The staunch low-level evaluation of Ryan Fitzpatrick by Mike Maccagnan has raised some eyebrows, some skepticism, and even some fans ready to dust off the ol’ number 7 Geno Smith jersey. Are the Jets really ready to dig their heels in long term? I’ll explore some reasons why the Jets are wise to hold their stance, but also why some popularly mooted alternatives may not provide a comparable option in 2016…
“It is a passing league.”
It is one of many NFL cliches you’re destined to hear Ron Jaworski or Solomon Wilcots mutter on television, but it’s hard to deny the facts. The 4,000 yard passing season, once an indicator of a special year as a quarterback, has recently fallen to the status of a 1,000 yard rushing season – certainly an accomplishment, but something any 16-game starter has an opportunity to reach. In recent years we’ve seen players like Ryan Tannehill and Josh Freeman have what we would used to consider noteworthy passing seasons.
Even with this recent upturn in volume passing across the league, it has been a long time since the Jets had anything that remotely resembled a competent passing offense. That is of course until this past season, where a number of key additions hit the ground running to create the most prolific passing offense the Jets have seen since 1998. The man at the helm for this season, Ryan Fitzpatrick, currently sits at a contractual impasse with the Jets as we all know. The Jets want to pay him little better than Chase Daniel, whereas Fitzpatrick is searching for Sam Bradford money (18m annual). Is this a simple case of hardball – the Jets knowing Fitzpatrick’s meager options and knowing they hold the cards – or is this more a ruthless view of how the Jets view Fitzpatrick going forward? After all, “Chase Daniel money” is right about what a team pays a quarterback they’re expecting to compete for a starting position, not someone that has outright earned one.
Going back to the “passing league” adage, the Jets finally catching up to the rest of the league has many worried about what may happen in 2016 if the Jets fail to bring back Fitzpatrick. But how much have the other moves such as pairing Brandon Marshall with Eric Decker and bringing in Chan Gailey elevated Fitzpatrick, and how much exactly can we put on his shoulders? Additionally, how much of this success is the Jets finally catching up with the league, rather than just finally finding “the right guy” to quarterback the team? A few weeks ago Football Outsiders creator Aaron Schatz had a tweet that highlights exactly what the Jets had in Fitzpatrick last season in his best-case scenario.
2015 set all-time NFL record for season with the highest average Comp% (63.3%), PaYd/At (7.26), PaYd/Team (4103) and PaTD/Team (26.6).
— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) March 8, 2016
When you take these four averages compared to Fitzpatrick, he is still a quarterback in some respects that falls well below average. He scores below par in both rate statistics, and just barely goes over the average in passing yardage if his numbers include a full 16th game. If you take the average interceptions per team as well, 13.6, Fitzpatrick also finished with a below average total (15) in 15 games. Fitzpatrick made up for this with an overall excellent performance in the red zone, where efficient use of the team’s pair of receivers helped him break the Jets single season passing touchdown record and avoid throwing an interception until that fateful Week 17 mistake.
The question is how much can we put this red zone success on Ryan Fitzpatrick, and how much of this success goes to the duo of Decker and Marshall? The pair made up 78.7% of all passing touchdowns for the Jets this season and the latter of whom had arguably the best single season an offensive player ever had as a Jet. We can tell pretty easily that the completion percentage and yards-per-attempt Fitzpatrick posted with the Jets has been par for the course over his entire career, in addition to his interception rate of roughly once a game. His touchdown rate is a little more difficult given he has not often started a full 16 games, so I took the NFL average of pass attempts per touchdown for a given season and compared it to Fitzpatrick. I made a simple chart below with the findings (the lower number is better than average in this case).
Outside of the outlier that was just Fitzpatrick’s second year in the league for a poor Bengals team, Fitzpatrick has tended to bounce just above and below league average in this mark from year-to-year. Given the excellent pair of receivers he will continue to work with should he return, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Fitzpatrick to continue above average marks in this area. It should be expected, even.
It is important to remember though that when it comes to negotiating a player contract, what the player has done in the past is not the key. It’s what you expect the player to do in the future. Another key question is if the Jets can bank on Fitzpatrick having a similar level of performance versus the 2016 level of opponents. 2015 was a soft schedule for the Jets overall and at present the 2016 cast looks a much stiffer test. While teams could end up performing wildly differently than they did last year, let’s take an early look at what the Jets have in store, using passer rating against as a basic measuring stick.
On the surface there’s not a big change, with 2015 average opponent ranking at 18.2 and the projected 2016 ranking at 15.1. The 2016 schedule has it’s fair share of struggling pass defenses from 2015, such as Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore and two games versus Miami. The major difference, and one that I believe has people particularly worried, is the high-end range of the teams the Jets will face. Houston ranked ninth in passer rating against in 2015 and they were the best team the Jets faced by that ranking. In 2016 the Jets will face four teams better than Houston: Arizona, Kansas City, Seattle and Cincinnati. For a quarterback that had trouble figuring out one of the worst defenses Rex Ryan has ever coached, the task ahead in 2016 doesn’t feel particularly welcoming.
At the risk of making this sound like a “let Fitzpatrick walk” piece, let’s focus on one thing Ryan Fitzpatrick does really well and has also done consistently – getting the ball out quickly. Fitzpatrick has ranked amongst the elite every year since Pro Football Focus began tracking time-to-attempt in 2011 outside his one season in Tennessee. This is something that can’t be overlooked for two reasons. Fitzpatrick’s release quickness masked a great deal of issues up front, particularly two starting tackles that were among the very worst in pressure given up per Pro Football Focus. Also if we look at two popularly mooted alternatives in Robert Griffin or Geno Smith, the Jets’ pass blocking deficiencies are bound to become more apparent. In Smith’s two years as a starter here he ranked among the very worst in terms of time-to-attempt, and in Griffin’s excellent rookie campaign only five passers held onto the ball more frequently. Simply, Fitzpatrick is a quick-fire passer and transitioning to passers that tend to hold onto the ball for long periods could cause more problems than people are anticipating.
Granted, there is definite upside with players like Griffin and Geno Smith that Ryan Fitzpatrick is never going to offer. Even given that however, it is hard to imagine the Jets are outright ready to move on and view these players in the same ballpark of options. Even though Fitzpatrick’s career year was still below average in several respects last season, he brings at least some semblance of stability. For better or worse, he’s mostly been the same player year-to-year.
Having said that, if it comes to an either-or situation I believe the Jets would sooner gamble on one of these players in 2015 than be stuck with Ryan Fitzpatrick on an inflated deal that commits big money beyond 2016. The pivotal moment may be if a team decides to make Griffin a real offer – will the Jets follow suit or does Fitzpatrick call their bluff? Regardless, this isn’t about penny-pinching or not being able to spend money, the reported interest in Olivier Vernon and Kelechi Osemele confirms the Jets are willing to make cap sacrifices for the right kind of game-changing player.
Rather, I think we’re looking at a team that knows it has built at long last a competent passing machine where a replacement level signal caller can effectively be just a cog. The Jets aren’t going to spend a premium on such a player, even if the market otherwise looks thin at the moment. When the musical chairs play themselves out after the draft, there is a good chance the Jets can find somebody for a year to fit the bill, even if it’s a name as un-sexy as Brian Hoyer. But most importantly, Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles do not want simply a “cog” at the helm long term. Whether it’s Fitzpatrick, Griffin, Hoyer, or even one last-ditch Geno Smith effort, there is a good chance that signal caller is just holding down the fort while the Jets bed in an heir apparent taken within the first two rounds in late April.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com