Now that his contract is up, if Fitzpatrick re-signs with the Jets this offseason, he’ll be returning to the Atlantic Health Training Center in a far different role.
“If he returns,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said at his end-of-year press conference, “He’ll be the starting quarterback.”
Since taking over as ‘QB 1’ back in August when Smith fractured his jaw in a locker room fight with I.K. Enemkpali, all Fitzpatrick has done is put together arguably the single-best quarterbacking season in Jets history. He threw for the second-most yards (3,905), completed the second-most passes (335) and broke the franchise record for passing touchdowns in a season (31).
He also led the Jets to their first 10-win season in five years while earning the admiration, respect and love of the 53 other players on the New York's roster.
Jets starting guard Willie Colon bellowed “Hell Yes” when asked if Fitzpatrick should be brought back, while receiver Brandon Marshall echoed the same message. The quarterback has already heard public pleas from Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey that the 11th-year veteran needs to be back in green in 2016.
“I appreciate that,” Fitzpatrick said. “The most important thing for me in my career, and as a player, is to be respected by my peers, to be respected by all these guys in the locker room, so that means a lot to me.”
While Fitzpatrick will turn 34 two months into next season, both he, and many of his teammates, believe he still has an awful lot football left in him. And good football at that. The numbers seem to support that sentiment.
Fitzpatrick —who said he himself he hopes to return to the Jets next year— finished the 2015 season with a 59.6 percent completion percentage and an 88.0 quarterback rating, the second-highest of his career.
“I’m such a different quarterback now than I was even three, four years ago just with what I’ve been through, the lessons I’ve learned along the way, whether it’s about the game or myself,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like I’m a better football player now than I’ve been at any point in my career.
“So hopefully I can just continue to do that, continue to get better, make better decisions and go from there. It’s hard to play quarterback in this league. It’s a growing process. There’s a lot of things you have to go through, ups and downs. Hopefully I can continue to have the opportunity to get better.”
In all likelihood, Fitzpatrick will be back —Bowles went as far to say as it was one of the Jets’ top priorities. But once the Harvard product puts pen-to-paper on his new deal, the questions turn from Fitzpatrick, to what the Jets do with Smith.
Speaking by his locker, Smith didn’t commit much to his future with New York, saying “we’ll see.” The quarterback said he “didn’t know how to answer” a question about if he’d ask the front office to trade him to a team where he could compete to be the starter.
But that might be because, before Bowles’ press conference, Smith thought he’d have a chance to do that in Florham Park next year.
“Of course, yeah, we all do,” Smith said. “I guess, if you’re saying I don’t have that opportunity here, I don’t believe that. We don’t know what’s going to transpire, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
“We have to see. We have to all wait and see. We’ll see how things go.”