By Jeff Capellini
The legend of “FitzMagic” seems to grow by the week.
For those of you living under a rock for the last nine months, it’s a story about an apparent never-was who somehow made good in the one place nobody thought possible.
When rookie general manager Mike Maccagnan acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick back in March for what amounted to a used JUGS machine and some Stickum, even the most ardent optimist could never have imagined he’d be as important to the Jets as he has become.
He has defied the stigma that has ruled this franchise for a very long time, the one that says the Jets just aren’t meant to have a difference-making starting quarterback.
Remember, Fitzpatrick wasn’t supposed to be the starter. He was just the guy brought in to provide cover in the case of a Geno Smith implosion; a heady, veteran player who could maybe turn a season going off the rails into something respectable, if not mediocre.
In other words, he’d be par for the course as far as Jets quarterbacks go. Asking anything more than that would be unreasonable.
But then IK Enemkpali changed the Jets’ course heading in training camp with the punch heard across the sports world. It altered two careers and at the same time created perhaps the least logical bandwagon New York City sports has seen in some time.
For the past three months, Fitzpatrick has given the Jets and their fans every reason to believe their never-ending search for the right fit at the most important position on the field may be over. The 33-year-old journeyman may not be prototypical or have the pedigree of many of the stars on other teams, but he has proven he can flat play the game, and play it at a high level, as both the eye test and his statistics suggest.
No, Fitzpatrick is not an elite talent. He struggles at times with his accuracy. He doesn’t always hit receivers in stride down the field. He is just begging to spend a month in concussion protocol with the way he disrespects his body once he takes off from the pocket.
All of it can be maddening to watch at times.
But he puts the Jets in position to win games. Not many quarterbacks who have played for this franchise over the last 20 years can say that.
If a good portion of this game is about guile and guts, Fitzpatrick may not need to be one of the best in the business to take the Jets to heights not seen in a while. His bulldog mentality meshes well with his passable native ability. And when coupled with a supporting cast that was assembled with a lot more than a modest rebound from 4-12 in mind, Fitzpatrick and the Jets — while hardly a match made in heaven — have proven to be a good match. There’s a chemistry at play here we haven’t seen from the Jets and their quarterback since that magical season in 1998 when Vinny Testaverde, another guy thought to be a mistake waiting to happen, did his own version of spitting in the eye of public perception.
You see, Fitzpatrick had never really been afforded an opportunity like this before. The teams he played for in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee and Houston over the previous 10 seasons weren’t constructed like the team he plays for now. The Jets are bigger, faster, more athletic, nastier, and apparently, more determined. Though time will tell if what we’ve seen overall from this 7-5 team is actually a mirage, there’s simply no denying the fact that right now the Jets are better than many expected.
Fitzpatrick has been one of the main reasons, but he’s never been to the playoffs. Maybe he just needed the Jets, of all teams, to get there. The same can be said of Brandon Marshall, the other great addition from Maccagnan’s maiden voyage as a shot-caller. Over his first nine pro seasons, Marshall was a tremendous individual talent, but he lacked a true team around him. Like Fitzpatrick, he was repeatedly discarded due to inaccurate perceptions, but now may finally find himself on the right team at precisely the right time.
The Fitz-to-Marshall connection has been incredible as the veteran wideout (83 receptions, 1,062 yards and 10 TDs in 12 games) is on the cusp of possibly breaking every prominent single-season receiving record the Jets have.
But he wouldn’t be in this position without the quarterback that nobody ever wanted.
Raise your hand if you thought back in the preseason that Fitzpatrick would carry a 2-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio (22-11) heading into Week 14 and be on pace to break the Jets’ single-season touchdown pass record (29). Please, put it down. You didn’t.
Nor did you see Fitzpatrick in the top 10 in the NFL in Total QBR, the metric most subscribed to by the movers and shakers that determine who’s good and who’s not in this league. You certainly didn’t expect Fitzpatrick to be ahead of guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning. Yet, he is.
I’m also pretty much convinced you didn’t expect Fitzpatrick to have five games with at least a 100 passer rating, or to throw fewer interceptions over a seven-game stretch than he has fingers on his surgically repaired left hand — a fix-up job he had done in-season without missing a game, I might add. Since Oct. 25, Fitzpatrick has thrown 13 TDs and just four picks. Not bad for a guy labeled turnover-prone by the supposed intelligentsia, huh?
The Jets will eventually be forced to make a serious decision on whether Fitzpatrick should be re-signed to be their starter for the foreseeable future. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
I think he’s done enough already to warrant a new deal, but it’s not my call. If the Jets make the playoffs, something that would be the case if the season ended today, bringing the “Magic” back is a no-brainer.
But as we’ve seen with this franchise over the years, December can be a troubling month. Defeat has often been snatched from the jaws of victory, playoff hopes dashed in the most frustrating of ways.
Usually due to poor quarterback play.
Fitzpatrick needs to finish this thing off and pick up where he left off last week, when he threw for 390 yards and a pair of TDs in the stunning win over the Giants, and somehow get this team into the postseason tournament. If he does, he’ll have earned his new contract for sure.
If he doesn’t, the Jets will need to look at the circumstances and choose a direction. Considering all we’ve seen, there’s reason to believe he won’t be the goat if the season ends in Week 17. Either way, I think the Jets have something here, a player who just needed the right situation.
Fitzpatrick is simply playing like one gift horse you don’t look in the mouth.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet.