In which Ryan Fitzpatrick does not play good football, Todd Bowles plays it safe except in one painful instance, the Jets come crashing down to the mean in the red zone, and that whole Jim Mora “playoffs!?” thing…
Remember last week when Ryan Fitzpatrick put together one of his best ever performances on a short week to exorcise a personal demon and give the Jets a huge win, and it was going to give the journeyman starter a new-found confidence? Haaaaaahaha. Geez oh man.
There could be no greater example of the “Fitz coaster” than these past two weeks, stacking arguably his best performance of his career on a short week following one of the worst QB performances of recent history on a 10-day window of preparation. Yet I think it’s actually more predictable than it seems, and it’s a worrying sign for Jets playoff hopes.
Last year the Jets played three defenses that finished in the top ten in opponent passer rating (a measure I like to use due to it combining yard efficiency, touchdown prevention and ability to create turnovers). That was the Bills twice and the Texans. They were ninth and tenth. The trio of games were his worst three on the year, as he combined to go 50/110 (45.5%), 590 yards passing (5.36 Y/A), 5 TDs and 7 INTs, for a passer rating of 51.
This year, the quantity of top ten pass defenses by that measure is doubled. The Jets have already played Cincinnati and Kansas City, two better pass defenses than the Jets played all of last year and the Bills, a traditionally tough opponent for Fitzpatrick. Even with his great performance against Buffalo, his numbers through three games don’t look all that different to the ones above. It’s been an early onslaught, and the Jets are really only half way there. It only gets worse this Sunday, with Seattle being arguably the single best pass defense in the league. The Cardinals defense too awaits soon after, and the Baltimore game all of a sudden doesn’t look as enticing as it once did.
Talk of a permanent switch is premature, but I don’t think we’re far off it being worth having if the red zone woes continue. Sure, Fitzpatrick was still a below-average quarterback in many facets last year too. He was one of the most turnover-prone, inaccurate, and least prolific per-attempt in the league. But he overshadowed this by breaking the franchise single-season touchdown record, and leading a legitimately terrific red zone offense.
This year so far though, it’s been a huge regression. In 2015 the Jets were one of the three best teams in the league converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns, doing so 66% of the time. This year so far the Jets are 28th, converting just 37.5% of red zone opportunities. Regression to the mean? A product of dealing with an early set of strong defensive opponents? Whatever is it, something will have to give. Either Fitzpatrick gets this offense functioning at a higher level here, or keeping him as the starter will soon become completely unjustifiable.
Fitzpatrick needs to prove that he can rise above a bar he can’t seem to surpass. Good defenses are able to frustrate and bait him. He simply doesn’t have the patience to handle them in addition to his typical erratic accuracy. The Jets still want to be a playoff team, and want to be competitive if they get there. That right now sounds nothing short of outrageous given the team’s performances since 2015 against AFC playoff competition.
Good teams tend to be able to defend the pass on an above average level, and the Jets right now have a quarterback that has proven to be woefully unable to handle that. The surrounding talent is there, better even than what many expected prior to the season’s start. Quincy Enunwa has been a huge difference maker, Matt Forte looks fresh thus far and several UDFA receivers are able to contribute on a limited basis. You can hope that this wealth of talent is able to elevate a limited quarterback, but the evidence is saying that with Fitzpatrick there is a threshold he cannot break. The importance of a winning performance against Seattle this Sunday cannot be understated.
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Bowles
As much as we place blame on Ryan Fitzpatrick for last Sunday, you cannot talk about what went wrong without mentioning Todd Bowles and his decision to stick with the sinking ship. A theme of conservatism is developing under this regime, and it frankly starts with the decision to bring Fitzpatrick back. At the heart of it, the Jets brass would have been taking too big a risk not bringing him back at all. There’s a lot to be said about Fitzpatrick’s re-signing indicating a win-now season and how bad it would look on Maccagnan and Bowles if he doesn’t help deliver postseason football. But I think it would have looked even worse if Smith bombed while Fitzpatrick was out there without a deal and the money to bring him back.
It’s easier to say “we brought back the core form last year and it didn’t work” than to make the bold decision to make the change to a quarterback that (whether fair or not) is unpopular with the fanbase. But all I’m really talking about here is how Bowles and Maccagnan could most safely navigate job security. I already said my piece about
why rolling the dice with Smith could have been a worthwhile risk here, but this is where we’re at. I could also talk at length about the perils of how spending big to win early rather than a slower rebuild puts too much pressure on a team with no real obvious QB solution, but that’s a debate for another time.
Back to Bowles. It’s fair to start being hard on him for things he should have a better grasp of. I’ve said in the past that I’ve liked what he has done here so far with some caveats, things that I would hope improve over time as he settles into being a head coach full time. We are reaching 20 games now that he’s been the man in charge of this football team, and this is still a head coach with little grasp for game management. Just one week after openly admitting he botched a call on not going for a two-point conversion, he failed to use any timeouts to get the ball back with halftime approaching against a traditionally conservative offense that was receiving the ball second half and had a two-score lead.
Fitzpatrick remains in the game after 3, 4, 5, *6* interceptions. This simply does not seem like a coach making measured, thoughtful in-game management decisions. Even if he is handling business in-house the practice week after, the impression here is that Bowles is a passenger during the game and not in control of it.
Even one of the big risks Bowles is taking, the trust in UDFA Jalin Marshall both on offense and as a returner, is uneven. It is great the Jets have found a player with such promise as a UDFA, but you can acknowledge both that a UDFA has great promise and also that he is not ready to have an important role on the team. After his second straight cough-up in a week that led to a score, Marshall remained in the game with his role untouched. That is until the very end of the game, where Quincy Enunwa replaced him as a kick returner. Where is the logic in this?
Going all the way back to the Jets’ decision to hire Bowles, Woody Johnson went yet again with the hands-on defensive mind with just a handful of games as an interim head coach under his belt. I don’t like to focus purely on what a coach’s game-day responsibilities are, because it is one of many responsibilities a man in that position has. But clearly, it is important and can be just as vital to a win as much as the entire week of preparation preceding the game.
A prospective head coach can convince an owner that he’s been mentored by several great head coaches, and he has a vision for his own program. He can explain that he was once a leader in an NFL locker room, so he knows how to lead men. He can show the results of his unit as a coordinator and explain how he knows Xs and Os. He can point to their lack of penalties, their consistent week preparation. But there is no direct translation for a positional coach or coordinator to explain to an owner that he knows how to manage an NFL game. There’s no definitive measure to show that when put in a position of power, he can properly recognize the flow of the game and make the correct game management decisions.
There is nothing wrong with hiring a coordinator with a strong reputation as a schemer in itself. A head coach can have his expertise and be hands-on with them all he likes, but it is a problem if he is unable to effectively manage the moments of a football game. Bowles literally admitted in relation to the two-point botch against Buffalo that he was tied up with something defense related. It was an issue with the man before, and it is an issue now.
It has to get better. To be a great head coach, you can’t just be a good coach. You have to be a good manager too.
The Chiefs owned time of possession, were able to effectively feature Travis Kelce, and had Chris Conley clowning Darrelle Revis more than once. But in terms of the score you could attribute to the defense, the end result was just 17 points (technically 10, but the Ware fumble in the end zone was the flukiest of flukes). This all while operating several times on a short field due to turnovers. The Chiefs are no offensive power house, but 17 points in today’s offense-geared NFL is a shot to win almost always. Before last Sunday, the Jets under this current regime scored at least 17 points every game. It was by no means perfect, but they did their job.
Still, this unit has gone from looking possibly better than it was in 2015 to being a cause for concern nearly everywhere besides the elite defensive line. Darron Lee not withstanding, there isn’t a single position in the back seven that feels better off than it did last year. Is this as good as we’re going to get with Calvin Pryor? Is Marcus Williams destined to be a rotational corner as his peak? How much worse is it going to look for Darrelle Revis? After two weeks of giving up big plays, not allowing any against the Chiefs of all teams is not enough to alleviate concern.
A defensive line as good as what the Jets have can mask a lot of issues. But with a more difficult schedule than last year, a playoff push needs better. It has already cost the Jets a loss against an AFC playoff contender, and nearly did the same against a divisional opponent. It does not get any easier, with teams like Pittsburgh, Arizona and even Seattle coming up who are capable of scoring big points.
Photo Credit: New York jets.com