FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
In the end, Ryan Fitzpatrick decided he’d rather bet on himself, even if the Jets weren’t. At least not beyond this season.
The 33-year-old quarterback returned to the Jets on Wednesday on a one-year, $12-million deal rather than accept a three-year contract with more guaranteed money but drastically reduced salaries in the second and third seasons. After his first practice since a career-best season, Fitzpatrick made it clear he’d rather try to prove that last year was no fluke rather than cave to an offer no self-respecting competitor could stomach.
“That was a deal that basically said, ‘We want you here, and then we want you to stay here as the backup,’ ” Fitzpatrick said Thursday afternoon. “That’s not how I view myself. I’d much rather pass up on some of that guaranteed money and just sign a one-year deal and bet on myself and see what happens.”
Smart move for Fitzpatrick, even if he raised the stakes significantly on what will happen after the season. He understands that if he bombs this year — not an unreasonable possibility, given how much better he played last season than in his previous 10 in the NFL — he could be gone. But Fitzpatrick never has been short on confidence, and he believes from the top of that mop of hair that was a good 3 inches high, to his trademark bushy beard, to the bottom of his cleats that he can be every bit as good this year.
“I feel like I continue to get better and better as a football player, and I feel more comfortable this year than I did last year and the year before,” Fitzpatrick said. “Hopefully, I continue to get better.”
It will not be easy. The Jets will face a gantlet of talented teams the first six games, featuring five 2015 playoff teams and the Bills, who beat Fitzpatrick twice last year, the second of which cost the Jets a playoff berth.
For all the delight inside the Jets’ locker room and around the metropolitan area, which seemed to scream out a collective “Hallelujah!” after word of his signing got out Wednesday, the euphoria won’t last long if the Jets stumble at the start and Fitzpatrick can’t run the offense as well as he did for most of last season.
General manager Mike Maccagnan still has to be convinced that Fitzpatrick can weather that kind of schedule, not to mention the two games against the Patriots, in which Tom Brady will have returned from his suspension. That’s why Maccagnan was unwilling to offer serious cash in years two and three of his initial proposal, and why he was willing to go with the one-year deal as a way to hedge his own bet on Fitzpatrick.
But at least the Jets get to see how good they can be with largely the same team that nearly made the playoffs in the first year of the Todd Bowles era. Fitzpatrick was the last remaining piece to the puzzle. “It’s a good feeling to be whole again” was how receiver Brandon Marshall put Fitzgerald’s return.
Given that he didn’t play a lick with his teammates during an offseason he admitted was intensely frustrating, Fitzpatrick did remarkably well in his first practice. He looked mostly sharp, although there were two interceptions, including one pass he threw up for grabs at midfield. But there also was a spectacular deep throw to Marshall down the left sideline, a perfectly placed ball that fell right into Marshall’s arms. He called it the best deep ball Fitzpatrick had ever thrown him.
High praise after just one practice. But Fitzpatrick knows he’ll have to produce like that on game day, because there is little margin for error with his short-term deal.
“I have something to prove every year,” said Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round pick out of Harvard in 2005. “I wasn’t the first overall pick. Nothing has ever been handed to me. I just go out and try to prove it every year, and this year is no different.”
Oh, but this year really is different, now that the stakes have been raised. There’s no in-between this time, strictly a boom-or-bust proposition.
Fitzpatrick believes he can win the $12-million bet he just placed on himself.