ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.
For almost an entire season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the best feel-good story going in the NFL, a man who picked up his career and carried an unlikely Jets team to the precipice of a playoff season after a 4-12 meltdown last year.
He took advantage of that stunning blow to starter Geno Smith, whose world changed the morning of Aug. 11 when linebacker IK Enemkpali slugged him in the jaw over an unpaid $600 airline ticket. Fitzpatrick accepted the opportunity with grace, humility and a gritty series of performances good enough for a 10-5 record and a win-and-in chance Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately for the Jets, who have become so expert at letting down their fans that it is mind-numbing to count how many times it has happened in their history, Fitzpatrick’s magical ride ended with one colossal fourth-quarter meltdown.
He threw a crushing end-zone interception on a play that could have given the Jets the lead and an eventual playoff berth, and then had two more picks to twist the knife into the hearts of Jets fans so accustomed to such torture.
“My heart hurts so bad right now for all those guys in the locker room,” a distraught Fitzpatrick said a few minutes after the Jets lost to Rex Ryan’s Bills, 22-17, and saw their playoff hopes extinguished by the Steelers’ 28-12 win over the Browns.
“It’s the hardest and most difficult end to a season I’ve ever had, just in terms of how I feel right now,” Fitzpatrick said. “At this point, it doesn’t feel like a very great season.”
Fitzpatrick is such a likable player, a man who may not have the most talent but is as resilient as anyone who has ever put on an NFL uniform and is as good a leader as you’ll find. His teammates have come to adore him, and his unexpected rise to prominence this season was at the heart of first-year coach Todd Bowles’ Cinderella-like ride through the regular season.
What a time for Fitzpatrick to turn back into a pumpkin.
He was in the midst of a career year, an itinerant 33-year-old quarterback who finally had found a home on his sixth NFL team. He had never before been to the playoffs, hadn’t even won as many as seven games in a single season, yet here he was with a chance to get to the postseason and earn his 11th victory.
He was in position to play the hero in the place in which he had worked for four years and enjoyed some of his best moments, yet also some of his worst. The former Bills starter didn’t last in Buffalo because of his penchant for throwing to the other team, and his remarkable care with the football through 15 games this season was one of the biggest reasons the Jets had gotten this close to the playoffs.
But after bringing the Jets back from a 13-0 deficit to make it 19-17, and with a chance to take the lead against the Bills for the first time, Fitzpatrick threw the pass he will regret for a lifetime.
He had driven the Jets to the Buffalo 14 — in position for a go-ahead field goal — with a nice mix of passes to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and with some nifty running by Chris Ivory and Stevan Ridley. On second-and-10 from the Bills’ 14, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey dialed up a play he thought would work.
Just one gigantic problem: Bills cornerback Leodis Mc Kelvin knew it was coming, having successfully made the adjustment from the previous time the Bills had failed to defend the play against Washington. He jumped the route, stepped in front of Decker and picked off the pass.
It was Fitzpatrick’s first red-zone interception all season.
Buffalo drove for a field goal to make it 22-17, and Fitzpatrick threw interceptions on his final two possessions to end the Jets’ season.
Earlier in the week, McKelvin told the Buffalo News he had a good feeling about playing against Fitzpatrick, who had been his teammate during the quarterback’s four seasons with the Bills.
“As a defender, you have to always remember Fitz is still Fitz,” McKelvin said. “He’s going to always give you opportunities to make plays . . . It doesn’t matter what the weather is — he’s going to get the ball out. You’ve got to make sure you’re in the right coverage and make him pay for it.”
Oh, he paid for it, all right.
“I think I threw it a little in front of him,” Fitzpatrick said. “I also think Leodis made a nice play. He read the route a little bit. He did a nice job on that one. Obviously a huge point in the game. I wish I had that one back. We had an opportunity to win the game, and we weren’t able to pull it off.”
Fitzpatrick appeared near tears as he tried to explain his torment. In the locker room a few minutes later, he stood with his eyes closed for several seconds while buttoning his shirt, his expression reflecting his anguish.
“It’s hard to come up with words,” he said. “This year, we fought through a lot of adversity, we were on a nice little run there [winning five straight before Sunday] and just couldn’t finish it off. I stand in front of them and I’m proud to be their teammate. I’m proud to be in that locker room, but I also feel bad for not being able to pull it out.”
Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass and led the Jets with 126 receiving yards, refused to let Fitzpatrick be the fall guy.
“If it wasn’t for Ryan Fitzpatrick, we wouldn’t be in this position,” Marshall said. “Ryan needs to keep his head up. He played an awesome game and not only that, he led us all season. He was the guy when we were on a decline midseason that spoke up and brought the team together. There were other vets, but he led the way.”
But when the Jets needed one more play from him, he couldn’t deliver. And his torment won’t go away anytime soon.