By Jason Keidel
The New York Jets and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick finally ended their silly, six-month stare down, completing the most inevitable transaction of the NFL offseason, even if it was among the last. But the contract signing didn’t dispel two odd sentiments generally held by fans: the team should be indifferent to the player and the team is always right.
The Jets were seen as justified in their public indifference toward Fitzpatrick, simply because no other NFL team pursued him. But no team is going to pursue a 33-year-old quarterback (who turns 34 in November) as the face of their future. The Texans signed Brock Osweiler because he’s young. Likewise, the Eagles and Rams drafted quarterbacks with the top two picks in this year’s draft. The goal is almost always to get younger, unless you have rare confluence of events, like with Peyton Manning a few years ago.
Fitzpatrick is uniquely qualified to lead the Jets, and only the Jets. He knows the team, they know him. And together they came within a few faulty quarters of going 11-5 and making the playoffs last year.
The Jets’ other option is Geno Smith, who, beyond getting his jaw broken by a teammate just before the 2015 season, has been a disaster under center during his brief career. And Smith is flanked by fellow neophytes Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenburg. So if Fitzpatrick isn’t your quarterback, then who is?
The Jets are built to win now. While they have a young and wildly gifted defensive line, their franchise cornerback, Darrelle Revis, is already showing signs of decay. Their two potent wideouts, Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, are 29 and 32, respectively, and their newly acquired running back, Matt Forte, turns 31 in December.
Also, according to a February article from SB Nation, the Jets were the 30th-oldest team in the league, with their average player age at just over 28 years old. So they had to re-sign Fitzpatrick or risk losing the season in September. And with Tom Brady out for the first four games, the Jets have a valid shot at the AFC East.
Fitzpatrick’s inevitable signing also didn’t affect fans’ oddly rampant bias toward the team. It seems in every tete-a-tete between athlete and athletic club, the fans root for the latter. Perhaps no enterprise in America is more cutthroat than the NFL, a league that routinely signs players to dollar amounts they know they will never pay.
When a player underperforms, he gets cut, his contract torn up and tossed. Even worse, the NFL never embraced baseball’s implicit rule that a player can’t lose his job to injury. In pro football, an injured player can lose more than his starting gig. He can be booted into unemployment, his name tag ripped from his locker, his playbook and iPad solemnly handed to management.
For some reason, fans root for billionaire owners, many of whom bought NFL teams as a vanity project, to fulfill some adolescent fantasy that began the moment they realized they would never be good enough to play professional sports.
The margins are way smaller for the athlete, who has just a small portal through which he can cash in on his talent. Owners stay billionaires. Yet the Big Apple was frothing with anti-Fitzpatrick rhetoric, despite the fact that he set a club record for touchdowns (31) and threw for nearly 4,000 yards, all during a 10-6 season that seemed lost the moment Geno Smith refused to pay a former teammate a few hundred bucks.
If Fitzpatrick were asking for backup money, he would have had myriad NFL suitors. But since he played so singularly well for a single team, the football marriage seemed so obvious — to everyone except Jets fans.
And it’s not like the Jets dug deep into the vault for Fitzpatrick, signing him to a one-year deal, worth $12 million. The money is guaranteed. And now the Jets are guaranteed to be relevant this year.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.