Talk about a tepid vote of confidence.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick coming off the worst performance of his career — a six-interception stinker in a 24-3 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City — Jets coach Todd Bowles damned his veteran quarterback with faint praise by suggesting his play can’t help but improve in Sunday’s game against the Seahawks.
When asked if there was anything during the week that led him to think Fitzpatrick will put together a better performance, Bowles said, “You can’t play any worse. We can’t coach it any worse. There is no way to go but up.”
Bowles went on to say he and the coaching staff “have all the confidence in the world in Ryan,” but you get the idea. Fitzpatrick performed so miserably in a critical loss to the Chiefs — a team the Jets might be competing with for a wild-card spot if they get their act together — that the coach was left with little else to offer in believing that Fitzpatrick will play better.
Like it or not, the Jets’ fate is tied inextricably to a quarterback whose performance can be as wildly erratic as the last two games. He was positively brilliant in slicing up Rex Ryan’s defense in a Week 2 win in Buffalo, a nearly flawless performance that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. But he was utterly abhorrent against the Chiefs, throwing four interceptions in the fourth quarter alone and unwittingly contributing to another player of the week selection. This time it was Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters. He had two interceptions and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Fitzpatrick hopes the pendulum swings the other way against the Seahawks, although that task is a perilous one against a defense that can make even the best quarterbacks seem ordinary. With cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas anchoring a terrific secondary, and Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril offering up an elite pass rush, coach Pete Carroll’s attack-centric defense could make Fitzpatrick look as bad as he did against the Chiefs.
It doesn’t help that Eric Decker, one of Fitzpatrick’s most reliable receivers, and rookie Jalin Marshall, who has done a nice job in the early going, will be out with shoulder injuries. That leaves Brandon Marshall as the go-to receiver, although Quincy Enunwa has shown flashes of becoming a legitimate No. 2 receiver. In fact, he might be the Jets’ most improved player thus far.
“Seattle is definitely up there when you think or talk about defense in this league,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ve probably been the standard for the longest. It’s a lot of the same guys, same scheme, and it’s tough to play against them.”
But Fitzpatrick insists his focus isn’t on the Seahawks. “The focus is on us and trying to figure out the things that are going to make us productive in this game and accentuate our guys and get them the ball,” he said.
That’s the approach that helped him produce a career year in 2015, when he finished with a franchise-record 31 touchdown passes. But his numbers this year remind you that when you use the phrase “career year,” it means just that — the best a player will ever have. Fitzpatrick has three touchdown passes and seven interceptions this season.
It’s further proof that the Jets were correct in not tying up an inordinate amount of money in Fitzpatrick during contentious negotiations during the offseason. While no other team was willing to offer anything close to what the Jets had in mind, Fitzpatrick decided to take a one-year, $12-million deal and essentially bet that he’d prove worthy of a longer-term deal.
He’s still the Jets’ best hope this season, and Bowles is willing to deal with the fallout from a performance like last week in hopes of Fitzpatrick rebounding in the weeks ahead.
Halfway through a brutal stretch of six games — five of them against teams that made the playoffs last year — Fitzpatrick needs to come out of this at 3-3 to give his team a chance to qualify for a playoff berth.
Forget the AFC East, because the Patriots are a lock to win the division. With a crowded field of wild-card contenders, getting to January is a daunting task. It will be an impossible one unless Fitzpatrick starts playing the way he did last year and against the Bills two weeks ago. Anything less, and the Jets are finished.
So, too, could be Fitzpatrick’s time with the Jets.