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NY Jets: Fitzpatrick's Regression

If Ryan Fitzpatrick regresses in 2016, in what areas will that show up?

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the mantra you hear on a daily basis by sports analysts, Ryan Fitzpatrick did not have a career year in 2015.  Yes, he had a pretty good year for him and for any recent Jets quarterbacks.  However, his 2014 season numbers were pretty clearly better.  In addition, after adjusting for the level of pass defenses faced, and given the much worse weapons around him, 2010 and 2012 were probably better in terms of Fitzpatrick's play than 2015.

The fact that Ryan Fitzpatrick did not have a career year in 2015 mitigates somewhat the concern that Fitzpatrick's play will regress in 2016.  However, given his age (34) and the better level of defenses Fitzpatrick is likely to face in 2016, there is still a pretty decent chance Fitzpatrick takes a step backward this year.  Yes, I know, many have said 34 is not old for a quarterback, and for elite level quarterbacks that's true.  However, for the average NFL quarterback, which Fitzpatrick fairly well personifies, age 29 has historically been the peak age of performance, with gradual deterioration thereafter.  For quarterbacks like Fitzpatrick, the odds of him remaining at or near league average over the next few years decline fairly precipitously.  There are very, very few examples of average-ish quarterbacks continuing to play at an NFL starter level past their mid 30's.  So, yes, it is possible 34 is not old for Fitzpatrick, but the better bet is that he shows some age related regression in 2016.

If Fitzpatrick shows regression, whether due to age, the defenses he faces, or just garden variety regression towards the mean, where is it likely to show up?  Let's take a look.

The obvious place to start would be his touchdown passes.  Fitzpatrick threw 31 touchdown passes in 2016, a carer high by a whopping seven touchdowns.  Surely this is a prime place to expect regression?  Well, maybe not.  A better way to analyze this than the raw touchdown count is in his touchdown percentage.  This reflects what percentage of passes resulted in touchdowns.  In 2015 Fitzpatrick's touchdown percentage was 5.5%, a career high.  So he should regress, right?  Well, maybe not.  In 2014, the only other year of his career when Fitzpatrick had elite receivers to throw to, his touchdown percentage was 5.4%.  He also had years of 5.2% and 4.8% while with the Bills, where his weapons were considerably worse.  The truth is one of Fitzpatrick's strengths for his career has been getting the ball in the end zone.  Given that Fitzpatrick will likely have even better weapons as a whole in 2016 than he did in 2015, we probably shouldn't look for a lot of regression in his touchdown numbers.

The same holds true for his completion percentage.  His 2015 mark of 59.6% was 3.5% off his 2014 mark and the worst completion percentage Fitzpatrick has posted since 2010.  If anything, regression towards the mean here would indicate we should expect a better completion percentage from Fitzpatrick in 2016 than 2015.

Fitzpatrick's 2015 yards per attempt figure of 6.9 was way off his career high of 8.0 set the prior year, but it was very close to his career mark of 6.7.  Regression doesn't seem all that likely here.

So where is any regression likely to come from?  There are two likely candidates.  First is Fitzpatrick's interception percentage.  Ryan Fitzpatrick posted an interception percentage of 2.7 % in 2015, almost identical to his 2014 mark of 2.6%.  That figure is much better than Fitzpatrick's career mark of 3.3%, and indeed it is much better than all but two years of Fitzpatrick's career.  There is some evidence that Fitzpatrick threw more "interceptable" passes than any NFL quarterback in 2015.  Regardless of the credence you lend to such evidence, the fact that Fitzpatrick came close to his career best in 2015 makes interception percentage a prime candidate for regression to the mean.  Better pass defenses should also tend to bring this number more in line with Fitzpatrick's career average.  If Ryan Fitzpatrick does in fact regress in 2015, one of the areas most likely to suffer is his interception percentage.  If he were to regress to, say, a 3.2% mark, which would still be tied for the 4th best mark of his career, that would translate into 18 or 19 interceptions over a full 16 game season in 2016, assuming he is never benched for injury or ineffectiveness.  In 2015 that would have made him the most intercepted quarterback in the NFL.

There is one other area where regression, if it happens, is most likely.  In 2016 Ryan Fitzpatrick led the entire NFL in sack percentage, at 3.3%.  It was the best mark of his career.  In 2011 Fitzpatrick came in at 3.7%.  In no other year was he ever better than 5.2%.  There is no doubt Fitzpatrick was good at avoiding the rush last year.  There is also little doubt some of his outsized success at it boiled down to simple luck.  Nearly every move Fitzpatrick made in 2015 to avoid the rush worked. You almost never saw him break free, only to run straight into another pass rusher just getting by his man.  When Fitzpatrick broke right, there was nobody on the right; when he broke left, there was nobody on the left.  Some of that was good pocket awareness, but some of it was just plain old good luck.  There simply is no other good explanation why a 33 year old quarterback suddenly leaps from sort of average in avoiding the pass rush to the best in the NFL at it.  The Jets' offensive line was far from elite.  The offensive system wasn't new and better suited for Fitzpatrick; it was the same system he played in for four years in Buffalo, when he was nowhere close to this good at avoiding the rush.  When a guy in the middle of the pack suddenly graduates to the best in the NFL at something at the age of 33, in the 11th year of his career, that is a prime case for regression towards the mean.  That doesn't mean Fitzpatrick will suddenly lose all of his pocket awareness.  It just means he will go back to being closer to the quarterback he has always been in this regard.  If Fitzpatrick were to simply regress to the 3rd best mark of his career of 5.2%, that would translate into an additional 12 sacks in 2016, or 31 sacks for the year.  It would put him right around league average in sack percentage, where he has spent more or less the entire rest of his career.

So there you have it.  There is no guarantee Ryan Fitzpatrick will regress at all in 2016.  Sometimes people beat the odds.  Sometimes quarterbacks have a late career renaissance.  If, however, Fitzpatrick does regress, the most likely areas where it will show up are in sacks and interceptions.  The odds favor worse marks in each of those areas.  It was really nice to not lead the league in turnovers in 2015. It was really nice to lead the league in least number of sacks allowed.  If regression strikes, 2015 will probably be just a fond memory.