The journeyman has found a home.
Ryan Fitzpatrick went from being a discarded quarterback in Houston to being a guiding force in the Jets’ new-look offense in only nine months.
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His coaches praise him, his teammates rave about him. And all the while, he’s quietly gone about his business.
But the stats don’t lie.
The Jets have the 10th-best offense in the NFL, Fitzpatrick is seven touchdown passes shy of tying Vinny Testaverde’s franchise record (29), and, most importantly, the team’s playoff hopes remain alive in mid-December.
And they’re doing it all with the 11-year veteran leading the charge.
“If it wasn’t for him, man, there’s no telling where we’d be right now,” receiver Brandon Marshall said.
But Fitzpatrick knows the Jets’ postseason push hinges on each week’s performance. That’s why Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans (3-9) is so critical.
“We’re not a good enough team to overlook anybody,” he said when asked about it being a potential “trap game.” “We’ve got to treat every one like it’s the playoffs.”
The Jets (7-5) are riding a two-game winning streak, including an emotional overtime victory over the Giants last Sunday. They’re also the healthiest they’ve been in weeks with defensive backs Darrelle Revis (concussion), Marcus Williams (sprained left knee) and Dion Bailey (high ankle sprain) expected to play.
The Titans, meanwhile, have the face of their franchise in rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, but they’re still struggling. They’re in last place in the AFC South.
But expect to see their defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau bring the heat against the Jets. Asked this week about Fitzpatrick, who has a reputation of putting his body in harm’s way, LeBeau said with a smile: “If he ain’t sliding, we say: Knock the hell out of him.”
Reminding Fitzpatrick to slide is a weekly task for Jets coaches, but it’s a warning the quarterback rarely heeds. Case in point: He tore a ligament in his left thumb in Week 8 on a 12-yard scramble against the Raiders. Twelve days later, he had surgery. Nine days after that, he played.
There are worse critiques for a quarterback, and the Jets believe they have a good one in Fitzpatrick.
“He didn’t surprise me,” coach Todd Bowles said of Fitzpatrick, who became the Jets’ starter when incumbent Geno Smith had his jaw broken in an Aug. 11 locker-room altercation with then-teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali.
“Like the rest of the team, we grew together. We all had our speed bumps earlier in the year, trying to find out who we were and how we are. And as he’s gotten more and more experience and more and more comfortable with everything, he’s letting it all come out and he’s not trying to win the game by himself . . . and doing everything he needs to to win.”
Bowles said he had “a lot of input” in the organization’s decision to trade a late-round pick to the Texans in March in exchange for the well-traveled Fitzpatrick. “I played against him for a couple years now. Just judging the quarterbacks out there, we watched them all, and Fitz was our choice,” Bowles said.
Fitzpatrick, affectionately referred to as “FitzMagic” by his devoted fans, doesn’t have impressive career stats: 40-60-1 as a starter with 145 touchdown passes and 112 interceptions. But because of his intellect, his maturity and his pocket poise, he quickly gained the confidence of his new teammates.
“He understands the game. He gets it. Not everybody gets it,” said offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, Fitzpatrick’s head coach in Buffalo from 2010-12. “There’s a lot of talented people out there, guys that can run faster, guys that can throw harder, but he understands the game and he has a great ability to adjust to the people that play on the field with him.
“He can adjust to a different receiver. If we’ve got a different kind of receiver, he can make the adjustment. If we have a different kind of running back, he can make the adjustment. That’s what makes him unique in my book.”