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A Monopoly on Quarterbacking Mediocrity

The Jets have too many signal-callers — but none of them are good

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Tickets to the Jets game Monday night were basically free. I’m a Jets fan, and free would not have been enough to get me in the stadium. It was 40 degrees, the Jets were 3–8 and playing a 5–6 team, and MetLife Stadium is an hour and a half from my apartment in Brooklyn if I’m lucky.

They probably should have paid fans. According to DVOA, the Jets’ 41–10 loss to the Colts was the worst performance by any team all season. It was only tied for fourth worst by point differential, but it was the only result in the 10 largest blowouts of the year that saw the road team win. The Jets couldn’t move the ball until garbage time, and couldn’t stop the Colts at any point in the game. It’d be understandable if they’d lost to one of the league’s best teams, but the Colts are the definition of mediocre: For the season, they’ve scored 311 points and allowed 311 points.

Typically, this sort of embarrassment is tucked away in the middle of the 1 p.m. slot on a Sunday. Teams as bad as the Jets don’t usually get slotted into prime time, but this was on Monday Night Football. They’d had an extra day to prepare and their performance was essentially one giant fart — with no other games to distract the world from their failure.

In his postgame press conference, head coach Todd Bowles summed it up pretty well. Ten separate times, he said the Jets got their ass kicked. Twice, he said they got their ass handed to them. And one time he said they got their ass kicked and handed to them. Logistically, I have to imagine the implication was that the ass was physically detached from the body via kicking to enable the handing over of the ass.

Hypothetically, there was some reason to be excited about this game. After 34-year-old starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick went 5-for-12 with a pick against one of the worst defenses in the league (Indianapolis allows 6.1 yards per play, 31st out of 32 teams), we got a glimpse of the future: Bowles benched him for second-year passer Bryce Petty.

But even this was mismanaged.

After the game, Bowles announced that he was planning to start Petty for the season’s final four games. He also claimed that he had already been planning to start Petty for the team’s final four games regardless of the result, even though neither Fitzpatrick nor Petty knew about that decision before Bowles publicly announced it.

Almost every part of the Jets is broken. The offense is bad, the defense is bad, their best-known and most highly paid player is a barely average Darrelle Revis. But nothing summarizes this season’s debacle better than the quarterbacks. Not every team has a good quarterback, but the Jets are the only team with four below-average ones.

Over the past few years, NFL teams have tweaked how they use roster spots for quarterbacks. Everybody has a backup quarterback — you can’t run an offense without a QB, so you need to have one in case your starter gets hurt. It used to be considered wise to carry a third-stringer, especially because of a rule that allowed a team to dress a third-string QB without him counting against the 45-man game-day roster. But that rule was axed in 2011, as the league allowed teams to have 46 active players.

Teams then went away from carrying more than two quarterbacks, and it makes sense. While backup wide receivers can play special teams, backup linebackers regularly cycle into the game, and backup offensive linemen will inevitably need to play some position due to some injury, third-string quarterbacks just sit. It’s smart to use a valuable roster spot on a more versatile player. In fact, 13 NFL teams have only two QBs on their active rosters. If they do carry a third QB, it’s on the practice squad.

The Jets entered the year with four quarterbacks on their roster, the first team to do so since 2013. Fitzpatrick was the starter, Geno Smith was the backup, and they couldn’t move Petty or Christian Hackenberg to the practice squad, because you can’t move a player from the active roster to the practice squad without allowing other teams to potentially sign them, and the Jets have invested too heavily in both players to risk that.

Every mention of Fitzpatrick has to start with a reminder that he went to Harvard. He plays like he went to Harvard, and I don’t mean that he plays intelligently. In fact, his insistence on hurling his upper body and head into defenders for extra inches is one of the dumber things any quarterback in the league does routinely. Fitzpatrick is so confident in every decision because even if he does mess up, you can’t call him dumb: He went to Harvard.

Fitzpatrick played for five teams in the first 10 years of his career. He was good, sometimes, although his most notable achievement was probably leading the league in interceptions in 2011. He then came to the Jets in 2015 and had perhaps the best passing year in team history, setting a franchise record for touchdowns and coming just short of Joe Namath’s passing yardage record. Fitzpatrick almost got them to the playoffs, until he threw three interceptions in the final game of the year, a 22–17 loss to the Bills.

After a decade of mediocrity, Fitzpatrick wanted to be paid according to his one good season. It didn’t seem like anybody was going to agree. But after months, the Jets acquiesced to the $12 million deal he wanted. Surely, his 12th year would be more like the 11th than the previous 10!

He turned out to be worse than ever. In Week 3 against the Chiefs, he threw six interceptions, the first six-pick game any QB has had since 2007. Yet he kept his job for a few more games — until he was finally benched for Geno Smith in Week 6. Except Fitzpatrick was forced back into play the next week when Smith went down with a season-ending injury. When Fitzpatrick came back, he called out the owner, GM, and coach for not believing in him.

Fitzpatrick is 34. He has a passion for interceptions, no upside, a contract that ends after this year, and the willingness to call out a coach for not believing in him after one of the worst quarterback games in a decade. Despite all that, the Jets kept playing him well after their playoff hopes had disappeared.

Smith is probably the best quarterback the Jets have. He threw 21 picks as a rookie, a massive amount, but such things happen when rookies have to start at quarterback. He’s shown himself to be roughly competent since his rookie season — he threw as many picks as touchdowns his second year and hasn’t looked nearly as bad as he did as a rookie when forced into playing time. Being competent should earn him the starting job, seeing as the Jets don’t have any other competent quarterbacks.

Most of the time, when somebody is sucker-punched in the face and gets their jaw broken for no good reason, we think, “Wow, the other guy must be a jerk!” When Smith was sucker-punched in the face and got his jaw broken for no good reason, we derided his quarterbacking talent and leadership abilities. Some pointed out it was good for the Jets that Geno got his jaw broken, and some Jets anonymously said Smith “deserved” it.

Smith had been the team’s starter when he got punched, but he never got a chance to win his job back once he healed. The Jets’ preference for Fitzpatrick was understandable during the 2015 season when he was playing as well as he was. But it was insulting to Smith when the Jets still publicly insisted they wanted Fitzpatrick even as he held out.

Smith finally got to start in Week 7, and then he tore his ACL. This isn’t really an example of the Jets’ mismanagement — just another sign that nothing good can happen here.

The Jets took Hackenberg in the second round of last year’s draft. Pro Football Focus said he shouldn’t have been drafted in any round. Sure, that was a hot QB take, but when PFF comes with the hot takes, they do so after watching every single play the player in question made over his entire career and have a ton of video evidence to back up the heat.

Hackenberg went to Penn State as a potential program savior. He started as a true freshman, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, with twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, and there was talk of him as a future first-round draft pick. But then he steadily declined every year, with his completion percentage bottoming out at 53.5 as a junior. There were reasons — QB-friendly coach Bill O’Brien left, the O-line was garbage — but it’s not clear how either of those things prevented him from being able to throw a screen pass accurately. This year, with a new offensive coordinator but most of the same players, much-less-heralded QB Trace McSorley had a much better season than Hackenberg ever did en route to Penn State’s Big Ten championship.

Two years of regression, and the Jets still picked him in the second round. They then chose to “redshirt” Hackenberg, and are unlikely to play him even with the season in the dumps. That they thought Hackenberg was worth an early-round pick but not remotely ready to play confirms something I’ve felt about him for years. He has all the physical capabilities people who know quarterbacks like in quarterbacks, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever be good. The Jets paid an unnecessarily high price to find out.

And that brings us to Petty, the 2015 fourth-round pick. Maybe he’ll be good, maybe he won’t. He was good at Baylor! But just about every quarterback at Baylor looks pretty good. And he certainly didn’t look great against the Colts reserves, throwing two interceptions.

Still, the Jets should have started Petty weeks ago. He’s just been practicing and lamenting the fact that he hasn’t had an opportunity to prove whether he’s good or not. With the playoffs out of the picture, they should have let the non-34-year-old play, while celebrating his wins and celebrating any losses that got them closer to a top pick. What makes the situation even more embarrassing is that Petty, though not good so far, seems no worse than Fitzpatrick.

But even if Petty plays well, we’re not sure what it means. We don’t know if the Jets value Hackenberg more as a prospect, and we don’t know if the team is considering using a high draft pick on a quarterback in April.

Whatever happens, I have no faith. The Jets have grown a hideous quarterback tree, each limb mangled by mismanagement. It’s acceptable to have a lack of talent. It’s unacceptable to give the impression you wouldn’t know what to do with talent if you had it.