It took months of acrimonious negotiations, a last-ditch settlement that set off unbridled optimism, and then six mostly torturous weeks of the regular season. But at least the Jets got one answer to their complicated quarterback equation. Even if it was the answer they had feared and even if it cost $12 million.
Cross off Ryan Fitzpatrick from the present and future for this franchise, because the 33-year-old played himself out of the lineup in a 1-5 start, throwing just five touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and winding up on the bench.
Now it’s Geno Smith’s turn, as he gets the start in Sunday’s game against the Ravens, but he’s not the long-term solution either. Smith’s contract expires at the end of the season, and barring a spectacular performance in the coming weeks, the Jets are virtually certain to bid him farewell after the season. That leaves Bryce Petty, a fourth-round pick in 2015, and Christian Hackenberg, a second-rounder this year, as the two passers who will be in the mix next year. If not sooner; Petty is now fully recovered from a preseason shoulder injury, and poor play by Smith likely will prompt coach Todd Bowles to see what he has in Petty.
Hackenberg isn’t expected to see the field this season, because coaches believe he’s simply too raw at this point. But next year will be a potentially decisive one for him, because the Jets will view him as a potential starter after a year of getting acclimated to the NFL and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s system.
The Jets had hoped Fitzpatrick could be a “bridge” quarterback between now and the time either young quarterback was ready, but those plans were roiled by Fitzpatrick himself. He had only one good game — a spectacular one, in fact, when he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Bills — but he was spectacularly ineffective in his five other starts. After a Monday night loss in Arizona and a fleeting postgame vote of confidence from Bowles, Fitzpatrick was removed from the lineup, effectively signaling the end of his career as the Jets’ starter. And likely an NFL starter, since no other team other than the Jets entertained serious thoughts of signing him as a starter for 2016.
So where do the Jets go from here and who becomes part of the solution? Here are the possibilities:
• Petty: Coaches and scouts often consider the transition between the first and second years of a player’s career a critical period, and an accurate indicator of his eventual upside. Petty passed that test in a big way, and may have been the team’s most improved player in the offseason and training camp. He had a much firmer grasp of the offense and had played well in limited preseason action. It doesn’t mean he’ll become a capable starter, but it is a sign the former Baylor star can at least be functional. He probably will see some action this season, and the Jets will get a better idea of whether he can be a legitimate option moving forward.
• Hackenberg: Bowles repeatedly has said the former Penn State quarterback isn’t ready, and the only way he’d see the field this year is if Smith and Petty can’t play, or if they are so woefully inadequate that the Jets give him an audition much later in the season. The Jets are clearly taking their time with Hackenberg and allowing him to soak in the NFL culture before testing him in a game.
• Tony Romo. The Cowboys longtime starter is out — again — with an injury, and rookie Dak Prescott has played so well in Romo’s absence that the Cowboys are now leaning toward keeping Prescott in the lineup even when Romo is recovered from a fractured bone in his back. The question then becomes: If Romo is available in a trade, do the Jets take a chance on him? It’s certainly an enticing option, although one with obvious risk. Romo hasn’t played a full season since 2012, and his last two seasons have been impacted by injuries. He turns 37 in April, and playing behind an offensive line as mediocre as the Jets isn’t optimal. In fact, Romo has had the best offensive line in the NFL, and it still didn’t prevent him from getting hurt the last two seasons. Tread carefully on this one.
• Jay Cutler. No. No. No. Cutler has proved multiple times that he’s not to be trusted as a long-term starter, but his name is surely to surface as a potential option now that the Bears are ready to move on. Reuniting Cutler with wide receiver Brandon Marshall is also a nonstarter. The relationship between the two, who had gotten along famously during their time with the Broncos, soured in Marshall’s final season with the Bears in 2014. Did we say Cutler is a bad idea?
• Mike Glennon. The Buccaneers backup has been mentioned as a trade possibility the last two seasons, but the Bucs have been content to keep him as a backup for Jameis Winston. But he becomes a more viable alternative in 2017, because he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. It’s not a great group of free agents in 2017, so he’s at least worth considering.
• Jimmy Garoppolo: Tom Brady’s backup is under contract in 2017, but the Patriots might want to get something in return after drafting Jacoby Brissett in the third round this year. Garoppolo played well during Brady’s suspension, but suffered a shoulder injury in his second start. It’s unlikely the Jets will make a big play for him, not with two drafted quarterbacks on the roster. The Patriots haven’t given any indication about what they might do with Garoppolo, but they’ve shown in the past that they’re not concerned about trading in the division — see: Drew Bledsoe to the Bills. Consider, too, that Matt Cassel did well in Brady’s injury-related absence in 2008, but was abysmal as a starter once he signed with Kansas City the following season.
• Deshone Kizer. The Notre Dame quarterback is the most highly regarded passer coming into next year’s draft, and the Jets are likely to have a pick that at least puts them in range to get him. Despite having some issues this season — coach Brian Kelly benched Kizer in last week’s loss to Stanford — Kizer remains the most viable NFL quarterback among next year’s draft-eligibles. He’s got a much bigger upside than either Hackenberg or Petty, so GM Mike Maccagnan will no doubt do plenty of homework on him. And with the Jets potentially in play for a very high pick, he becomes a much more intriguing possibility. Now the question is: Do the Browns, who could have the No. 1 overall pick, covet Kizer as their franchise quarterback?
• Deshaun Watson. Like last year, when Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were clearly the top two quarterbacks in the draft, it’s another two-man equation with Kizer and Clemson’s Watson. Some see Watson as more suited to run Hue Jackson’s offense in Cleveland, so he will no doubt be a consideration there. If that’s the case, the Jets could have an easier path to Kizer.
Would Maccagnan draft another quarterback after being the only NFL GM with four passers on this year’s roster? He absolutely would. Don’t forget, Maccagnan subscribes to the theory that former Packers GM Ron Wolf always used: You can never have enough quarterbacks, even when you have a good one. Right now, the Jets may not even have that much, so the draft is still very much an option for a team that may or may not have next year’s starting quarterback on this year’s roster.