Stuck in a malaise for much of this season, the New York Jets hoped Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens would be a turning point in their season. Beyond that, they hoped new starting quarterback Geno Smith would make the most of his opportunity to replace embattled veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Instead, the Jets’ quarterback situation now seems more uncertain than it was when the day began.
Smith played well before leaving the game in the second quarter with a knee injury. Fitzpatrick returned to the field a week after being benched, playing effectively in relief while leading the Jets to a 24-16 victory.
In reality, the win was largely a product of the Jets’ running game and rejuvenated defense. Matt Forte rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, while the defense shut out the Ravens in the second half and forced three takeaways.
And yet, all eyes are now on Fitzpatrick. He completed nine of his 14 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown, a solid line for a quarterback that still leads the league with 11 interceptions through seven games.
After the game, Fitzpatrick said quarterbacking the team so soon after being benched was an “ironic situation.” He spoke candidly about adjusting to a backup role this week.
“It’s an awkward situation, a situation that I don’t like being in,” Fitzpatrick said. “But you try to get over it.”
Fitzpatrick said the situation is even tougher for him because he thinks team owner Woody Johnson, general manager Mike Maccagnan and the Jets’ coaches have stopped believing in him.
“People giving up on you, and then having to see them every day, that stuff’s not necessarily the easiest in the world,” Fitzpatrick said. “But something that you try to deal with as mature as you can and move on.”
When asked about how he deals with the uncertainty, Fitzpatrick credited his teammates.
“It’s not easy, but I think my teammates believing in me is a big thing,” he said. “Their opinion of me, that’s kind of what drives me and what matters. And so I know I still have that belief in the huddle. So that’s important to me.”
Smith appeared to be writing his own comeback story, passing for 95 yards and a touchdown before hurting his knee while being sacked in the second quarter. He was penciled in as the Jets’ 2015 starter at quarterback before breaking his jaw in an offseason locker room altercation with former teammate IK Enemkpali. Fitzpatrick then took over and immediately clicked with the offense, so the Jets kept Smith on the bench.
Now, another injury may have derailed his only remaining chance to retake the Jets’ starting job.
“That’s how life works,” Smith responded when asked about his tough luck. “I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m just happy that we won.”
Smith said he doesn’t believe the injury is serious, and that he was “begging” to go back onto the field in the second half. Head coach Todd Bowles was non-committal, however, about who will start next week until he knows more about Smith’s health.
Fitzpatrick recognized that Smith has also had a turbulent season so far.
“I feel for him,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s been kind of waiting his turn, and waiting to get in there. And he gets a shot, and unfortunately he had to come out. That’s a tough thing.”
The “Fitzmagic” of 2015 may be over, but Fitzpatrick says he still believes he should be the team’s full-time starter at quarterback. He still hasn’t resigned himself to the fact that he may not be given another chance to fill that role.
“I have no idea,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s up in the air, but I’ll be ready.”
With both Smith and Fitzpatrick in the final seasons of their contracts, both have something to prove. If Smith is healthy enough to play, the Jets could have a real quarterback controversy on their hands.
It’s likely that the Jets will have to give up on either Smith, a second-round pick yet to meet his expectations, or Fitzpatrick, a journeyman who turned in one of the team’s best-ever seasons at quarterback last fall.
On Sunday, Fitzpatrick may have made that choice a bit tougher.