect its performers at the position at the top of its marquee, it is powerless when those performers make ill-advised decisions.
While the Fitzpatrick injury certainly had an impact on Sunday’s outcome, to be fair, his replacement’s errors in judgment were down on the list of Jets transgressions.
Center Nick Mangold and safety Calvin Pryor were inactive for the game due to injuries, so of course that meant that the Jets couldn’t block or tackle. The Jets were hit in the mouth for 60 minutes yet showed no interest in matching the Raiders’ physicality.
The running back duo of Ivory and Zac Stacy gained a paltry 28 yards on 18 carries and the line blew assignments in pass protection all game with practice squad call-up Wesley Johnson filling in for Mangold. Willie Colon had a brutal day at guard and tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson could do nothing but kneel beside his prone quarterback after Armstrong sped around Ferguson’s end to lower the boom on Smith.
And the defense — Halloween may have ended the night before, but who were those imposters in green and white? The highly-touted pass rush was nonexistent, the handsomely-paid secondary couldn’t cover, and no one remembered how to tackle.
Marcus Williams, the reserve cornerback whom Bowles added to the base unit in place of Pryor, was the guiltiest culprit, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also call out cornerback Antonio Cromartie and linebacker Demario Davis for their repeated failures to wrap guys up.
Even star cornerback Darrelle Revis looked like he would rather have been somewhere else. The Island was quite accommodating to Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, with Revis giving way too much respect to the rookie.
It was an all-around ugly performance from a group that needs to be closer to its “A-game” to give the Jets a chance to win. They return home to face the 2-5 Jaguars next week, but nothing is a gimme when the Jets are this banged up.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan — dubbed “Magic Mike” for his roster creation in the offseason — may have to pull a quarterback out of his hat this week if Fitzpatrick and Smith aren’t mending quickly. In addition, the Jets are hurting at wide receiver, though it should be noted that Jeremy Kerley and Kenbrell Thompkins combined to catch 10 passes for 104 yards in a pinch on Sunday.
In truth, I had a pretty good notion that this season’s strong start was an illusion. As well as Fitzpatrick played — and as well as the defense played — the Jets were still a good distance away from being a special team.
Now that Geno appears to be front and center again — or worse someone off the street is thrust into service — the road to prosperity just got bumpier.
There is still have an opportunity to contend for a playoff spot into December, thanks to a relatively tame schedule, but it’s just as possible that Fitzpatrick’s failure to slide killed the magic, leaving the Jets to be exposed as frauds.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1