FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For all the hand-wringing and headline-producing agita coming out of the Jets’ offseason practice regimen, absolutely nothing has changed regarding Ryan Fitzpatrick’s thorny contract situation. The 33-year-old quarterback remains unsigned, his teammates remain hopeful he will be back next season, and coach Todd Bowles is showing absolutely, positively zero concern — as he should — with 101 days remaining until the Jets’ regular-season opener against Cincinnati.
The gridlocked negotiations remain at a standstill, with neither Fitzpatrick’s camp nor the Jets budging a nickel from the basic parameters of a three-year, $24-million deal that includes $15 million guaranteed. But how many times have we seen such seemingly intractable contract situations resolved with one telephone call setting in motion a meaningful discussion that ultimately results in a deal?
We’ve seen it since players first started getting paid — in other words, almost 100 years — that’s how long. And until we see otherwise, it would be a shock not to see Fitzpatrick return to the Jets at or around the start of training camp in late July. With the Jets still the only viable option for Fitzpatrick, who enjoyed a career year in 2015 with 31 touchdown passes and 10 wins, and with no other team willing to offer a starting job and a bigger contract, a reunion remains highly probable. Almost a no-brainer, in fact.
Fitzpatrick said last week he plans to play this season, refuting reports he might contemplate sitting out the season if the Jets’ offer doesn’t significantly improve. And while it would have been nice for both sides to see the quarterback return in time for offseason practices, there is really no reason for Fitzpatrick to agree on a deal now. Better to push the envelope to training camp and create a more realistic deadline situation where both sides are more inclined to blink.
What should have been a routine day of Organized Team Activities (OTA) turned into a post-practice inquisition for veteran wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, who missed last week’s voluntary sessions, leading to speculation they had purposely not shown up as a show of support for Fitzpatrick. Decker said he was on a family vacation and denied the timing had anything to do with Fitzpatrick’s contract situation. And while Marshall refused to say “yes” or “no” when asked repeatedly whether he wasn’t around because of Fitzpatrick, the fact that he is here this week spoke to the reality that no amount of lobbying will lead to an immediate change of heart by Jets GM Mike Maccagnan.
But Maccagnan’s hard-line stance does point to a very real dilemma in terms of where this team is at right now, and why this negotiation has become problematic. With a mix of established veterans either at or over 30, and with another group of younger players now being brought in through the draft by Maccagnan, this is somewhere between a win-now and develop-for-the-future roster. That’s why the team is unwilling to commit serious cash long-term for Fitzpatrick, who is 33 and coming off a career year that likely won’t be duplicated because of a tougher schedule and because Fitzpatrick has a limited ceiling.
The drafting of Christian Hackenberg in the second round and the presence of Geno Smith as a fallback option give the Jets leverage, even if their preference for the short term is to have Fitzpatrick back. Smith has looked sharp in offseason workouts so far, but we’ve seen that before. He looked solid the previous two offseasons, and he was mediocre in 2014 and literally knocked out of the lineup in training camp last year during a locker room fight with linebacker IK Enempkpali.
Fitzpatrick knows this will be the last big contract he signs, so he’s looking for maximum value. But he needs the Jets more than the Jets need him, and the Jets aren’t willing to commit sufficient guaranteed money beyond this season. So the wait continues, and chances are it will last through the end of July . . . and perhaps beyond.
But there is a point of no return for both sides, and that day will eventually get here. The best-case scenario for the team and the player is that Fitzpatrick relents and agrees to a deal — perhaps a slightly sweetened package that can break the logjam. But with the Jets appearing ready to move on with Smith for at least the next season, Fitzpatrick’s leverage is somewhat limited. And if he doesn’t agree to a deal more to the Jets’ liking, the message from Maccagnan and Bowles won’t be what Fitzpatrick wants to hear: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.