By Jason Keidel
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It’s hard to think of a local pro athlete who’s had such a conflicting legacy, at least over such a short period of time. Few have gone from revered to reviled as fast as Ryan Fitzpatrick did during his time with the New York Jets.
After he pinballed around the league, unable to plant roots with any single club, Fitzpatrick landed with the Jets, where he forged a most unlikely, prosperous season in 2015, throwing for 3,900 yards and setting a club record for passing touchdowns (31). The Jets were one foul fourth quarter short of an 11-5 season and a slot in the NFL playoffs.
It was the Cinderella story that only pro football can author.
Unlike the fairy tale character, however, midnight hit hard for Fitzpatrick, and he indeed turned into a QB pumpkin. Whatever mojo or momentum he summoned in 2015 vanished by 2016. He was benched for perhaps the only QB less popular than he was at the time — Geno Smith.
So after toiling for months on the free agent market, Fitzpatrick has finally found a club desirous of his services. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed the gridiron nomad for $3 million to clutch a clipboard and offer whatever wisdom he has to their franchise QB, Jameis Winston.
Fitzpatrick has finally found his true home. Not in Florida, but as a backup. There’s no way the 34-year-old will ever be remotely regarded as a starting quarterback ever again, unless he fills in for an injured Winston. But there are worse lots in life than sunning on Sundays in Tampa while Winston gets pounded in the pocket by Luke Kuechly and Vic Beasley.
Even when the Jets get something right, even accidentally, it always rots well before it’s supposed to. Fitzpatrick had many media, masses and blowhards — like yours truly — guzzling the Kool-Aid. We campaigned for the bearded wonder to make it happen at MetLife. Only to see him flatline so publicly and painfully. There’s just something so wholly Gang Green about the whole thing, from the ascent to the descent, from the glory to the gory.
Especially at quarterback, a position that has haunted and tormented the Jets since the 1970s, since Joe Willie Namath was under center. We all know the rare, victorious refrain of the lone, iconic quarterback ever to play for the Jets — limping and flexing his forefinger as he trotted out of the Orange Bowl in January 1969. You could say ’69 was a curious year, for America, mankind and New York sports. We landed on the moon. And two wholly forlorn franchises — the Mets and Jets — were kings of the world.
We returned to the moon, of course. The Mets made a few more trips to the Fall Classic, and won one. But the Jets haven’t even played for a Super Bowl ring since. And it’s no accident that their QB woes and Super Bowl drought run on parallel historical lines. There is a direct correlation. Even more so now, more now than ever, with the NFL ever dependent on the man under center to lead his team to a title.
So the Jets learned a vital lesson, right? You’d love to think they not only jettisoned Fitzpatrick, but also vastly improved in the process.
The Jets are still playing three-card monte with their quarterbacks. If you know the next face of their franchise, please share with the group. While most NFL teams with a dearth of decent quarterback talent went wild in the NFL Draft looking for their next leader, the Jets dug in tight and waited. And waited. Then loaded up on sixth-round picks and never plucked a quarterback.
But hey, they signed Josh McCown, who’s only slightly better than Fitzpatrick. Or is he? McCown (who turns 38 in July) is much older, and the Jets make his ninth NFL team. (Fitzpatrick has only been on seven clubs.) McCown’s record is a glittering 18-42, for a .300 winning percentage. Fitzpatrick’s professional won-loss mark is 46-69-1, winning 40 percent of his games.
Not to crusade for Fitzpatrick, who had to go, because he stunk, and he couldn’t save face with his pay slashed 75 percent (from $12 million to $3 million this year). But the Jets are that rare team devoted to Plan A but stall before Plan B. Was their grand design really to let Fitzpatrick walk while drooling over McCown? Was this the Gang Green’s iteration of Peyton Manning handing the ball to Andrew Luck?
The Bears had a bizarre draft, moving heaven and earth to slide up one slot to take Mitchell Trubisky, who started all of 13 college football games, whom no one heard of in March, then became the jewel of the draft in April. Maybe his big game against James Madison made all the scouts quiver with envy. The Bears will likely regret the move, but at least they had a move to make.
The Jets know they need a quarterback and did nothing to get one. Plan A: Look for a quarterback. Plan B: Draft a lineman.
Maybe Fitzpatrick isn’t welcome in New Jersey anymore. But he will likely enjoy the better weather, and better team, in 2017.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel