In an unusually candid moment earlier this week, Jets receiver Brandon Marshall confided to reporters that his initial impression of Ryan Fitzpatrick last spring and summer was not good. In fact, it was much worse than that.
“He was terrible,” Marshall said. “I don’t know what he was doing.”
Marshall said he was “scared” that the Jets’ season was over when Fitzpatrick had to take over for Geno Smith after linebacker IK Enemkpali slugged the Jets’ starter in the jaw last August.
“It was over. Season was over,” he said, recalling his thoughts. “We were done. Done. It’s the truth.”
As it turned out, Fitzpatrick was mostly terrific in putting together the best statistical season, throwing a franchise-record 31 touchdown passes and breathing new life into the Jets’ offense. Marshall benefited greatly from Fitzpatrick’s presence, catching 109 passes for 1,502 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns.
In the end, though, Fitzpatrick played more like the quarterback Marshall had feared, and his three-interception performance in the regular-season finale against the Bills prevented both men from getting to the playoffs for the first time in their careers.
So, what now? Does Fitzpatrick build off last season and elevate the Jets’ offense even more, perhaps finally helping himself and Marshall to the promised land of the postseason and a shot at the Super Bowl? Or does the quarterback regress to become the middling passer he had been through most of his career?
It’s the biggest single issue the Jets face heading into the regular season, and the answer will most likely determine whether the Jets conquer a markedly more difficult schedule to reach the playoffs. Or whether they take a step back in Year 2 of the Todd Bowles era and offer up another heaping dose of disappointment for a franchise so accustomed to heartbreak.
There’s no way to accurately predict how Fitzpatrick will play, but there have been at least a few hints along the way. After missing the entire offseason in a contract stare-down that ended the night before training camp began, Fitzpatrick has not shown the sharpness that defined his play for most of last season.
Though that doesn’t mean it will carry over into the regular season, it is at least noteworthy and cause for some concern. He has been up-and-down in practice, sometimes firing darts to Marshall, Eric Decker, emerging third-year receiver Quincy Enunwa (who missed Saturday’s game against the Giants with a concussion) and rookies Jalin Marshall and Robby Anderson. But there have been several misfires, as well, passes that sail past their intended targets or short of the mark.
His final preseason tuneup offered more of a mixed bag and at least made you wonder whether Fitzpatrick will level off. On a drop-back in the first quarter, for instance, Fitzpatrick’s initial target wasn’t open, so he tucked the ball down to buy some time. But Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison, the former Jets bruising inside force, burst up the middle and jarred the ball loose. Fitzpatrick’s fumble was recovered by Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
“Obviously, the turnover in the red zone can’t happen,” Fitzpatrick said after the game. “I got that one out of the way in the preseason.”
On his next series, Fitzpatrick overthrew an open Decker on a deep out route to the left. In the second quarter, he neatly bought time under a heavy rush and had an open Anderson to his left. But he overthrew that one, too.
At least Fitzpatrick’s final pass of the night found its mark. After a Darrelle Revis interception gave the Jets possession at the Giants’ 30, Fitzpatrick hit Decker on a back-shoulder throw for a 22-yard touchdown. Decker was covered well on the play by cornerback Janoris Jenkins, but Fitzpatrick put the ball in a spot where only Decker could catch it.
That was all the work Todd Bowles gave Fitzpatrick and most of the first-team offense. And while it should be noted that Fitzpatrick didn’t have his top target in Marshall, who was given the night off, it was at least worth considering that the 33-year-old quarterback’s game can still use some fine-tuning.
“I wish it would have been a little cleaner,” Fitzpatrick said. “I missed some throws.”
Overall, though, Fitzpatrick isn’t worried.
“I think we feel pretty good right now,” he said. “I don’t know that those three [preseason] games are a great indication of where we feel we are.”
With a difficult early-season schedule awaiting after next week’s meaningless exhibition finale, in which Fitzpatrick and most key starters aren’t expected to play, the Jets need their quarterback to be at his best early.
“We can’t start out slow [in the opener against the Bengals],” he said. “We have to come out firing.”
Fitzpatrick might be up to the challenge, as he was last season until the very end. But with no work in the offseason and a spotty showing in the preseason, it’s at least cause for some concern.