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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Protecting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick from hits is key to his success

Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the New York Jets

Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the New York Jets is sacked in the second quarter by Connor Barwin #98 of the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFL game at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 27, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Chan Gailey has a pretty good idea about what the problem has been with Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Actually, the Jets' offensive coordinator is convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt about what the issue has been.

Fitzpatrick has had a tendency at various points of his career to start a season off extremely well, only to see his performance drop off.

It happened in Buffalo in 2011, when Fitzpatrick started the season off so well that the Bills rewarded him with a monstrous contract in October. But then the bottom fell out, and Fitzpatrick was relieved of his duties as the starter by the end of the following season.

It happened again last season with the Texans. Fitzpatrick won the starting job in training camp and got off to a 3-1 start for first-year coach Bill O'Brien. But by early November, after a series of average performances by Fitzpatrick, O'Brien had turned to Ryan Mallett as his starter.

So what was behind the drop-offs? "I know why it happened," said Gailey, who was the Bills' head coach when Fitzpatrick was the Buffalo starter.

And the reason? "Just taking hits," Gailey said.

He may have a point. Check out Fitzpatrick's stat line in 2011, and you see he was sacked only three times in his first five games. The Bills went 4-1 in that span, with Fitzpatrick throwing 10 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. But in his next 11 games, he was sacked 19 times and threw 14 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions as Buffalo went 2-9.

When the Texans started off 2-0 last year, Fitzpatrick wasn't sacked, threw three touchdown passes and produced passer ratings of more than 100.0 in both games. In his next two games, he was sacked a combined five times and had two touchdown passes and five picks.

Cause and effect? There's not a sliver of doubt in Gailey's mind.

"As long as we can keep him upright and not take a bunch of hits," Gailey said, "I think he'll be just fine for the long haul."

It has been a strikingly similar start for Fitzpatrick in what turned into an unexpected role as the Jets' starter this season. Taking over the No. 1 job after Geno Smith was punched by linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali in training camp, Fitzpatrick was almost flawless in his first two games. In wins over the Browns and Colts, he had a combined four touchdown passes and two interceptions, and was sacked once.

Pass protection wasn't so much the issue in last week's 24-17 loss to the Eagles, although the Eagles consistently pressured Fitzpatrick, especially when the Jets fell behind 24-0. He wound up throwing a career-high 58 passes, had three interceptions and said afterward that throwing so often certainly is not the ideal formula for success. It didn't help that the Jets were without bruising tailback Chris Ivory and No. 2 wide receiver Eric Decker.

Now it's on to the Dolphins in London, as Fitzpatrick looks to rebound from last week's poor showing. Ivory is expected to play and Decker might return. The Dolphins' defense has been a major disappointment -- the team has only one sack this season -- but Fitzpatrick takes nothing for granted against a team coming off a 41-14 home loss to the Bills. "Historically, look at the guys that they have up front and the way they performed," said Fitzpatrick, referring to a front that includes Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. "They create some matchup problems for you. I'm not sitting here looking at that saying, 'Boy, I'm going to be able to sit back there all day and throw.' They've got a lot of talented guys up front that can rush the passer."

But if his offensive coordinator is correct in his assessment of Fitzpatrick's past issues, and if the Jets' offensive line gives him adequate time to find his receivers, there's no reason he can't rebound with another solid performance.

With Smith healthy again and ready for duty if needed, Fitzpatrick will need to remain solid to continue as the starter.

It's pretty much a weekly referendum for Fitzpatrick, who has been told by coach Todd Bowles that he will remain the starter. But that is not an open-ended assurance, especially in a league in which impatience with quarterback play has never been more pronounced. Unless you are a franchise-caliber quarterback, job security usually lasts only as long as you produce.

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