Fitzpatrick Can Win, If the Defense Returns to Form

It’s no secret the New York Jets have had some troubles under center recently. They rank 30th in passer rating and 29th in Total QBR over the past five seasons, counting playoffs. And to add just a little more weirdness to the wire, the projected starter, Geno Smith, was punched by a teammate and suffered a broken jaw. Of course, that means he won’t be the starter for the regular season, but many figure that may actually be an upgrade for the struggling Jets.

Analysts correctly pointed out that Smith's unfortunate injury probably actually upgraded the team's quarterback situation by pushing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick into the starting lineup. That line of thinking said more about Smith's futility -- he was 32nd and last among NFL starters when ESPN surveyed 35 coaches and personnel evaluators -- than it said about Fitzpatrick's excellence. But in the wacky world of NFL economics, Fitzpatrick has to rank among the great values in the league this season. The evidence suggests he's a player the Jets can win with as long as their defense returns to the form it showed before the past couple of seasons.

Believe it or not, Fitzpatrick actually produces on a level similar to some starters in the league who make way more money. Fan favorites like Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton all make significantly more than Fitzpatrick, but don’t produce much more than him.

One of the things any team looking to make a run with a less than elite QB need to remember is that a great defense can really protect your quarterback. More so than in other sports, a good defense can really take the pressure off. Whether it’s keeping the score with one possession or setting you up with a short field, a great defense can mask a lot of flaws that your offense may have. Except for the last two seasons, the Jets have had a stellar defense.

Fitzpatrick has yet to play on a team with a great D, partially contributing to his less than outstanding statistics. As if on cue, Fitzpatrick is joining a defense that ranked as one of the NFL's worst last season. The Jets ranked 25th in defensive EPA and 29th in QBR allowed (68.4). They gave up 31 touchdown passes, the third-highest total in the league. They picked off six passes, which tied for the league low. But after signing cornerback Darrelle Revis as part of a defensive overhaul this offseason, the Jets could have the talent to improve significantly on that side of the ball, with improvements in the secondary and up front. And if that happens, Fitzpatrick could become a winning quarterback without performing at a dramatically higher level than he has achieved over the past five seasons.

Combine that with the natural growth any player experiences and this may be the time for him to start doing some winning.

"Sometimes I've fallen into that trap, trying to do too much," Fitzpatrick told me. "As I've grown the last few years, I've become better at that, playing within myself."

Fitzpatrick gave a lot of credit to his previous head coach and offensive coordinator, Bill O'Brien and George Godsey of the Houston Texans. Consider this compliment: "I probably learned more about football last year than I had the rest of my career in a single season in terms of being able to see the game from a different angle." That's high praise, considering Fitzpatrick spent three years in Buffalo with his current coordinator, Chan Gailey, a coach he admires.

The NFC East is a notoriously tough division and the Patriots and the Dolphins aren’t going to be taking it easy on the Jets. It will be up to Fitzpatrick and that defense to show up on Sundays and get some production on the field. One thing that will help is Ryan’s preparation, according to Eric Decker.

He said it's not unusual to see Fitzpatrick quiz the other quarterbacks on the specifics of a particular play call -- the protection schemes, the sight adjustments, hot reads, etc. Decker said, "He prepares like every play is game-like."

It reminds him of Manning's famously meticulous preparation. That can't be a bad thing.

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