If last year was the season of redemption for Ryan Fitzpatrick, then 2016 figures to be the season of validation. Or so he hopes.
Fitzpatrick took advantage of an unusual, if not unprecedented situation last year by responding to the punch heard ’round the Jets’ locker room and rallying his team to a 10-6 record with his best season in what had been a mostly Quixotic journey through the NFL. With a team-record 31 touchdown passes and a ride through the regular season that nearly ended with a playoff appearance, Fitzpatrick captured the imagination of Jets fans with the kind of excitement and anticipation that Vinny Testaverde had produced nearly two decades earlier.
But for all the good vibes of 2015, the cold slap in the face of a season-ending loss to the Bills — and with it the playoffs — was followed by a cold shoulder from the Jets’ front-office when it came to contract negotiations. General manager Mike Maccagnan wouldn’t come close to Fitz’s initial contract demands, and only a last-minute change of heart led to a breakthrough the day before the first practice of training camp.
Fitzpatrick settled for what essentially amounted to a one-year, $12 million “prove-it” deal and finally rejoined the team. It’s not the kind of deal he’d hoped for, and many of his closest teammates, including wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, felt the same way. Fitzpatrick was hoping for a multi-year deal that would make this his last stop in the NFL, but Maccagnan clearly didn’t want to invest a huge guarantee in a quarterback who turns 34 in November and who had not come close to putting up the kind of numbers he produced last year.
And that’s where the validation comes in.
Fitzpatrick’s only hope of turning last year’s feel-good renaissance into a more permanent spot in the Jets’ lineup is to put up another season with similar numbers. And that’s no small task, considering the Jets’ schedule takes a quantum leap this season, including a season-opening six-game gauntlet that features five playoff teams from last season and the Bills, who beat the Jets twice last year. That includes the regular season finale, in which Rex Ryan’s defense got the best of Fitzpatrick in his old home in Buffalo, turning him back into a pumpkin by forcing three interceptions in a 22-17 Jets loss.
And don’t forget, the early-season stretch doesn’t include the Patriots, who will be without Tom Brady the first month of the season as he serves the suspension that Roger Goodell hit him with for his alleged involvement in the use of purposely deflated footballs in the January, 2015 AFC championship game against the Colts.
Evidently, there aren’t many believers in Fitzpatrick outside the Jets’ locker room. The most recent put-down: In a recently released quarterback ranking done by ESPN’s Mike Sando, which consulted a panel of 42 coaches and front-office executives, Fitzpatrick wound up at No. 25.
Fitzpatrick takes these things in stride and occasionally uses them for motivation, but he’s mostly sanguine about such criticism. After all, you don’t get this far by believing the skeptics, because Fitzpatrick has somehow carved out a 12-year career after coming into the league as a seventh-round pick out of a school known more for brains than brawn. The Harvard alum is as book smart as they come, but he’s also a street smart athlete who wins over his teammates no matter where he plays.
Jets’ players adore him, as evidenced by the gleeful ceremony a few days ago when Fitz agreed to get a buzz cut after throwing an interception. His teammates also believe in his talent, even if the team’s financial decision-makers and other front-office execs are left wanting when evaluating his talent.
Fitzpatrick knocked off some more of the rust created by his off-season contract impasse, going 3 of 4 for 72 yards — including two passes for 69 yards to receiver Quincy Enunwa — in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Jaguars. The tune-ups continue with three more preseason games before Fitzpatrick faces the herculean task that awaits him with the rugged early-season schedule.
The odds are stacked against him, but Fitzpatrick remains undeterred.
“I have something to prove every year,” Fitzpatrick said. “Nothing has ever been handed to me. I just go out and try to prove it every year, and this year is no different.”
It is, actually. After raising the bar last year, it’s win-or-else.
Fitzpatrick is willing to take that bet.