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Deep Green Sea

The Jets and the perils of wading into the great QB unknown

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of the sea. I’ve never had trouble swimming, and I’ve never dreaded finding myself in a Blake-Lively-clutching-a-rock-type situation. My particular fear is rooted in taking that last step beyond where the ocean floor is visible. I don’t get scared because I know what’s out there. I get scared because I don’t.

As their contract stalemate with Ryan Fitzpatrick barrels toward training camp, the Jets are wading into their own terrifying version of the unknown. By now, we know where both parties stand. The New York Daily News reported earlier this month that Fitzpatrick is willing to take a one-year, $12 million deal, about $4 million less than his original asking price. With their bloated salary cap, the Jets have balked at slapping such a gaudy price tag on Fitzpatrick for 2016.

The lasting effects of a 2015 spending spree, a combined $11.5 million paid this offseason to Matt Forte, Ryan Clady, and Steve McClendon, and a $15.7 million franchise-tag offer extended to Muhammad Wilkerson (he hasn’t signed) have left the Jets with just over $3 million in projected cap space heading into this fall. Second-year general manager Mike Maccagnan’s plan since taking over was to use every dollar saved by predecessor John Idzik and throw it at the Jets’ myriad problems. So here we are, on the brink of a future in which Geno Smith and Christian Hackenberg battle it out for New York’s starting job in the most depressing Thunderdome ever conceived. Two men enter. One fan base leaves disappointed. The whole fiasco makes it worth considering what the Jets are putting at risk by swimming farther into murky waters.

Looking at Fitzpatrick’s overall production from last season, it makes sense that he believes he should be paid. He threw for 3,905 yards with 31 touchdowns, and the Jets finished 10th in the league in passing DVOA, up from 27th the year before. The current quarterback landscape is broken up into the haves (really, every quarterback who has earned a second contract), and the have-nots (players still on rookie deals). Fitzpatrick’s $12 million asking price would tie him with Houston’s Brock Osweiler for 21st in the NFL among quarterback cap hits, and both Osweiler and the Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill — ranked 22nd — are slated for huge raises in upcoming years. With that in mind, if Paxton Lynch wins the job in Denver, only Cleveland’s Robert Griffin III and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor would be cheaper, nonrookie starting quarterbacks than Fitzpatrick in 2016.

The Jets don’t want to give Fitzpatrick that money because they believe their offensive success last season was based on the heroics of receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and that Fitzpatrick — who only ascended to the starting job because Geno Smith and Tywin Lannister don’t share similar philosophies about paying debts — was not as good as his numbers indicate; the front office feels that he was league average at best last year and one of the NFL’s lesser quarterbacks at worst. As such, the team believes that its 10–6 turnaround campaign was the product of trading for Marshall and buying $149 million worth of defensive backs last offseason.

Still, drawing a line in the sand with Fitzpatrick is a decidedly process-over-results move from Maccagnan, and considering history, one that requires plenty of self-restraint. Even if offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s scheme and a great supporting cast boosted Fitzpatrick’s production, teams simply don’t move on from quarterbacks who throw 30 touchdown passes in a season. As in, no team ever has. Throughout NFL history, zero QBs have thrown 30 touchdowns in a season and not entered the following fall as his team’s starting quarterback.

And usually, this is logical. Most 30-touchdown seasons belong to some of the best QBs in the league, and only 10 players (Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Dan Marino, Philip Rivers, Peyton and Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Kurt Warner) have done it more than twice. Quarterback movement is also rare. Only four projected starters for 2016 were signed away as free agents by their current teams: the Bills’ Taylor, the Browns’ Griffin, the Saints’ Brees, and the Texans’ Osweiler.

But this offseason has provided a couple of different instances of teams playing chicken with productive quarterbacks they weren’t ready to commit to in the long term. Kirk Cousins is a 27-year-old who threw for 4,166 yards with 29 touchdowns last year; Washington elected to give him the franchise tag and burn $19.95 million (the second-highest base salary in the NFL this year, behind only Ndamukong Suh) instead of offering a multiyear deal. Denver took it further. Instead of forking over a massive contract to Osweiler, the Broncos let the Texans — searching for their own way out of QB purgatory — hand the 25-year-old a four-year, $72 million deal.

The situations in Denver and New York mirror each other on several levels. The Broncos had the league’s best defense in 2015, while the Jets, who finished fifth in defensive DVOA under first-year coach Todd Bowles, weren’t far behind. A pair of star receivers define both offenses. Both teams have used the franchise tag on pass rushers (Wilkerson for the Jets, Von Miller for the Broncos) seeking long-term deals. And in both places, it seems management believes that winning can happen in spite of quarterback play; by electing not to pay Osweiler, Denver has shown it’s possible for a team — one that just won the freaking Super Bowl, no less — to stick to its plan and not panic to secure a quarterback with whom the front office isn’t thrilled.

And all of that is fine … until it’s November, the Jets are 3–5, and Marshall is yelling at Smith on the sideline after uncorking his third interception of the day. Again, whether New York’s season pans out won’t be what determines if moving on from Fitzpatrick was the right choice. That decision should be based on all of the information available now, and the bulk of that — and essentially all logic and reason — points to the prudency of not giving $12 million to a 33-year-old, below-average quarterback just because Marshall is good at stealing cornerbacks’ lunch money.

The problem, though — and the reason I understand the trepidation some Jets’ fans have about entering this fall with some combination of Smith and Hackenberg under center — is that fear is inherently irrational. I know, if I were to take a quick dip in the Pacific, the odds of my needing to call Quint would be exceedingly low. Sometimes, though, that rationale just doesn’t matter.

Even if Fitzpatrick might as well have been punting the ball downfield at times last year, and even if his shortcomings led to the Jets’ Week 17 loss to the Bills and a place on the couch during the playoffs, Fitzpatrick — in this offense, with these receivers — remains a known quantity. NFL decision-makers have been falling back on familiar-if-uninspiring options forever. It’s among their favorite pastimes. Hell, Mike Mularkey is set to start his third stint as an NFL head coach.

All of the pieces may be in place for another mediocre quarterback to come into an offense with Marshall, Decker, and now Forte and throw for 30 touchdowns. But to this point, no other QB has. No other quarterback in Jets’ history has. Replacing one player with another is about more than swapping skill sets and rerunning the projections, especially at quarterback. Command of both the huddle and the offense matter, and even if Smith isn’t a markedly inferior quarterback than Fitzpatrick, there is still no way of knowing whether he can get a combined 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns out of Decker and Marshall, who has a history of souring on his quarterbacks. We know what a Fitzpatrick-led Jets offense looks like, and even if that offense sputtered at times because of him, walking away from something that worked is rarely easy.

As Fitzpatrick’s contract stalemate continues to dominate the headlines, it’s hard to know if the Jets are doing the right thing here. But whereas questions now abound, in nine months we’ll have plenty of answers — about the Jets and about the costs and benefits of diving into the unknown quarterback depths. Denver is hoping that the Texans were suckers for paying for Osweiler. Houston is hoping that the Broncos are stuck defending their Super Bowl title with Lynch. And as of now, it appears the job in New York is Geno Smith’s to lose. For so many reasons, it looks to be the frugal, smart move. But sometimes the smart move is scary.

An earlier version of this piece omitted Buffalo’s starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, who also would be less expensive than Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2016 and also was signed as a free agent by his current team.