Following a 10-6 finish and a relatively painless off-season, the New York Jets and their forgiving fan-base have a lot to be excited about as they enter the 2016 regular season with a real shot to finally dethrone the hated New England Patriots in the AFC East.
But if Gang Green is going to turn its pre-season potential into an actual playoff appearance on the way to snapping New England’s string of eight straight division titles, starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and first year Jet running back Matt Forte must exceed expectations.
After Fitzpatrick quieted his many critics with the best statistical performance in franchise history last season, residents of Jet Nation were understandably terrified by the beef between the Bearded Wonder and his employers that kept him away from team activities until late July.
However, the minute that Fitzpatrick signed a new contract, expectations for 2016 went from mediocre to mammoth. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Jets are headed for disappointment, but their hopes for the upcoming campaign are riding on the aging shoulders of a veteran quarterback and career journeyman who isn’t exactly known for posting consecutive seasons of Pro Bowl-worthy production.
Prior to finishing with career-highs in touchdowns (31), yards (3,905), and yards per game (244.1) in his first year as a Jet, Fitzpatrick hadn’t surpassed the 2,500-yard plateau since 2012 and threw a combined 31 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in back-to-back, one-year stints with the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans.
But starting quarterbacks don’t always have to stuff the stat sheet to lead their team to the playoffs, and a lot of folks believe that Fitzpatrick is the only quarterback who can successfully maximize New York’s offensive potential at a time when the team’s passing attack is the best it’s ever been.
Just a few days after returning to the Jets with a new contract in hand, Fitzpatrick’s comments during a brief interview with the NFL Network’s Michael Irvin reflected the significance of the relationship he’s developed with Gang Green’s top two pass-catchers.
”That’s why I play the game, that’s why I love it,” said Fitzpatrick. ”To have Brandon [Marshall] and Deck [Eric Decker] sticking their neck out and making different compliments and just being loyal, to me that puts a ton of pressure on me. Not because of the money, but because those guys wanted me here. They know what I can do and they know what we can do together. Every single day, that’s what motivates me and that’s what pushes me to get better.”
Now entering his ninth NFL campaign, Forte is a valuable addition to offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s arsenal, and despite finishing last season with a career-low 898 yards rushing in 13 games, there’s reason to believe that the veteran is headed for a big year in 2016.
With Bilal Powell essentially set as the team’s third-down back and fellow newcomer Khiry Robinson ideally fitting in as New York’s short-yardage bruiser, Forte will have more freedom to frustrate opposing defenses as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, adding an entirely new dimension to an already-potent offense.
Granted, former Jet Chris Ivory finished fifth in rushing in his last season with the team and was the main reason that they ranked tenth in rushing yards per game (116.1 ypg). But Ivory was never much of a receiver in the Big Apple, while Forte has totaled at least 450 yards receiving in six of his eight NFL seasons and led the league with 12,718 total yards from scrimmage during his eight-year run in the Windy City.
Although an injured hamstring has forced Forte to spend most of training camp on the sidelines, the veteran calmed the waters of concern early last week by participating in his first round of individual drills. It’s still a long way from starting in Gang Green’s regular season-opener on September 11. But while speaking to the New York Daily News last week, Forte said that the decision to come back so slowly wasn’t his to make.
”This is the most patience I’ve had to have with an injury because I’ve always looked forward to obviously getting out there as soon as possible,” Forte told the New York Daily News. ”But at this time it’s been a process. They’ve had to hold me back, personally, because if it were up to me I’d be going at it everyday to try to be out there on my own terms. But you don’t want to do something where—a lot of times they have to protect me from myself, so I don’t overwork or do something where I have a setback.”
Barring complete disaster, head coach Todd Bowles already knows what he’s going to get from his team’s deep threat duo of Marshall and Decker. But at this point, Fitzpatrick and Forte are still potential-heavy wild cards, and if they’re able to fulfill that potential, the Jets will have every chance to make a triumphant return to the playoffs.
[Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images]