The New York Jets avoided a potential major pitfall by ironing out a long-term contract with star defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson just before Friday's deadline expired. But another massive showdown looms, and the tandem of coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan still face the biggest challenge of their young tenures in the next week.
Veterans report for training camp on July 27, and the simmering contract stalemate between the organization and presumptive starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick rages on, with no resolution in sight. While plenty of time remains for negotiation, and, in most situations of this magnitude, nothing really gets done until just before it has to, the lack of anything approximating progress between the veteran free agent and the Jets does not exactly conjure thoughts of a swift and clean culmination to this long and frustrating impasse.
The Jets face some absolutely critical decisions, sooner rather than later. How Bowles and Maccagnan navigate the next 10 days could go a long way to defining how their regime is judged in the short term, if not the long term, as they prepare for their second season at the helm.
So, with that in mind, here's a little advice: Don't let this quagmire drag into camp. Don't let it seep into August and possibly poison September and maybe October and November. Don't make your players show up, en masse, for the first time this summer and be faced with a litany of probing questions from a large and hungry media corps all surrounding the absence of the quarterback who played perhaps his best football ever for New York in 2015. At some point you have to turn the page, even at a position as vital as quarterback. At some point you've got to turn the entire focus to the players gathered at the team headquarters, not the team leader who is still staying away.
At some point, you have to draw a final line in the sand and tell Fitzpatrick and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, to take it or leave it. At some point, if this continues to drag on, you have to inform Fitzpatrick's camp that the long-standing offer on the table -- worth over $10M in 2016 and roughly $24M over the next three years with very limited guarantees beyond this season -- is no longer on the table.
Eventually, you have to move on. Nothing lasts forever.
And for me, that date would come a week from now. Next Monday. Take it or leave it.
I'd call Sexton today, tell him I don't need much of his time, because there isn't much to discuss at this point, and let him know that this situation won't be bleeding into the preseason. Because the offer is only an offer until next Monday.
Then I'm moving on, with or without Fitzpatrick. We won't be pining for what we don't have when 90 guys assemble in New Jersey for Bowles' first team-wide address of the training camp, because if Fitzpatrick isn't under contract a day before vets arrive, then he isn't going to be playing football for my team this season.
This has gone on too long already. Enough is enough.
Some might say it's spiting your nose to cut off your face -- particularly with Geno Smith and Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg as the only other quarterback options on the team right now. But let's not go overboard about Fitzpatrick, 33, who has posted the modest statistics of 60 percent completions, 6.7 yards per attempt, and 154 touchdowns and 116 picks in 113 career games and a quarterback rating of 80.8.
He's a solid system quarterback when paired with Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and he far surpassed any realistic expectations last season. But Gailey is a guy who has long done more with less and who has turned in splendid work transforming projects like Kordell Stewart. Gailey is just the type of maestro you would want working with the types of young quarterbacks the Jets have amassed, all of whom have their warts and need molding.
And let's not pretend that anyone, even the most ardent Fitzpatrick guy, sees him as the long-term solution to the Jets' quarterback conundrum. And let's not pretend there is any real upside there. And let's not pretend that this isn't the quintessential journeyman who has already been discarded by a quarter of the league at one time or another, and who now might be on the verge of it happening again. And let's not pretend that there is any semblance of a market for Fitzpatrick outside of the Jets, because there hasn't been.
One thing I am very certain of is the Jets won't compete against themselves for Fitzpatrick's services. They're not going to start bidding up a soft market now. And there is not another NFL team willing to pay Fitzpatrick anything close to starting money. In fact, through the entire process, it appears there hasn't been a team willing to put anything of note at all on the table for him, besides the Jets.
It's not like Fitzpatrick is weighing this proposal against one or two others of a similar value. He's weighing it against cutting off his own nose to spite his face and continue to sit out, walking away from millions, while waiting for a team to suffer an injury to a quarterback and sign him.
Problem is, even under that scenario, he's maybe going to fetch a one-year, $4M deal with incentives. And he's in all likelihood going to have to quickly learn a new offense and new huddle and new surroundings and do it all on the fly. And Gailey won't be there. Brandon Marshall won't be there. Eric Decker won't be there. Not to mention, the story of his career is that outside of that scenario he tends to turn the ball over at a troubling rate. And if he in fact reverts to that form and plays the kind of football he's played through much of his career, he won't be getting much money ever again.
Now, if he takes the Jets deal, and it really does end up being a one-year deal, and he plays decent football but they want to move on with a kid quarterback in 2017, well, Fitzpatrick should be better positioned to get one last nice bite at the apple. In that case, other teams won't be staying away at least in part because everyone assumes he's going to sign with the Jets in the end, anyway, because, well, the Jets will have already released him. If Fitzpatrick plays well again in 2016, and then feels like $8M or so for 2017 is beneath him, he can always hold out and stay away next year and trigger a similar process all over again, but he would do so under that scenario with more leverage.
As much as has been made about how desperate the Jets should be for Fitzpatrick, and rightfully so, the same applies to the quarterback. I'd argue, even more so on his part. Is there a means to bridge the gap via incentives and bonuses, particularly should Fitzpatrick manage to throw 30-plus touchdowns again in 2016? I'd hope that both sides were grounded enough to go that route. All hope shouldn't be lost.
But there also needs to be real closure, and soon. Letting this carry into the exhibition games and hover over the first cuts and continue to overshadow anything being accomplished on the field or in the meeting rooms is counterproductive. Particularly in this media market and this city, and for a franchise where chaos and volatile behavior were so prominent under New York's prior regime, there needs to be a very real end to this saga, one way or the other, prior to the start of camp. Especially when stand-offs like this were the kind of thing Bowles and Maccagnan were trying to eradicate as they sought to change the warped culture of the Jets, all the more reason to give Fitzpatrick a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum.
Color me a skeptic that any of the Jets other quarterbacks are ready to come close to what Fitzpatrick did a year ago, but the odds of one truly breaking out only decrease if the specter of ongoing negotiations with the veteran continue into camp. Having that hanging over their shoulders doesn't empower them at all, and it continues to undermine them in a locker room that they already must try to win over. Smith in particular made strides through the offseason, I'm told, benefitting from the extra reps through Fitzpatrick's absence, but he's been fragile since the Jets curtailed his draft freefall and will need all the support possible if he is going to make real strides.
You can't have a young quarterback room looking over its shoulder at a ghost who may or may not be coming back. You can't have veteran receivers pining for a veteran passer who may or may not be coming back. You can't be divvying up preseason reps with a veteran passer who may or may not be coming back in the back of your mind. Not when that veteran presence is Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom the Texans were willing to dump for any late-round pick just over a year ago. Let's not lose perspective on who we're talking about here. This isn't Tom Brady or Drew Brees.
If Fitzpatrick wants to walk away from $12M odd in guarantees and stay home and potentially sit out the season, at this stage of his career, so be it. He certainly has that right. But the Jets also have every right to not let one contract situation trump everything else going on with them, and they have every right not to allow a festering negotiation obscure their entire training camp. He shouldn't be angry and frustrated with the Jets, it's the market that's been speaking -- one might say screaming -- and the Jets have had no team come close to pushing them since the moment Fitzpatrick hit the open market.
In the end, both of these sides need each other, maybe even more than they know. In the end, common sense would tell us they kiss and make up sooner rather than later. Common sense doesn't always prevail in this league, however, and you can call it stubborn or shortsighted or whatever you like, but I'd give Fitzpatrick one more week to weigh his options, and then I'm moving on, with or without him.