FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - As much as Ryan Fitzpatrick's return to the starting lineup speaks to his toughness in playing with a torn ligament in his left thumb, it also points to the thinking in the Jets' organization about the team's overall quarterback situation.
By choosing to go with a quarterback who eventually will need surgery and is in a sense playing one-handed, the Jets are providing further evidence that they essentially have given up on Geno Smith.
No one was saying that outright on Wednesday, when the team returned to practice for the first time since Ryan hurt the thumb on his non-throwing hand on the first series of Sunday's 34-20 stinkeroo of a loss in Oakland. Not Todd Bowles, who simply said after practice that Fitzpatrick would remain the starter. Not Fitzpatrick, who believes he can play through the injury, just as his friend Carson Palmer did when he suffered a similar injury early in the 2009 season. And not Smith, who did not outwardly complain about the decision.
But Smith's body language and admission of being conflicted about the situation were sufficient to see the obvious conclusion that Bowles' decision pointed toward.
Smith was asked if it was a disappointing turn of events after playing most of Sunday's game and doing a decent, if not perfect, job by throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
"Yes and no," he said. "I understand what's going on, but at the same time, you want to play."
Smith suffered a bruised left (non-throwing) shoulder on a run he should have gone out of bounds on but instead collided with cornerback David Amerson. But there was no structural damage, and he seemed fine at practice on Wednesday, meaning he was by far the healthier of the two quarterbacks.
But the reason for the choice was obvious: Bowles prefers to go with the quarterback he believes is more trustworthy than the younger and more physically gifted Smith. After an entire offseason's worth of commitment to Smith was undone with that jaw-breaking punch delivered on Aug. 11 by then-teammate IK Enempkali, this is now Fitzpatrick's team until further notice. Even though Fitzpatrick himself acknowledged that the pain in his left thumb is so severe that his wife relieved him of diaper-changing responsibilities for the couple's newborn child.
Now that the Jets are approaching the halfway mark of the season, this appears to be Fitzpatrick's team the rest of the way. It would be a shock if the Jets don't move on from Smith after the season and look for another quarterback, whether it be through the draft, free agency or a trade, to compete with -- and potentially replace -- Fitzpatrick.
"As a player, you want to be out there and have a chance," Smith said. "But I understand what's going on, so I'm not really that disappointed about that part of it."
What's going on is similar to what Smith experienced his first two years with the Jets, only in reverse. He was given every chance to beat out Mark Sanchez as a rookie, a decision that became moot once Sanchez suffered what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason. A year later, the Jets brought in Michael Vick, but never gave him a legitimate chance to be the full-time starter.
The situation is the opposite for Smith, who went into the offseason as the presumptive starter and made what appeared to be good progress. But once he was punched out of the lineup, it opened the door for Fitzpatrick, who promptly got out to a 4-1 start and played well, even when the Jets lost Oct. 25 to the Patriots in Foxborough.
Now that Fitzpatrick is down to just one healthy thumb, Bowles still is unwilling to take him out and go with Smith.
"He looked fine," Bowles said of Fitzpatrick. "He did everything that he would normally do."
There is still plenty of season left, still time for Smith to see more action in the event Fitzpatrick's injured thumb becomes problematic. But Bowles seems set with Fitzpatrick, and Smith appears resigned to that reality.
Someone suggested to Smith that Bowles' decision continues the narrative that the coach began the day Smith was punched: that if things are going well with Fitzpatrick in the lineup, then that's how it will stay.
"I think that message has been sent," Smith said.
And message received. Smith knows where he stands: on the outside looking in.