Ryan Fitzpatrick’s bizarre NFL journey is partly headlined by one of the most uncanny seasons in New York Jets history
A degree from an Ivy League establishment opens many doors in the professional landscape. Unlike, say, Dunder Mifflin’s Regional Director of Sales, the lock to the door leading to lasting longevity as an NFL quarterback requires some picking.
But Ryan Fitzpatrick, a recent NFL retiree, was far from conventional.
Armed with a Harvard education that rivaled young Todd Frazier’s meeting with Derek Jeter in terms of in-game broadcast references, Fitzpatrick ended his NFL career last week, leaving only one member of the 2005 draft class (Aaron Rodgers) lingering on an active roster. He entered the league with the St. Louis Rams as the 250th overall selection.
Thus ends a career that spanned 17 seasons, nine teams, seven children, and nary an (on-field) appearance in the NFL playoffs. His closest postseason experience came in January – when he partied with upper deck-dwelling Buffalo Bills fans sans a shirt during the AFC Wild Card playoffs.
@ESPNNFL @SalSports @JeremyWGR @EWood70. The moment I caught on video Saturday night will be one of the greatest memories of my life. The passion! GO BILLS! pic.twitter.com/2rbOzpmVXi
— kyle margeson (@jessekjm) January 17, 2022
Modern pop culture’s obsession with reboots and retreads will ensure that the hunt for the “next” Fitzpatrick begins shortly…if it hasn’t begun already.
Such a search will likely prove futile.
In a rare case of a Harvard degree (oh yeah, did you know he went there?) hindering a job search, no other Cambridge scholar has ever thrown a pass in a regular season NFL game. It’s even more difficult to imagine another quarterback matching Fitzpatrick’s 59-87-1 record as a starter.
You’ll also be hard-pressed to find such impressive hair growth both on top and around one’s head, with Fitzpatrick perhaps perfecting a style that’d be more expected from a South Harmon Institute of Technology alum rather than one from Harvard.
To top it all off, Fitzpatrick frequently showcased a lively personality – memorably personified by preaching humbleness while decked out in sunglasses, gold chains, and a partially zipped jacket after a September 2018 win with the Buccaneers – that would make members of the Porcellian Club spit out their brandy.
The one consistent thing about Fitzpatrick’s career seemed to be his ability to ruin your favorite team’s draft spot. “Magic” and “tragic” were simultaneously used to replace the final two syllables of his surname, brought about by an uncanny ability to produce franchise-changing numbers one week and typical seventh-round fare the next – or even sometimes doing both in the very same game.
If Fitzpatrick were eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, there’d be major debate over whose hat he’d wear on his plaque, as he never spent more than four years with a single team. Canton’s bust sculptors will mercifully be spared from carving his bearded face, but Fitzpatrick made the Hall of Fame in perhaps the Fitzpatrick-way possible: his Dolphins uniform from a September 2020 win was sent there when he became the first (and only) player in league history to beat a single opponent (Jacksonville) with six different franchises.
Fitzpatrick also fell rear-backwards into history alongside a legend of the game: already immortalized next to names like Joe Namath, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino, Fitzpatrick somehow found his name next to Walter Payton’s thanks to an uncanny statline of at least two touchdown passes, a rushing score, 25 rushing yards, and a reception each.
Tropes suggest that Fitzpatrick would be the last to succeed at a jock-infested sport as a “nerd”, one that reportedly aced the famed Wonderlic test that’s sent many a top-tier draft pick tumbling down the draft board. Upon his invasion, he became a mercenary of sorts, taking jobs where and when they were necessary, a warm body to play with reckless abandon.
That wild card personality made him a perfect name of sorts: when Fitzpatrick’s single purpose was the tired and true backup quarterback philosophy to avoid becoming the reason your team lost, it allowed him to create sometimes bizarre masterpieces that become part of his respective employer’s franchise lore.
In other words, he was exactly what the NFL needed.
The modern NFL has not avoided falling victim to worshipping the question of “How Many Rings Does He Have?”, a phenomenon perpetuated by its adoring public. Sometimes even championships aren’t enough for Canton’s artisans to begin work – just ask the legions dedicated to keeping football difference-maker Eli Manning out of the Hall of Fame.
Defining a legacy is often a hard task. Many of the greats do so purely from an on-field perspective while others try to do it through extracurricular endeavors, be it from an entertainment or philanthropic perspective.
Somehow, Fitzpatrick managed to do it from a, dare we say, fun lens.
Football players are sometimes told to play as if they have nothing to lose. Fitzpatrick, rarely blessed with the longevity or security of an extended contract, discovered that sense of healthy reckless abandon and embraced his unusual purpose, making himself an almost-necessary staple to carry around the league for nearly two decades of play. One never knew where he was going to pop up to start his cycle anew, one that provided an energy drink-style boost that’d usually fizzle out once the games truly started to matter.
Perhaps nothing served as a finer, more accurate microcosm of Fitzpatrick’s career than the 2015 season with the New York Jets.
Brought in for a late draft pick, the addition of Fitzpatrick was made in the name of good franchise intentions. The team was firmly entrenched in its Geno Smith era. Fitzpatrick, fresh off the closest thing he had to a franchise quarterback’s job in Buffalo (53 starts over four seasons), was brought in to fulfill the reliable backup cause, to be a life preserver if the unthinkable happened to Smith (the familiarity with Jets playcaller and ex-Bills head coach Chan Gailey certainly helped in that regard).
Most quarterbacks find their careers changed by seven figures. Fitzpatrick saw his future changed with three.
When a confrontation between Smith and fringe defender IK Enemkpali – said to be over a $600 plane ticket reimbursement – left the former with a shattered jaw, Fitzpatrick was called in to pick up the pieces of the Jets’ 2015 season.
Jets, Patriots, 2015, the last glimmer and only such hope of a playoff team over the last eight seasons.
Bill Belichick kicks, Ryan Fitzpatrick to Eric Decker sends everybody home happy. #TakeFlight pic.twitter.com/c56K2KNIwU
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) April 7, 2020
The 2015 Jets were a peculiar bunch from the start. The boisterous Rex Ryan had given way to the stoic Todd Bowles but remnants of the lunchpail brand of smashmouth, in-your-face football were left behind, a trend partly emphasized by Darrelle Revis’ return after a championship sabbatical in New England (not to mention a career-best dozen sacks from Muhammad Wilkerson).
Questions, as they often tend to in New York, peppered the offense. Would receiver imports Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall be able to replicate strong numbers without assured quarterbacking? Could Chris Ivory take the next step as a primary rusher? Would the long-standing blocking tandem of D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold be able to work with a line of active (Breno Giacomini) and future (Brian Winters) journeymen?
Thanks in part to Fitzpatrick, a yes awaited each question.
Fitzpatrick’s magnum opus became a recording-breaking sensation that temporarily put the existential dread of being a Jets fan aside for a few hours every Sunday. He rewrote the aerial chapters of the Jets’ single-season record book, throwing a franchise-best 31 touchdowns and delivering Marshall the most prolific season in team history (109 receptions, 1,502 yards, 14 touchdowns).
Ivory made to the top of the 1,000-yard plateau while Ferguson and Mangold were as powerful as ever, with the latter more than happy to welcome a bearded brother to the metropolitan fold.
In final performances that would make the holiday crowds at The Loeb Drama Center proud, Fitzpatrick thrust the Jets into playoff contention with dramatic December outings against some of the biggest enemies (or at least perceived enemies) in green lore, guiding the team to an overtime win over the Giants through a tying score to Marshall before Randy Bullock’s winner.
Three weeks later (and eight days after a nationally televised comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys), Fitzpatrick was responsible for the most famous Jets moment in MetLife Stadium history, as an overtime toss to Decker gave the Jets not only a rare win over the hated Patriots but a chance to control their postseason destiny in the final week of the season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick runs for a big first down on fourth in overtime which leads to a Brandon Marshall score and an eventual #Jets win over the Jiints in overtime, 2015.
LEARN MORE ABOUT JET X: https://t.co/d8R22lvNE9 pic.twitter.com/fDgWdWdI9A
— Jets X-Factor (@jetsxfactor) July 16, 2020
It’s obviously not fair to say that Fitzpatrick was the only one who could’ve brought stability to Gang Green. But he was a rare player that actually fulfilled such a prospect, if only for a short while.
Little more needs to be said about how things ended. By now, the average Jet fan has been reminded about the disaster in Orchard Park more often than Fitzpatrick’s alma mater, though it was almost appropriate that his finest NFL hour ended without the playoffs.
The bad vibes carried over into the ensuing 2016 season, a hodgepodge of disappointment, dreariness, and one-sided defeats partly brought upon by a new payday for the quarterback. Floridian endeavors awaited Fitzpatrick afterward, as he’d go on to spend time with the Buccaneers and Dolphins after the New York experiment ended.
Somehow, this is what passes as glory days in the New York organization these days. The franchise, spearheaded by Joe Douglas, has done much to start changing the narrative, but any move he makes is meaningless until the ball is snapped in September.
But, like it or not, the ledgers of New York history bear Fitzpatrick’s name. Whether it says more about the franchise’s fortunes or Fitzpatrick himself is definitely a conversation worth having, but there’s no doubt that he brought an intriguing perspective and served as a silver lining to the dire circumstances his downtrodden employers often faced.
Football is, no matter what we the fanatical observers try to make it, a game. Ryan Fitzpatrick knew that better than anybody.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags