As the beginning of NFL training camp draws near and the New York Jets prepare to descend upon their summer stomping grounds in Florham Park, New Jersey, the surprisingly sticky contract negotiations between Gang Green and starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick continue to drastically dampen team morale.
Last summer, a locker room dust-up between then-projected starter Geno Smith and IK Enemkpali saved the Jets from another year of offensive misery under the former second-rounder by forcing the team to start Fitzpatrick. But now, Smith has emerged as the team’s backup plan if disaster strikes and Fitzpatrick skips town — a horrifying thought for a team that’s been banking on a return to the playoffs.
Since refusing a contract offer worth $24 million over three years in February, including a salary of $12 million for the upcoming campaign, Fitzpatrick has provided plenty of proof that a future in the five boroughs is far from guaranteed.
Most recently, wide receiver and Fitzpatrick favorite Brandon Marshall sent residents of Jet Nation into panic when he told Michael Rapaport during an appearance on his I Am Rapaport podcast that the Jets’ starting quarterback has been ignoring his text messages.
”I don’t know what’s going on,” said Marshall via the New York Post. ”Me and Fitz talk like everyday, all the time. But to be honest, I texted this dude the last two weeks three times, and there’s no response.”
Considering how crucial Fitzpatrick and Marshall were to each other’s success last season, you’d think that he’d be one of the few players who’d have an inside track on the bearded veteran’s thought process. But while everyone was trying to figure out exactly what Marshall’s concerning comments could mean for a franchise that’s in desperate need of a playoff appearance, news that Fitzpatrick has very recently allowed the lease on his nine-bedroom New Jersey home to expire may have filled in the unfortunate blanks.
If Fitzpatrick doesn’t return, and the Jets give Smith the starting nod, they’ll essentially be using a go-cart engine to power the Mars Rover. Remember, it’s not like Smith hasn’t had more than his fair share of opportunities to become Gang Green’s long-term starting quarterback. And although the Jets are probably sugar-coating Smith’s recent progress in a transparent attempt to calm their fan base, both head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan know that the team is doomed if it begins the season under a quarterback that’s gone just 11-18 as a starter during his brief career.
What’s worse, with Smith as the starter, New York would begin the season with inexperienced Bryce Petty and rookie Christian Hackenberg as the team’s only backups unless Maccagnan manages to sign a more qualified second-stringer.
Thus far, Maccagnan’s biggest offseason accomplishments are acquiring former Pro-Bowler Matt Forte and somehow finding a way to re-sign defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to a five-year deal worth $86 million while simultaneously giving his employers an additional $5.7 million in cap space — cap space that could potentially be used to sweeten Fitzpatrick’s deal.
In the meantime, Fitzpatrick’s absence continues to weigh heavily on the entire organization, and during last month’s mandatory mini-camp, which Fitzpatrick didn’t attend, wide receiver Eric Decker talked about the toll that the highly publicized stalemate between the veteran signal-caller and New York’s front office is taking on the team.
”It takes away from focusing on everyone else in the locker room and what our goals are and what we’re trying to accomplish this season,” Decker told ESPN. ”When a quarterback is being spoken about, it’s one of the premier positions on your team, so it’s going to have to be talked about. But it’s just something that’s out of our control in the locker room, and we just want to be able to focus on playing football.”
Statistically speaking, there’s no real comparison between Fitzpatrick’s latest effort and Smith’s most recent work. In 2014, Smith completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 2,525 yards with 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 44.3 in 14 games, while last season, Fitzpatrick completed 59.6 percent of his pass attempts for 3,905 yards, a team record 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 63.6.
Granted, Smith didn’t have the steady services of Marshall in his last stint as a starter. And as many have pointed out, Smith has actually outperformed Fitzpatrick on passes beyond 20 yards — a key stat for an offense that’s centered around a pair of elite receivers.
Despite missing the playoffs after finishing a promising 10-6 last season, hopes surrounding Gang Green’s 2016 campaign are sky-high. But the Jets won’t even be close to the same team that they were last season with Smith under center, and nothing will be able to console Jet Nation if Fitzpatrick doesn’t suit up as the starter for New York’s Week 1 clash with the Cincinnati Bengals.
[Photo by Mike Ehrman/Getty Images]