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26 Aug 2015

Film Room: Ryan Fitzpatrick

by Cian Fahey

Ryan Fitzpatrick is a mirage.

The veteran quarterback is entering his 11th season in the NFL, after signing for his sixth team during the offseason. Fitzpatrick was signed to be Geno Smith's backup for the New York Jets, reuniting with former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. An untimely injury to Geno Smith then inserted Fitzpatrick into the starting lineup. Generally when a team goes from its decided-upon starter to a newly acquired backup who has been in the league for more a decade, it is seen as a major negative. Because of Geno Smith's slow start to his career and Fitzpatrick's relatively strong standing for a backup, that is not the case here.

There were widespread examples of pieces suggesting that Fitzpatrick would be an improvement over Smith after the young quarterback broke his jaw. Most of that optimism was based around the idea that Fitzpatrick is a competent, established player while Smith has already proven to be too flawed to start at this level. This despite Smith being just 24 years of age while Fitzpatrick is on the wrong side of 30. Fitzpatrick's statistical output over his career is unspectacular, but it doesn't raise alarm bells about his quality. He has completed 60.2 percent of his passes while averaging 6.6 yards per attempt. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is an acceptable 123:101, while he has added 11 rushing touchdowns with 54 total fumbles. In comparison, Smith has completed just 57.5 percent of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt with 32 total touchdowns and 34 interceptions, plus 16 fumbles.

(Ed. Note: I should add Football Outsiders to the list of websites suggesting that going from Smith to Fitzpatrick would be a small improvement. In FOA 2015, we projected Smith with -15.8% passing DVOA this season, and Fitzpatrick with -8.7% passing DVOA: still below average, but an improvement. -- Aaron Schatz)

Statistically, Smith is worse than Fitzpatrick. Yet, their play on the field hasn't been that different. Smith is still at an early stage of his career and has played with awful supporting casts to this point. Fitzpatrick is past his prime and has played with various levels of support over his career. Last season was statistically his most impressive. He completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 8.0 yards per attempt, both career highs. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was better than ever before as he threw 17 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. Those numbers suggest that Fitzpatrick was the game-managing option the Houston Texans hoped he would be when they named him their starting quarterback. Unfortunately, those numbers only help to paint the mirage that Fitzpatrick has become.

Fitzpatrick only played in 12 games for the Texans last year. He was injured late in the year, but had been benched previously for poor performance. Fitzpatrick's numbers remained impressive, but largely for reasons out of his control.

The Texans had a run-first offense based around the talents of Arian Foster. Therefore, Fitzpatrick only threw 312 passes in 12 games. Just eight of those 312 passes were caught by an opposing defender in bounds, but Fitzpatrick could have thrown many more interceptions. Football Outsiders game charting lists Fitzpatrick with 13 adjusted interceptions thanks to five possible picks dropped by defenders. My own Interceptable Passes project, an even more detailed charting of possible picks (with less strict definitions for "possible interceptions"), assigned 18 interceptions to Fitzpatrick last season, with just two of his caught interceptions being deemed someone else's fault. Some of those were caught, but most weren't. The Interceptable Passes project was designed to isolate the actions of the quarterback and recognize opportunities when he threw passes that were likely to be intercepted because of his actions. It wasn't because of anything Fitzpatrick did that defenders kept dropping or misreading the flight of bad passes he threw, nor should he be forgiven when his two dominant talents at wide receiver -- DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson -- pull inaccurate passes away from waiting defenders.

The Texans starter finished as one of the worst players tracked in that project. He shared a tier with Andy Dalton and Derek Carr, ranking above just four of the 31 charted quarterbacks. Geno Smith ranked five spots higher than Fitzpatrick and was dramatically better over the second half of his season than he was the first.

Fitzpatrick was the same turnover-prone player he has been throughout his career; luck and a talented supporting cast simply conspired to keep his official interception tally low.

Despite what his reputation suggests, Fitzpatrick is one of the least intelligent quarterbacks to have seen the field during the regular season over recent years. His Harvard education, though often pointed to, carries little applicable value. Not until Harvard revamps its class structure to let students knock each other out while trying to read a blackboard with NFL coverages on it from 20 yards away will any form of that academic education become relevant to being an effective quarterback. What is relevant is what Fitzpatrick has repeatedly done throughout his career: make bad decisions on the field.

Fitzpatrick predetermines decisions and has major problems with timing. He lacks poise in the pocket, so he doesn't understand when to get rid of the ball against pressure or when he needs to hold it in a clean pocket. He can't effectively read a progression on a regular basis. He does move his eyes from receiver to receiver on occasion, but he doesn't actually see the field well. He looks for receivers without recognizing that they are open or about to come open. Often he just cycles through his targets before checking the ball down or forcing it into a receiver who isn't open.

These issues are all prevalent on his interceptions and interceptable passes, particularly those that deal with reacting to pressure. However, they also permeate through the rest of his play.

Take the above play for example. It's third-and-9 on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 28-yard line. The Steelers essentially rush just three players because their fourth rusher coming from the top of the screen is caught in traffic initially. Fitzpatrick has as much time as he could want in the pocket. He looks to the right initially, before frenetically bringing his eyes back to the middle of the field and bouncing them back into the right flat to find Arian Foster. He checks down to Foster, who is well covered just 2 yards downfield. Fitzpatrick had a huge amount of time in the pocket to survey the defense without even resetting his feet. He could have manipulated the defense to create space for one of his receivers or simply let the receivers' routes develop before dropping his eyes to Foster.

The route combinations to the top of the screen could have resulted in a touchdown or a first down if given the chance to develop, while there was a tight end running towards the seam close to where Foster had drawn a linebacker into the flat. Fitzpatrick didn't use the time afforded to him to locate or work an opening in the defense. He immediately gave up on any potential first down to settle for a field goal.

Although this play doesn't stand out as obviously awful like a bad turnover does, it's the kind of play that can destroy an offense when it's repeated so often. Fitzpatrick offered another example of his inability to function effectively from the pocket against the Atlanta Falcons last week.

It was third-and-9 inside Jets territory. Fitzpatrick had plenty of time and space when he got to the top of his drop. His eyes had immediately focused on the right side of the field, where Brandon Marshall was running a deep curl route from the slot and Bilal Powell was running underneath him from the outside on an in route. At this point of the play, it is blatantly obvious that Marshall won't be open at any point. He has three defenders who have been drawn towards him, leaving Powell alone underneath. Throwing short of the first-down marker on third down isn't always advisable, but in this situation an accurate, simple throw would give Powell a chance to run to the space over the middle of the field and possibly get a first down.

Waiting for Marshall to come open invited pressure upfront, which then forced Fitzpatrick to drop his eyes and scramble. He ran for 3 yards and never had a chance of even getting close to the first-down marker. The offense was forced to punt the ball away.

This is what makes Fitzpatrick a mirage. He avoids the big mistake often enough to make him seem appealing, but all the time he is systematically destroying your offense by not executing simple reads. He is essentially a worse version of Alex Smith, another quarterback who doesn't understand the need to be more adventurous with the ball for his offense to function properly.

Fitzpatrick's lack of timing and field awareness is compounded by his porous arm talent.

This chart tracks every pass Fitzpatrick threw last season that wasn't intentionally thrown away or tipped at the line of scrimmage. His completion percentage last year was 63.1 percent, but his accuracy percentage was 66.9 percent, as there are 207 accurate passes and 102 inaccurate passes on the above chart. Fitzpatrick obviously had accurate throws that were dropped by his receivers, but the difference between his actual completion percentage and his accuracy percentage suggest that his receivers were routinely bailing him out on inaccurate throws. No receiver did that more than DeAndre Hopkins, a receiver who established himself as one of the very best in the NFL last season.

Hopkins only had 76 receptions for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns, but it doesn't take long watching him to realize he could have had huge numbers if given even average service from his quarterback. At 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, Hopkins isn't huge when compared to other top NFL receivers. He does offer his quarterback a huge catch radius though, one that extends around his whole body and is fluid enough to quickly adjust to poorly placed passes. Hopkins has exceptional strength in his grip to not only catch the ball away from his body, but do so against tight coverage before absorbing any hits or knocks to maintain possession of the ball to the ground. On numerous occasions last year, Fitzpatrick could essentially just throw the ball up for grabs and expect Hopkins to dominate the defensive back covering him to come down with the ball. Hopkins offered Fitzpatrick a huge margin for error on back-shoulder throws in particular.

As the above play shows, Fitzpatrick sometimes tested just how far he could stretch that margin for error. This throw against the Philadelphia Eagles favored the cornerback much more than the receiver. The cornerback never got an opportunity to play the ball because he couldn't turn his head while playing aggressive coverage against Hopkins. Even though Hopkins was expecting to reach back for the ball, he instead had to reach through the defensive back to pull the ball in from above his head. This pass was catchable, but inaccurate. It's the type of throw that Fitzpatrick makes to every level of the field with incredible consistency.

Hopkins' exceptional ability to play the ball downfield was repeatedly shown off last year. Fitzpatrick's completion percentage on 20-plus-yard throws was the highest in the NFL, but nine of his 17 completions came on just 13 attempts to Hopkins.

Hopkins created huge passing windows on back-shoulder throws, plucked the ball out of the air when defensive backs had more favorable positions, and even ran outstanding routes to put himself in vast amounts of space, all of which elevated Fitzpatrick's production despite the quarterback's constant poor ball placement on downfield throws. Throwing downfield to other receivers on the roster was a major challenge. That was even so for Andre Johnson who struggled to win at the catch point because of Fitzpatrick's lack of timing and ball placement.

Hopkins and Johnson are both amongst the best accuracy-boosting receivers in the NFL. Both players have exceptional strength, fluidity, and awareness at the catch point to dominate defensive backs, but they can also create separation and run precise routes to always be open when they're supposed to be open. In Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, the Jets have one player with that kind of talent who is on the back end of his career, and one player who is too rigid in his skill set to be that effective.

Poor ball placement downfield puts a huge amount of stress on receivers, but poor ball placement on shorter throws is even worse.

Most offenses don't call downfield shots that often, so the passing game is primarily built on short and intermediate throws. Chan Gailey isn't likely to ask Fitzpatrick to push the ball downfield a huge amount in New York this season. Fitzpatrick's issue is that his ball placement is a constant problem, not just a result of his lack of arm strength on deeper passes. The Texans ranked 28th in the NFL in yards after the catch last year. Fitzpatrick's inability to place the ball correctly even on throws as simple as screen passes played a huge role in that low ranking. The above gif is a great example of how his inaccuracy cost his receivers opportunities.

Fitzpatrick continues to get opportunities in the NFL, even if just as a backup, because of how he fails. How you fail as a quarterback in the NFL is very important to coaches. If you stick to the design of the play and play from the pocket but simply can't execute the way you need to, you are much more likely to hang around a team over a player who stands out more as an individual but relies more on his creativity than the coach's creativity. Furthermore, if you have consistent subtle failures instead of less regular major failures, you will be viewed more favorably from a distance. That is where Fitzpatrick falls.

While Geno Smith isn't a high bar to clear, he was still a developing young quarterback who had finished both of his seasons in the NFL playing with consistency and precision. Fitzpatrick is the opposite of that. He has long since proven who he is at this level. There aren't 32 quality quarterbacks to start in today's NFL and he's not one of the exceptions.

No matter how much you can make him look like one.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 26 Aug 2015

20 comments, Last at 31 Aug 2015, 8:16am by bubqr

Comments

1
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 2:08pm

The switch from Geno Smith to Fitzpatrick may not be an automatic disaster, but is still a step down, simply because Geno was killing him in training camp. All the normal Jets reporters kept writing reports about how impressed they were with Geno during the practices they saw, and Geno went through 6 or 7 practices before throwing an interception, unlike Fitzpatrick. The only good thing about this situation is that the Jets would be going from the older, placeholder guy to the younger one, instead of what they did last year. I really doubt Fitzpatrick starts the whole year, and Petty is not ready right now, if he'll ever be.

2
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 5:18pm

This article kind of elaborates on a rant that Michael bennett went on about qbs.

Ok - fitz is a replaceable qb. That's why he never stays on a team. But the reason he keeps getting jobs is the onus on qbs has grown and the number of quality one's has not.

Its probably reasonable to argue that had buffalo had a flacco like starter - they are at least a playoff team and title contender. If they had a roethlisburger esque starter - they are one of handful of favorites.

The Texans with cutler are probably division champions.

3
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 5:35pm

According to DYAR, Fitzpatrick is slightly above replacement level; according to DVOA, he's slightly below. The onus on qbs has grown, but I think the number of quality ones has fallen. The NFL does a poorer job of grooming quarterbacks than it used to. The last two competent Jets quarterbacks stayed on the bench for at least a season, in the case of Pennington, two. Qbs like Alex Smith are being rushed in to start way too early, and the exceptions like Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers are getting rarer and rarer. Both Mariota and Winston are being anointed starters already, when their teams would probably be better off sitting them for a while. Bridgewater and Manziel didn't start opening day last year, so they're exceptions, but it seems like everyone expects a first round quarterback to turn into a star immediately, when the only way they're going to be a star is to sit them for a while.

4
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:02pm

I'm going to make a list of 2014 qbs that most people feel comfortable calling known quality nfl starters and make a similar list for 2004 starters and see how the two groups compare:(ommitting rookies and unknowns)

In no particular order: Rodgers, Stafford, Wilson, Romo, Eli, Brees, Ryan, Newton, Peyton, Rivers, Big Ben, Flacco, Luck, Brady. (were this my list, I would omit newton and possibly stafford, but that's me.)

2004:

Favre, Culpepper, Hasselbeck, Bulger, Mcnabb, Brees, Plummer, Green, Peyton, Mcnair, Brady, Pennington.

Comparing lists - 14 vs 12. That's pretty close.

5
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:17pm

Could probably include Delhomme and Leftwich in the 2004 list, but I get your point. I was thinking more along the lines of the 80s, but my examples were from around 2004. It still feels like the NFL does a poor job of developing quarterbacks, probably because I root for a team that's been clueless at it, Geno being a great example of this.

7
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:24pm

Well - there's not enough evidence one way or another to see if sitting a qb really does pay off long term vs starting right away. I don't think Brock Osweiler and Jimmy G are going to be definitive either, even if they are good examples that fit the criteria.

But my overall point stands. The difference between say Plummer and Favre has only magnified over time. Or even say Plummer to Chargers' Brees(who feels comparable to Matt Ryan currently). To say nothing of the difference between a joey harrington and a Kerry Collins.

That's a function of the era, where not converting consistently enough in the red zone or keeping drives alive is tantamount to losing. Its essentially what has sunk buffalo these last two seasons, despite a defensive roster pretty close to that of Seattle's.

6
by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:21pm

"According to DYAR, Fitzpatrick is slightly above replacement level; according to DVOA, he's slightly below."

Just to clarify this quickly: For most of his career, Fitzpatrick has had DVOAs below zero, but DYARs above zero. That does not mean DVOA sees him as slightly below replacement level; it means that DVOA sees him as slightly below AVERAGE. Those are two different baselines, and it's important to remember that.

Those below-average-but-above-replacement-level guys are usually the "bad starters" that teams would love to replace, but there's no better option. Last year that group included Matt Stafford, Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer, Kyle Orton, Mike Glennon, Colin Kaepernick, Charlie Whitehurst, and Austin Davis. Fitzpatrick actually was above average in DVOA last year, but as the article notes, that's a fluke -- it was the first time in his career he finished a season with a positive DVOA.

8
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:28pm

There's a big discussion about how good your qb is relative to the rest of the league. To me, the more salient question is - how good are you in a vacuum. To me, and I have harsh standards, neither stafford nor newton would be considered good in a vacuum.

I probably start with Flacco and Eli as my baseline level of "good." Anyone worse than them and I would be trying to find a better player were he available.

9
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:52pm

Damn, you're picky, theslothook, I would take either Stafford or Newton in a heartbeat over the Jets mess the last eight years. Perhaps they're not good enough to win it all, but Mark Sanchez twice made it to a championship game in this era.

10
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 7:08pm

Lol - well, i said in a vacuum. Ofc, we don't live in a vacuum and the difference between newton/stafford and fitz is a BIg big deal.

And RR's faith in Sanchez cost him his job.

13
by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 9:54pm

Rex had two years of Geno before he got fired. Idzik got both of them canned by not spending money on cornerbacks. The Jets went 4-12 with better quarterback play than the 8-8 year before: look at Geno's 2013/2014 DYAR comparison. The schedule got harder, and the pass defense got worse.

14
by theslothook :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 11:03pm

I should have said Tannenbaum. The jets were lucky to go 8 and 8.

Frankly...you can win w mediocre qbs...but to be consistently good, it's nearly impossible. Only balt of the 2000s managed that and even they missed the playoffs.

11
by tuluse :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 7:25pm

I think Newton is pretty good and in one of the worst situations a QB can be in terms of offensive teammates. I'm much rather have him than Cutler.

15
by Rich A :: Thu, 08/27/2015 - 12:04am

This is a bit off topic but still somewhat in the same realm of conversation.

Would you then be looking for a better player than Eli or would you be signing him to a monster QB contract? And if you let Eli walk would you try to find a year one starter or would you sign Fitzpatrick or another journeyman to hold the fort down? I only ask because it seems like Eli is the tipping point to you regarding whether to move on or hold on.

Or would you draft and sign 7 or 8 Qb's and see which 2 or 3 rise to the top?

16
by theslothook :: Thu, 08/27/2015 - 1:47am

I prefaced by saying in a vacuum. I thought the panthers should sign Newton because while I don't think newton is great, he gives you a chance to make the playoffs in a way fitz can't unless surrounded by a really good team. Cam will likely need much less help.

As for Eli, Eli is my cut off where if I had a chance to draft a really great prospect, I'd feel like him being Eli is unlikely, so I would stick with him. If I had cam and say a really great qb prospect were available, I would really consider drafting the qb.

that's my view.

17
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 08/27/2015 - 12:25pm

If I was the Giants owner, I would try to play hardball with Eli, much as the fanbase would hate it, because the entire organization seems ready to fall apart (Coughlin's getting old, the team really hasn't been good for a couple of years), so now might be the right time to rebuild. Unfortunately, I am not sold on the quarterback prospects for next year; Connor Cook has talent but is inaccurate and makes poor decisions time to time, Hackelnberg seems a guy who looks the part but doesn't know what he's doing, Brissett looks amazing at times and then puts up a stinker like at Clemson, and Wentz plays in FCS. Jared Goff is the only one I have any kind of faith in right now, but perhaps that's because draft breakdown only has 3 videos of his.

19
by ChrisS :: Thu, 08/27/2015 - 9:38pm

I think Stafford's stats show him as a bit better than average (700 Dyar, 5% DVOA on average over the last three years). The rest of the offense, besides Calvin and Tate last year, has been fairly untalented so he would probably be better on an average talented offense. He seems to have more variance than most QB's, his good is very good (top 5ish) but his bad is god awful. So if you are an optimist (as no true Lion fan can be) you think if we can make him more like his good self we will have a very good QB.

12
by mrt1212 :: Wed, 08/26/2015 - 8:36pm

The ones that excel really excel and are given the ample 550+ opportunities to do it.

18
by IrishBarrister :: Thu, 08/27/2015 - 2:55pm

"Despite what his reputation suggests, Fitzpatrick is one of the least intelligent quarterbacks to have seen the field during the regular season over recent years."

I agree in part and disagree in part with this statement. Fitzpatrick is, in my opinion, well above-average in the pre-snap phase (e.g., identifying blitzes, checks at the line, etc.). Post-snap, however, he struggles to process the information quickly enough to make good decisions with any consistency. So post-snap, sure, Fitzpatrick's nothing to write home about. But I think Cian's really selling him short when he walks to the line. Agree to disagree, I suppose.

20
by bubqr :: Mon, 08/31/2015 - 8:16am

Well I think that's where the importance of the definition of intelligence comes up. To me, post-snap play is more muscle memory/reflexes than "pure intelligence": you actually don't have much time to think!