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NY Jets: The Backup Plan

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Why fans of Geno Smith might be better off hoping Ryan Fitzpatrick returns to the Jets.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It is often said that the fans' favorite guy on a struggling team is the backup quarterback.    The backup represents the tantalizing possibility of changing a struggling team's fortunes, while conveniently avoiding having to share in the present day struggles.  In the case of the 2016 Jets, the opening day backup quarterback might not only be the fans' favorite guy on the team. The backup might also be the guy most likely to succeed.

The Jets start the 2016 season with an absolutely brutal stretch, at least on paper.  The first six games, in order, come against the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers, and Cardinals.  Five of those six teams won 10 or more games and made the playoffs last year.  The sixth team, the Bills, currently own a five game winning streak against the Jets. Four of those first six games will come on the road for the Jets, with the only home games coming against the Bengals and the Seahawks. In the best of circumstances such a killer schedule is unlikely to produce a winning record in the first six games for the Jets.  For the quarterbacks, however, that schedule is a bit worse even than it might initially appear.

The pass defenses of the first six teams on the Jets' 2016 schedule ranked, in order of the schedule, 5th, 10th, 2nd, 3rd, 17th and 8th in terms of passer rating allowed in 2015.  Only the Steelers ranked outside a top 10 pass defense.  What's the significance of that?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.

Barring injury or some very unlikely developments, the starting quarterback for the Jets in the early part of the 2016 schedule is either going to be Ryan Fitzpatrick or Geno Smith.  If Fitzpatrick returns, the Jets have repeatedly indicated he will be the starter.  If Fitzpatrick does not return, it is extremely likely Geno Smith will be the starter.  Somewhat counterintuitively, fans of Geno Smith might best be served rooting for Fitzpatrick to return.

That sounds like an odd thing for Geno fans to root for.  But it may represent Geno Smith's last, best hope to become a successful starter in the NFL.  To begin to explore why, we need to look at how the two quarterbacks have fared over the years against top pass defenses.  For purposes of this article, top pass defenses will be defined as defenses ranking in the top 12 in terms of passer rating allowed in any given year.  First, let's take a look at Geno.  Here's a chart of every game Geno has played against a top pass defense in his career.  It should be noted that the two Buffalo games in 2014 and the Oakland game in 2015 were all incomplete games for Geno.  The first 2014 Buffalo game was a short starting stint due to a complete meltdown by Geno, and the second 2014 Buffalo game and the 2015 Oakland game were both efforts in relief of the starter.

Geno Smith

Year

Opponent

Opponent Rank

TDs

INTs

Points

Passer Rating

W/L

.

2013

NWE

9

0

3

10

27.6

L

BUF

3

2

2

27

89.9

W

PIT

12

0

2

6

48.8

L

NWE

9

1

1

30

71.9

W

CIN

2

0

2

9

51.9

L

BUF

3

0

3

14

10.1

L

BAL

11

0

2

3

22.3

L

MIA

5

0

1

3

8.3

L

CAR

10

1

1

20

68.6

L

MIA

5

0

0

20

83.9

W

.

2014

GNB

7

1

1

24

64.1

L

DET

9

1

1

17

68.9

L

DEN

8

2

1

17

70.9

L

NWE

10

1

0

25

88.6

L

BUF

2

0

3

0

0

L

BUF

2

0

0

3

97.6

L

NWE

10

1

1

16

83.9

L

.

2015

OAK

11

2

1

20

87.9

L

There are a few things of note here.  Perhaps the first thing that jumps out at you is just how many top pass defenses Geno Smith has had to face in his short career.  If success often amounts to simply being in the right place at the right time, Geno has had the  misfortune of doing precisely the opposite.  Smith has played in 31 NFL games during his brief career.  An enormous 18 of those games, or 58%, have come against top 12 pass defenses.  For a point of reference, a random distribution of games would be expected to produce 38% of his games against top pass defenses.

As one might expect, the results for Geno against top pass defenses have not been pretty. In 18 games with Geno at the helm against top pass defenses (three of which were not complete games by Geno), the Jets have a 3-15 record. In road games Geno has played against top pass defenses the Jets have a 1-9 record.   In only six of the 18 games has Geno produced a passer rating of 72 or better.  In only four of those games have the Jets scored more than 20 points. In only three of those games has Geno had more touchdown passes than interceptions.  Suffice it to say, based on Geno Smith's current track record, games against top pass defenses are not his friend.  If Geno Smith is the Jets quarterback to start the 2016 season, there is a good chance that Geno will struggle badly out of the gate, and there is a good chance the Jets will start the season with a struggling offense and a losing record.  If the Jets were to stumble to, say, a 1-5 record, it does not seem too much of a stretch to envision the Jets replacing the starting quarterback at that point.  If that replaced starting quarterback is Geno Smith, his Jets career would effectively be over, barring unforeseen circumstances, like injuries, that improbably thrust him back into the starting role before season's end.  If Geno were to end his Jets career on such a sour note, it is difficult to envision him getting another opportunity to start elsewhere in the years to come.  He would likely be relegated to a backup role, hoping an injured or ineffective starter at some point gives him one last chance to succeed in the NFL.

What if Ryan Fitzpatrick returns?

Let's take a look at how Fitzpatrick has fared against top pass defenses in his career.  For the purposes of this article, we will only be looking at Fitzpatrick's record from 2010 to the present, representing the time Fitzpatrick first earned a full time starting gig with Buffalo under Chan Gailey and made the leap from an atrocious NFL quarterback to a decent one.  How has Fitzpatrick fared against top pass defenses? Here's a chart of every game Fitzpatrick has played against a top pass defense since 2010, excluding only the 2015 Oakland game in which Fitzpatrick only threw 5 passes before departing with an injury.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Year

Opponent

Opponent Rank

TDs

INTs

Points

Passer Rating

W/L

.

2010

NYJ

6

2

0

14

83.6

L

BAL

5

4

2

34

106.9

L

KAN

8

1

1

10

61.4

L

CHI

3

1

2

19

67.4

L

PIT

2

1

1

16

67.4

L

.

2011

KAN

7

4

0

41

133.0

W

OAK

11

3

1

38

89.4

W

NYJ

3

1

2

11

51.9

L

NYJ

3

3

0

24

111.5

L

.

2012

NYJ

7

3

3

28

66.5

L

SFO

6

0

1

3

57.5

L

ARI

1

0

0

19

68.9

W

HOU

10

0

0

9

83.1

L

SEA

2

1

2

17

58.8

L

NYJ

7

1

0

28

89.4

W

.

2013

KAN

7

1

2

17

57.7

L

SEA

1

0

2

13

46.8

L

ARI

8

4

2

34

91.3

L

.

2014

BUF

2

1

2

23

75.1

W

.

2015

BUF

10

2

2

17

57.6

L

HOU

9

1

2

19

52.9

L

BUF

10

2

3

17

42.7

L

One thing that jumps out is how Fitzpatrick's luck in facing top pass defenses has been the polar opposite of Geno Smith's. In 82 games since 2010, Fitzpatrick has faced only 22 top pass defenses.  That amounts to 27% of the games Fitzpatrick has played, a rate less than half of Geno's 58% games against top pass defenses.  In the last three years the numbers have been even more extreme, with Fitzpatrick facing top pass defenses in only 7 of the 38 games Fitzpatrick has played (excluding the 2015 Oakland game).  That amounts to only 18% of Fitzpatrick's games since 2013, a rate less than a third of Geno's 58%.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been the best stretch of Fitzpatrick's career, by a fairly significant margin.

As one might expect from a journeyman quarterback, the results Fitzpatrick has produced against top pass defenses have not been inspiring.  Fitzpatrick's various teams have posted a 5-17 record in the 22 games he has faced a top pass defense.  On the road against top pass defenses the record is 2-10.  Fitzpatrick has not won a road game against a top pass defense since the middle of the 2012 season.  Nine of Fitzpatrick's 22 games against top pass defenses since 2010 have produced passer ratings of 72 or better.  Eight have produced more than 20 points.  Seven have produced more touchdowns than interceptions.  The overall record, while better than Smith's, is not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

If Fitzpatrick is the Jets starting quarterback in the opening games of the 2016 season, it is not difficult to envision the Jets losing all four road games, and perhaps one of the two home games, for a 1-5 record to open the season. In the last three years encompassing seven games against top pass defenses Fitzpatrick has produced exactly one game with a passer rating over 75, and has a total passer rating of 60.6 in those seven games.  His teams have produced a 1-6 record in that stretch, and have scored more than 20 points exactly once.  If Fitzpatrick produces similar numbers for the Jets to open the 2016 season, is it conceivable he might be replaced as the starting quarterback?  To answer that, let's go to the words of head coach Todd Bowles in an interview this week:

We've said all along that [if Ryan Fitzpatrick is here] Ryan's the starter.  Obviously, if Geno plays well and Ryan plays well, Ryan's going to be the starter.  But if Ryan gets hurt, or Ryan doesn't show, and Geno gets in, like Ryan did last year, and he goes 4-1?  Things happen.

While that isn't a ringing endorsement of Geno by any stretch, it at least acknowledges the possibility that things happen, and Geno might get his chance even if Fitzpatrick returns.  Would, say, a 1-5 start to the season and a sub 70 passer rating by Fitz constitute grounds for replacing Fitz with Geno?  Who knows, but it at least seems a plausible scenario.

Where things really get interesting for Geno fans is how the schedule plays out the rest of the way after the Jets' brutal first six games.  Of the remaining 10 games on the 2016 schedule, only one, the season finale against Buffalo, is against a pass defense that finished in the top 12 in 2015.  Six of the ten games are home.  Five are against bottom 8 pass defenses.  Only two, the two games against the Patriots, are against 2015 playoff teams.  In short, if the Jets do make a switch to the backup quarterback sometime around game six of the 2016 season, the deck is stacked in favor of the replacement.  If a quarterback switch is made, circumstances will be highly favorable for the replacement to outperform the replaced starter the rest of the way.

Here then is why Geno fans might legitimately root for Ryan Fitzpatrick to return for the 2016 season. The opening day starter has a good chance of falling flat on his face and serving as a sacrificial lamb to a brutal early schedule.  The backup has a good chance of being inserted into the starting lineup to replace a faltering starter at just the right time to go on a run of solid performances against middling to bad pass defenses.  Whoever gets the somewhat dubious honor of opening the season as the Jets first string quarterback may well be a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.  His erstwhile replacement, if a switch is made, may well be in just the right place at the right time.

It should be said that 2016 will not be a replay of 2015.  Some teams and defenses will get better; others will get worse.  There is no assurance that the first six games will play out as brutally for the Jets as they appear on paper, nor is there any assurance that the last 10 games will be as favorable as they appear on paper.  In addition, clearly the players themselves do not and cannot think about the relative advantages of sitting out the first six games.  If Fitzpatrick returns both he and Geno will obviously want to be the opening day starter.  But only one of the two will be.  And if the schedule plays out in a way anything close to how it appears on paper, perhaps the worst place to be for a Jets quarterback is starting to open the season.  If that honor falls to Geno, it may well spell the end of his career as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  If that were to happen, it would culminate a string of incredibly bad luck for Geno, as the first six games in 2016 would mean a ridiculous 62% of the games Geno played in his career before being benched, perhaps for good, came against top 12 pass defenses.  If on the other hand Fitzpatrick is the opening day starter, he would face a string of top pass defenses more formidable by far than any six game stretch in his career.  It is not a huge stretch to envision that ultimately resulting in Fitzpatrick being benched in favor of Geno, who would then have the good fortune of facing a string of less than stellar pass defenses the rest of the way.  In such a case it might be Fitzpatrick who would be done as a starter in the NFL, and, although this is far from assured, it isn't inconceivable to envision Geno taking his good fortune and running with it, breathing new life into a so far forgettable NFL career.

For the Jets in 2016, the backup quarterback might not only be a fan favorite; he might be the best positioned Jets quarterback to succeed.  If you are a Geno fan, perhaps you should begin rooting for Fitzpatrick to return.  That might just turn out to be the luckiest break Geno has ever had in the NFL.