Two teams, two lousy records, two lousy veteran quarterbacks, and all anyone cares about is the two young quarterbacks who aren’t playing.
But make no mistake: the future of these two teams will be very much in evidence Sunday. Whether or not that future will be reflected in the actual game remains to been seen.
It’s the 3-5 Rams against the 3-6 Jets at MetLife Stadium, where Case Keenum faces Ryan Fitzpatrick in an almost entirely inconsequential game that will do nothing to tilt the balance of power in the NFL. But the two coaches making the call about who plays quarterback are treating it as if a playoff berth is on the line. They even use the same refrain to explain why they’re not turning the page and getting a look at their younger passers.
“Jared’s improving, but Case, right now, especially against this [Jets] defense, gives us our best chance,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said about his reasoning for not going with No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, even though the Rams have lost four straight games.
“We’re down, not out,” Todd Bowles said of his Jets. “Right now, I’m not worried about turning the page. I’m worried about who gives us the best chance to win. Right now, Fitz gives us the best chance to win.”
Both teams have little hope of making a playoff run, not after struggling so badly the first half of the season, due in large measure to the poor performances of their quarterbacks. But Fisher and Bowles are clearly uncomfortable in passing the baton to their younger quarterbacks, despite the eventual inevitability that Goff and either Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg — or another quarterback not currently on the Jets’ roster — will soon be throwing passes for their respective teams.
And it will most likely be sooner rather than later. Perhaps even in this game.
Fitzpatrick suffered a sprained knee in last week’s loss to the Dolphins and is listed as questionable against the Rams. Bowles wants to see Fitzpatrick warm up before being certain he is ready to go, but Fitzpatrick is anxious to remain in the lineup.
“I’m definitely optimistic that I’ll be able to go out there and play, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that happens,” Fitzpatrick said.
And what he needs to be sure of to play?
“Just being able to go out there and not harm the team, in terms of being able to have some mobility,” said Fitzpatrick, who leads the NFL with 13 interceptions while throwing just eight touchdown passes. “Being able to do everything that’s asked in terms of drop backs, and boots, and nakeds [bootlegs] and play-actions, and make sure I can perform the complete game plan.”
This could be Fitzpatrick’s last stand.
Already benched once this season before having to play again when Geno Smith suffered what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, Fitzpatrick’s margin of error is razor thin. And the fact that he almost surely won’t be back next season after his one-year, $12 million contract expires makes it a fait accompli that Petty will eventually get a look. Considering the fragile state of Fitzpatrick’s knee and the aggressiveness of the Rams’ defense, particularly along the line that features All Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Petty at some point.
And the same holds true for the Rams, who are under increasing pressure to get a look at Goff, a star at Cal-Berkeley before becoming the first overall pick in this year’s draft. In a league where teams are increasingly willing to go with younger passer — sometimes by choice, other times by circumstance — Fisher and Bowles are taking the old school approach by keeping their young quarterback prospects on the bench.
The Eagles and Cowboys have taken precisely the opposite approach, with Philadelphia trading veteran Sam Bradford because they saw enough in rookie Carson Wentz to anoint him the starter right away and the Cowboys going with fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott after Tony Romo suffered a back injury in training camp. The Eagles are 4-4 after a 3-0 getaway, and the Cowboys are 7-1 atop the NFC East.
Who’s right in how to handle the quarterbacks? It ultimately depends on the quarterbacks themselves. Sometimes the Day 1 starters turn out to be the long-term answers for their teams, with Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Troy Aikman, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton just some examples of how it can work. Other times, it doesn’t work out, with Ryan Leaf, Mark Sanchez, Tim Couch (who became a starter in Week 2 as a rookie) and David Carr all turning out to be disappointments.
For now, Keenum and Fitzpatrick continue to keep their jobs, however tenuous their situations might be. And who knows? By the time this game is over, Fisher and Bowles may have no other choice but to see what they’ve got in their young prospects.