Todd Bowles had no hesitation about reinstating Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Jets’ starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. He announced last Monday that Fitzpatrick would be back because his injured knee had sufficiently healed.
But after the game itself, which the Patriots won in excruciatingly familiar fashion for a Jets team so used to heartbreak at the hands of the perennial AFC East champions and four-time Super Bowl winners, Bowles seemed less sure about the quarterback’s status.
“I’m going to evaluate everything going forward,” Bowles said after a 22-17 loss in which the Jets lost a late lead on — what else? — a vintage Tom Brady touchdown drive at the end. “I’m not going to make a rash decision one way or the other, but for the most part, [Fitzpatrick] did a good job.”
Even Fitzpatrick obfuscated when asked what has now become an all-too-familiar question about whether he assumes he’ll remain the starter.
“I feel like I’m just not going to answer that question anymore,” he said. “I know you have to ask it, but all I do is work as hard as I can, and every time I get an opportunity, I [try to do] the best I can to lead the team.”
If Bowles sticks to his reasoning for going back to Fitzpatrick in the first place — namely, that he has been the starter most of the season and, if healthy, he will continue to be — then the 34-year-old veteran will continue to play. But at 3-8 and with the Jets long since eliminated from realistic playoff contention, what’s the point?
With the unanswered question of whether Bryce Petty can be a viable option moving forward still hovering over the franchise, there has to be some point at which Bowles is willing to find out what he has in the second-year quarterback.
As Bowles told me last Monday, shortly after announcing his decision to keep Fitzpatrick as the starter for the Patriots game, 3-10 would qualify as a point of no return in which it would make sense to play Petty. And perhaps even get a look at some point at rookie Christian Hackenberg, although it seems more likely that the Jets will treat the entire season as a redshirt year for the former Penn State quarterback.
“If you get to 3-10 or something like that, you can say it’s lost,” Bowles said. “At 3-7, it’s not lost. We’re in ballgames. We lost 9-6 [to the Rams on Nov. 13], we’re in it in a game we’ve got to win, so everybody’s playing hard. Our spirit is good and our locker room is fine. Everybody knows they earn their own keep, and they play on their own merits.”
In the strictest sense, Petty might not have done enough to take Fitzpatrick’s spot, and there is something to be said about Bowles’ contention that he’s not in the business of giving away jobs. But practically speaking, we are at the point right now where it makes sense to give Petty a legitimate chance in the coming weeks. With upcoming games against the Colts and 49ers, both of whom have losing records, there might be no better time to see if Petty can provide the kind of spark this team needs right now.
Bowles certainly can justify in his own mind the notion of sticking with Fitzpatrick, because he did a mostly credible job against a Patriots team that looks ready to contend for another championship. In fact, for more than three quarters, he was statistically better than Brady, who missed practice time this past week with a knee injury and seemed limited for much of the game. Fitzpatrick had two touchdown passes and a 115.2 rating.
But in the end, when the Jets needed him most, Fitzpatrick made the kind of mistakes that have largely defined his career and been a major reason why only the Jets were interested in signing him as a starter in the offseason. He couldn’t get the Jets past their own 30 while holding a one-point lead with less than six minutes to play, incurring an intentional-grounding penalty on second down and throwing an incompletion on third-and-11.
The Jets were forced to punt, and Brady provided his usual dose of magic with a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended with the winning 8-yard touchdown pass to rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
If you are a Jets fan with any sense of history, the pit in your stomach foretold the ending, as it has so many painful times before. The strip-sack of Fitzpatrick by defensive end Chris Long, while not the quarterback’s fault, was the final moment of agony.
The scenario was slightly less gruesome, albeit unmistakably similar, to the fourth quarter of the 2015 regular-season finale in Buffalo, when Fitzpatrick’s three fourth-quarter interceptions ended their playoff hopes and ultimately evaporated any contractual leverage Fitzpatrick might have enjoyed in the offseason.
He came back to the Jets on a one-year prove-it deal, but the only thing he proved was that he’s not the long-term answer. Which is why 3-8 should be a time for thinking ahead and what the solutions might be for next year.
It’s time to find out if Petty is one of them.