Ryan Fitzpatrick finds a home as Jets' starting quarterback
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Six teams and 11 NFL seasons.
That's what it has taken for Ryan Fitzpatrick — a classic journeyman quarterback — to perhaps finally find a home.
"Well, law of averages would say that I've got to be getting close," Fitzpatrick said with a bearded grin.
He wasn't the starter when the New York Jets opened training camp, but a then-teammate's punch to Geno Smith's jaw created an opportunity. Fitzpatrick calmly stepped in and won over the players and his coaches.
"Obviously, he was (No.) 2 and Geno was (No.) 1 at the time," coach Todd Bowles said. "But misfortunes happen and he got a shot at (No.) 1 — and he never gave it back."
The 33-year-old veteran has thrown for 2,476 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He's on pace to become the first quarterback in Jets history to have 30 TD passes in a season.
Yes, more than Joe Namath.
Or, for that matter, any of the 27 other men to have started a game at quarterback for the Jets since the days of Broadway Joe.
"I feel like I'm a much better player now than I was four years ago just because of the experiences I've had," Fitzpatrick said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."
As a seventh-round draft pick out of Harvard in 2005, Fitzpatrick's first stop was St. Louis. After two years with the Rams, he went to Cincinnati (2007-08), then Buffalo (2009-12), Tennessee (2013) and Houston (2014).
He started some games, sat for others — but learned the entire time. After all, what would you expect from an Ivy League guy who to this day earned the highest Wonderlic Test score by a quarterback preparing for the NFL draft?
Fitzpatrick has never been flashy and his career has been mostly solid but unspectacular. His best years came under Chan Gailey with the Bills, for whom Fitzpatrick threw for at least 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in each of those three seasons.
"I think you're a little naive when you first get into the league," Fitzpatrick said. "I started with the Rams and I thought I'd stay there for a while, but that only lasted a few years. ... There's a different reason for each scenario in terms of why I haven't stayed in one place. I just try to make the most of it."
When Bowles was hired in the offseason, he tabbed Gailey as his offensive coordinator. The Jets needed an experienced backup for Smith, and went after Fitzpatrick.
The Texans traded him for a late-round conditional pick in March, a move that was largely overshadowed by New York's other bigger-name acquisitions such as Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall and Antonio Cromartie.
But it could end up being general manager Mike Maccagnan's most important transaction.
The Jets were set on having Smith be the starter, but those plans were knocked out when linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali decked the quarterback in the middle of training camp and broke his jaw.
"When he ended up becoming the starter, I knew exactly what to expect from him," Gailey said. "He's very, very capable of being a productive quarterback in this league and he proves it."
There have been ups — last Sunday's four-TD performance against Miami — and some downs — three INTs in a loss to Philadelphia in September. But Fitzpatrick has given the Jets a reliable — and respected — leader.
When he went down with a torn ligament in his left thumb against Oakland on Nov. 1, it appeared to be yet another tough break in Fitzpatrick's career.
But, he played through the injury on his non-throwing hand for two games, had surgery the day after playing Buffalo on Nov. 12 and hasn't missed a beat while wearing a brace on his thumb.
"It tells you what kind of team you have, what kind of teammates they are," Gailey said.
The Jets are 6-5 and preparing to play the Giants, with every win keeping them on track in the AFC playoff hunt. And, despite all his stops, Fitzpatrick has never played in the postseason.
"Yeah, I mean I'd love to get there," he said. "I've watched plenty of ex-teammates and buddies, so I'm a little bit jealous and patiently been waiting my turn. That's not the focus right now. The focus is just kind of on this game and trying to get another win."
Fitzpatrick has enjoyed his first several months with the Jets, acknowledging that he's having fun playing football again. He's a free agent after this season, but he might just be a keeper for New York.
"Sometimes, you have to bounce around to find your home," Bowles said. "I've seen a lot of guys bounce around on practice squads and different teams before they became stars. It was his time. He's at the right age. He's got the right mindset.
"He's got the right demeanor and it's his time."