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NY Jets: The Hidden Cost Of Starting Fitzpatrick

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles seemingly is going to start Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps that will change once the Jets are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention as early as next week. Bowles hasn't really given much hope that Fitzpatrick will be benched then, but he has hinted there may come a time when a change is made this season.

Many Jets fans are frustrated the change hasn't happened already. They want to get a look at Bryce Petty to see what he has before the season is over.  With all hope for the 2016 season lost, Jets fans are ready to turn the page and start playing for 2017,  and a big part of that is figuring out who is going to be taking snaps next year when presumably Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith will be long gone.  Right now Bryce Petty is the second string quarterback so Jets fans want to see if he has any chance of being a starting quarterback in the NFL, by evaluating him against real NFL defenses in live regular season action.  The obvious cost of continuing to start Ryan Fitzpatrick is that neither fans nor coaches will have the opportunity to evaluate Petty in real NFL action.  Sure, coaches get to see Petty every day in practice and have been evaluating him for a year and a half now, but there are some things that can only be evaluated under fire against NFL opponents, not practice reps.  So the argument for starting Petty goes.

There may be more cost to sticking with Fitzpatrick than just the cost of not getting to evaluate Petty in NFL games. Consider that the other quarterback on the Jets' roster is Christian Hackenberg, a 2nd round selection in the 2016 draft. While it is reasonable to speculate the Jets were never counting on 4th round pick Bryce Petty to develop into a starting quarterback, and would be happy if he just became a solid backup, a 2nd round pick is a different matter.  Take a quarterback in the 2nd round and you are hoping he becomes your eventual starter.  No, it isn't the same kind of commitment you have to a high 1st round pick, but 2nd round picks are still extremely valuable draft assets (cue Jets 2nd round picks joke) generally spent on players you expect to develop into starters.  That's not to say that the Jets have necessarily written off Bryce Petty already.  It's just an acknowledgement that the Jets probably have higher expectations of a 2nd round pick than a 4th round pick, particularly when the 2nd round pick was chosen after evaluating the 4th round pick for a year.

Bryce Petty injured his shoulder in the final preseason game this August.  Before that he was 3rd on the Jets quarterback depth chart, behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith.  Christian Hackenberg was 4th on the depth chart.  There are only so many practice reps to go around, so throughout training camp Hackenberg was picking up scraps, never working with the top players, getting very few reps and therefore having very limited opportunities to develop his game at the pro level. When the season started Hackenberg moved up to 3rd on the depth chart in Petty's absence for the first five weeks of the season.  What does the 3rd string quarterback do during the season?  He runs the scout team.  That is, he practices with the backups and the practice squad players, running the opponent's offense for the week, in order to prepare the defense for what they are likely to face.  Running the opponent's offense means Hackenberg got few if any reps in running the Jets offense, greatly limiting any development he might have gotten in the Jets system.  In week 6 Bryce Petty returned to practice, and for week 6 and week 7 Hackenberg wasn't even getting scout team reps.  Geno Smith replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick as starting quarterback in week 7 and promptly tore his ACL, putting him out for the season. From week 8 to the present Hackenberg has again been the third string quarterback, meaning his practice time is again largely limited to running other teams' offenses, and he is getting few if any reps in the Jets offense.

The upshot of this is that Christian Hackenberg's experience in running the Jets offense, as a 3rd and 4th string quarterback all year, has been largely relegated to film room study.  You might recall that Hackenberg has major issues with his throwing mechanics, which the Jets have suggested they would wait until the offseason to address.  So Hackenberg has not worked on his mechanics much, and he has not worked in the Jets offense much. The bottom line here is, because Hackenberg has been limited to 3rd and 4th string status all year he has largely wasted a year of potential development. It didn't have to be this way. Once the Jets made the switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Geno Smith in week 7, they could have kept Fitzpatrick out the rest of the way. They could have made Fitzpatrick the 3rd string quarterback running the scout team.  This would have elevated Bryce Petty to starting quarterback and made Christian Hackenberg the backup. As the backup quarterback Hackenberg would have been working in the Jets offense all week every week, and would even have picked up some of the first team reps.  If the Jets didn't feel comfortable having Hackenberg just a Bryce Petty injury away from playing in live NFL action they could have just activated all three quarterbacks on Sundays, or activated Fitzpatrick as the backup and kept Hackenberg inactive even though he was the primary backup in practice.  Go this route and Christian Hackenberg gets a couple of months of developmental time in the Jets offense and is ahead of the game going into the 2017 season.  Instead we have a Hackenberg who will enter the 2017 season with essentially zero experience in the Jets offense, still having to fix his mechanics while trying to learn the Jets offense in ways that can't be done in film study.  He will again be a virtual rookie in 2017.  In essence sticking with Fitzpatrick is costing the Jets a lost season for Hackenberg, making it that much less likely he will be ready to lead the Jets in 2017.  Hackenberg was always going to be a project.  Now that project has been deferred a year.  Such is the hidden cost of Todd Bowles' sticking with Ryan Fitzpatrick.  In a lost season Christian Hackenberg's development is just one more casualty