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.
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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.
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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.