New York Jets – Ryan Fitzpatrick Saga and Risk of Geno Smith

There is a narrative of incompetence that surrounds the New York Jets, particularly at the quarterback position. Even good Jets teams in the past have had a history of average quarterback play. Now that the Jets are actually coming off one of their best passing seasons in the last twenty years, the possibility of Fitzpatrick not returning has a “here we go again” feel to it…

Teams generally don’t like to risk losing a player at such an important position when coming off such a productive season. The Jets clearly would like to have Fitzpatrick back, because consistency on offense is important and the team was in playoff contention with him as the starter. But there is a reason the Jets are prepared to go with Geno Smith if Fitzpatrick doesn’t want to be paid how the Jets value him. Clever offensive minds with a good supporting cast can generate a respectable passing offense without the need for a superstar behind center. Kirk Cousins and Andy Dalton of last season were perfect examples. The Jets, under Ryan Fitzpatrick, were another such team. When talking about players outside of the upper echelon, the quality of production has many more variables than simply the quality of the man taking the snaps. Look no further than the career trajectory of Fitzpatrick himself for the importance of system and talent in elevating a replacement level player.

Naturally due to Fitzpatrick’s journeyman status, there is fair skepticism in regards to his ability to repeat his 2015 performance. Even last year, he was still a quarterback that ranked around the bottom amongst starters in several key areas like completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, and interceptions. This is not a “give Geno a chance” piece, as some of my points below will show. What I will hope to get across here is this: Ryan Fitzpatrick is the safe option to start in 2016, but the Jets are right to be uncomfortable committing to him long-term. There should also be skepticism over how good he’ll be even this upcoming year. And in a scenario where Fitzpatrick does not return, Geno Smith would almost certainly be a good deal better as a starter now than he was in his first two seasons.

Ryan Fitzpatrick was lucky in 2015, and probably won’t be again in 2016. He also threw more interceptable passes per attempt in 2015 than Geno Smith did in 2014. 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, already top five in the league in interceptions, benefited from an unusually high amount of dropped interceptions according to Cian Fahey’s interceptable passes project. His 31 interceptable passes trailed only Carson Palmer for league-highest, and Fitzpatrick benefited from a rate of just 1-in-3 in regards to how many were actually picked.  For all the groaning at Geno Smith’s turnover rate in his two years as a starter, Fitzpatrick actually had a worse rate of interceptable passes than Geno Smith did in 2014. Referencing Cian Fahey’s work again, Smith in his last year as a starter threw an interceptable ball every 21.6 attempts. Ryan Fitzpatrick did so this year once every 18.1 attempts. Geno Smith is still more prone to turning the ball over in terms of fumbles (more on that later), but there’s a narrative with Geno Smith that he’s a ticking time bomb in terms of turnovers while Fitzpatrick represents better ball security. It’s simply not true.

You’re not going to change Ryan Fitzpatrick. If Fitzpatrick is going to perform more efficiently than he has previously, it will come down to supporting cast – players like Matt Forte and Bilal Powell providing consistent options out of the backfield, Quincy Enunwa or Jace Amaro providing a consistent threat from the H-back position, and a true third wide receiver emerging.

Brandon Marshall is coming off the best skill position year in Jets history, and has been a consistent producer with a laundry list of ordinary QBs throughout his career. 

Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Moore, Jason Campbell, Josh McCown, Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith. Since 2007 Brandon Marshall has been one of the most consistent and prolific receivers in the NFL, and he’s done it on four different teams and with no one else but the aforementioned quarterbacks. His production is essentially quarterback-proof.

The Jets acquired both Marshall and Fitzpatrick via trade last year, but the chatter regarding Marshall’s elevation of the Jets passing offense pales in comparison to the amount of worry there is about whether or not the Jets will have Fitzpatrick return. Fitzpatrick may have set the Jets single season touchdown record in basically 15 games, but he relied on Marshall and his own record breaking season an awful lot. In addition to comfortably holding the single-season receptions and receiving yards record, Marshall is also tied at the top with Don Maynard and Art Powell for most touchdowns in a single season. Coming in fourth is Eric Decker’s 2015 season as well, with the starting pair accounting for 26 of the team’s 33 total passing touchdowns last year.

Eric Decker’s great second season with New York is a positive consequence of Marshall’s presence. Somewhat out of his element as the Jets’ premier receiver in 2014, seeing many more snaps against the opposition’s second-best corner had Decker on the winning side of more match-ups. It also gave Decker more opportunities to operate in the slot where he proved to be incredibly effective. The biggest effect of pairing the two players together though came in the red zone. Both players prior to 2015 had multiple double digit touchdown seasons already under their belts. With both on the field simultaneously, the Jets gave opposing defenses a quandary.

Getting back to the big picture, the effect Brandon Marshall has on the Jets passing offense isn’t going to change with the quarterback. Whether it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or Geno Smith, Marshall will continue carrying the passing offense. He’s going to allow Decker to play in more favored roles. Players with his massive catch radius, dangerous yard-after-catch potential, dominant red zone ability and consistency are special.

A safety comes crashing down at the end of this play and is in perfect position to intercept the pass around the 30 yard line. The throw is inaccurate and right in that defender’s lane – if not for Marshall making the spectacular look routine, this could have been Washington’s ball close to the red zone.

Chan Gailey’s offense simplifies reads for quarterbacks, and as an offensive coordinator has a history of salvaging production from meager QB talents. 

This was the initial reason for optimism going back to this time last year. Geno Smith may have had a tough time mastering Marty Mornhinweg’s offense, but Gailey’s offense has a history of working with a “less is more” approach and simplifying things for passers with just ordinary ability. Fitzpatrick’s and Gailey’s time together  in Buffalo has already been well documented. In 12 games of significant action, Gailey helped Tyler Thigpen score 21 total touchdowns to 14 turnovers for the Chiefs in 2008. In 1997 Gailey was also the offensive coordinator for Kordell Stewart’s breakout year where he scored 32 total touchdowns.

Last year, the Jets ran a lot of plays that made things easier for any quarterback. Gailey helped the Jets (finally) run successful screens with some consistency and frequently called pass plays that cut the field in half. Fitzpatrick last year was often a one-read quarterback.

This is a well-designed play meant for Decker from the start. Marshall draws attention and creates a pick (common in Gailey’s schemes), leaving Decker an open lane and an easy pass for the touchdown.

Bilal Powell and the blocking of the right offensive line makes the play, but it goes down as a 25-yard passing touchdown on third and long for Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s another clever play design that serves to target the vulnerable middle of the field after spreading the field in an empty set.

Gailey likes mobile quarterbacks, and this play is a good reason why. By rolling one way the field is cut in half. Fitzpatrick can hit Cumberland short, Marshall long, Decker late close to the first down, or possibly run it as a worst case scenario.

Forget the name Geno Smith and all the negative feelings associated with him. The next quarterback in line is a top 40 pick in his fourth year, who two years ago mirrored several aspects of 2015 Fitzpatrick’s production in a worse offensive situation. Outside of two Hall of Famers, Smith is probably the most talented quarterback Gailey has worked with.

Ryan Fitzpatrick commandeered a very efficient red zone passing attack. 

Fitzpatrick didn’t have a superior completion percentage in 2015 to Smith’s in 2014, nor did he have a superior yard-per-attempt rate. As explained above, he didn’t necessarily take care of the ball better either. But there’s one particular spot on the field that the Jets do not want to mess with what was working so well, and that is in the red zone. The Jets were third in the league in red zone touchdown efficiency at 66.04% percent. While the situations were different, it’s worth noting that the Jets in 2014 were dead last in the league and in 2013 were 27th. Geno Smith did deliver touchdowns on the Jets’ two red zone trips in Oakland however, for what little that may mean.

As has been detailed already, the duo of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker as well as clever scheming from Chan Gailey has undoubtedly been key. But this is one area where the Jets can legitimately say Fitzpatrick performed in a manner of which the Jets have not seen from Geno Smith before.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith are polar opposites in terms of time to attempt.

The internal clock of these two quarterbacks is probably the single biggest difference between the two, and is where Fitzpatrick’s value is the highest to this Jets team. Ryan Fitzpatrick has one of the quickest release times on average in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, whereas Geno Smith (both in 2014 and his one game in Oakland in 2015) tends to hold onto the ball longer than the majority of quarterbacks in the league. PFF’s sack and drop back data has Fitzpatrick being sacked once every 32.4 drop backs last year, whereas Smith in 2014 was brought down for a sack once every 15.2 drop backs. This is despite the offensive line’s pass protection being arguably worse last year than it was two years ago. Sacks obviously seriously hamper drives, but also make quarterbacks more prone to fumbles.

If we factor in number of fumbles to Fahey’s interceptable passes work and create a comprehensive potential turnover rate by including fumbles, Fitzpatrick’s 2015 and Geno Smith’s 2014 rates are almost identical. Both players created an opportunity for a turnover roughly once every 17 drop backs.

The potential for starter Geno Smith to be a surprise success story will be largely attached to the performance of the offensive line. That seems like an obvious thing to say about any quarterback, but it is an important distinction between Fitzpatrick’s and Smith’s play styles. Holding too long onto the ball and having to rebound during the “second play” is a flaw of Smith’s, whereas Fitzpatrick often knows where he wants to go with the ball before it is even snapped. Fitzpatrick’s style of play helps mitigate an underwhelming offensive line, whereas Geno Smith would be exposed by one.

In the End…

Fitzpatrick returning to the Jets still seems inevitable. The Jets want him back, they’re the only team that has made an offer to him four months into his free agency, and he has already refuted the retirement angle. So what is he waiting for?

Yet with OTAs now under way, the Jets must also prepare for the alternative if Fitzpatrick doesn’t want to be paid like a lower-level starter. There should be belief in the support system that has been built here. There should be at least a little belief that a 2nd round pick in year four is better prepared to handle the rigors of the league than he was earlier in his career. There should be an understanding that in some ways, Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick are closer in ability than people think. You could even make the argument that starting Smith regardless has a larger possible pay-off than bringing back Fitzpatrick, though also clearly a lower floor as well.

It shouldn’t be outrageous to say that the Jets could be ok with Geno Smith starting, because Ryan Fitzpatrick was never a savior to begin with. Whether Fitzpatrick comes back or not, the passing attack will continue to function primarily through the elite receiver tandem the Jets possess and the clever offensive mind in charge.

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