Sullivan: Jets a loss away from lost season
FLORHAM PARK – When the biggest question heading into Sunday is who the backup quarterback is going to be, it tells you plenty about where your football team is. When the question arises by the NFL’s Week 8, it tells you that place is not good.
So it’s no real surprise Jets coach Todd Bowles had little interest in a detailed discussion Friday about whether Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg would get the No. 2 nod Sunday in Cleveland, but with his season teetering on the edge of relevance, not even his rare flash of impatience could change reality. Injury may have decided the question of who will start, inserting Ryan Fitzpatrick back to his original position after a torn ACL ended the brief return of Geno Smith last week against Baltimore, and in leading the Jets to their first win in five games, Fitzpatrick earned the chance to re-assert his ownership of the job. Fitzpatrick even gets the softest part of the schedule to do so, beginning in winless Cleveland and followed by games against Miami and Los Angeles, giving him a chance to get this team back to .500.
But one more loss and the conversation changes, and quickly. One more loss and the Jets will have to admit it’s time to turn the page toward next season and beyond, time to see whether Petty, their quarterback pick two drafts ago, or Hackenberg, their quarterback pick this past spring, is a viable option for the future. With that in mind, the interest in who gets the first crack at taking over is fair, even if Bowles doesn’t want to satisfy our collective curiosity just yet.
“No offense, but if I’m not going to tell you who it is, why are we having this discussion?” Bowles said Friday, conceding he had made a decision but declining to share it publicly until he said he’d spoken to his coaches. “It’s really a waste of time. I’m not going to tell you anything. It’s not open for discussion. Guys, let it ride.”
Bowles doesn’t have to let the opposition know of his plans either, right? “There you go,” he said. “Can we move on from here? Let’s move on please. It’s not happening.”
Tabling the issue for now is OK, especially while the Jets cling to their slim playoff hopes, turning back to Fitzpatrick to win these next three games before their bye.
But as much as Bowles insisted, “We don’t look at the playoffs. We just look at one game at a time, and when it’s time to look up and look and see where we are, we’ll look up and see where we are,” he has to know the window is closing. It won’t be easy to get to the postseason, not with the first-place Patriots looming in Weeks 12 and 16, but it will be all but impossible without a win Sunday against the Browns. Fitzpatrick, who promised to play the rest of the season fueled by the anger of having been benched, who set off plenty of in-house fireworks when he used the post-game victory setting to blast management for losing belief in him, could be on his last chance to deliver.
“The underlying message there, really, is I believe in myself,” the journeyman quarterback said this week. “You don’t make it as long as I have in the league and playing on as many teams as I have been on in the league, having to pick myself up over and over again, without believing in yourself. “I don’t really care how [my comments] were construed. That’s what I was talking about. We’re here to play football. I think the biggest thing is we need to win games.”
Outside of one beautiful game in Buffalo, the Jets’ passing offense has struggled to gain traction. They’ve lost receiver Eric Decker for the rest of the season to injury, leaving defenses little challenge in targeting Brandon Marshall for extra coverage. The offensive line is in tatters. With center Nick Mangold likely out with an ankle injury and left tackle Ryan Clady (shoulder) questionable, Bowles could be forced to juggle his healthy bodies, which could mean activating Breno Giacomini from the PUP list. If Fitzpatrick was bad before – throwing 11 interceptions against six touchdowns – what can he possibly do now?
“I stand before you guys every week, even after getting benched. I was disappointed that I got benched, but I was disappointed in the way that I had played, too,” he said. “We’ll see how long this lingers. In the NFL, you have to be able to produce and I have to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability. That’s what has been expected of me this year and I haven’t done it thus far. I’ve got to continue to get better and play up to my expectations.”
If he doesn’t, the future will surely arrive to take his place. That might mean Petty, who had a firmer hold on the No. 2 spot before suffering a shoulder injury in preseason and only returning to practice two weeks ago, or it might mean Hackenberg, who by all accounts used his additional practice snaps to gain knowledge and confidence.
“Before the injury, they weren’t on equal footing. Petty was clearly ahead of him. He’s been hurt for a month, so the other guy got a lot of reps,” Bowles said. “They looked fine. Both of them are ready to play.”