Rex Ryan won’t talk about having Ryan Fitzpatrick’s number. Ryan said the last time he discussed his success against a quarterback, Tom Brady lit his defense up for 600 yards. Actually, it was 466 yards here last season, but you get the point.
Defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman has no such reservations. “The first thing he said in meetings was, ‘I know this guy’,” Robey-Coleman said Wednesday afternoon.
Ryan might as well have said, “I own the guy.” That’s what the numbers say, and the numbers are beyond dispute. Fitzpatrick’s career statistics against Rex’s defenses are dreadful, an unrelenting chronicle of aerial mishap and woe.
Fitz has played 11 games against Ryan defenses, dating back to a 2008 start when he was with the Bengals and Ryan was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator. During those 11 games, Fitzpatrick has completed 47 percent of his passes for 1,823 yards (166 a game), with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In nine games as a starter, he is 1-8 against Rex.
Ryan’s Jets beat him five times in a row between 2009-12, when Fitz was the Bills’ starter. But the greatest indignity came last year, when he became the Jets’ QB and lost twice, by identical 22-17 scores, to the Bills in Ryan’s first season as the team’s head coach.
Fitzpatrick, who will lead the Jets into New Era Field for an early-season AFC clash Thursday night, completed 43 percent of his passes in those two games and was picked off five times. The last three came in the fourth quarter of a wintry season finale in Buffalo, when Fitz had a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time and fell on his beard.
“You guys bring up a valid point,” Fitzpatrick said in a conference call with Bills media. “When you look at my numbers against Rex defenses, it’s not on par with my career numbers. We could be honest, too. You look at my career numbers and it’s not like I’m competing with the Hall of Famers.
“I’m just continuing to get better and I’m trying to improve every year,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of improvement this year like we have the last few years.”
It’s true that Fitzpatrick, 33, has matured as a passer late in his career. He had the two best passer ratings of his career in the last two seasons (he was with Houston in 2014). Last year, he set career highs in passing yards (3,905) and TD passes (31), breaking the Jets’ franchise record in the latter.
But his season ended in typical Fitz fashion, with forced throws in a crushing, late defeat. One win over his former team would have meant playoffs a year ago. But the Jets were 0-2 against Ryan’s Bills and 10-4 against the rest of the NFL.
“I don’t fear anybody, but I respect what he’s done,” Ryan said. “But the guy’s an ultra competitor. Last year, they won five straight games and looked like one of best teams in the league. We ended up beating them and people wound up questioning the kid.”
That included the people who run the Jets, who were reluctant to give a lucrative, long-term deal to a journeyman quarterback who faltered in the big game and will turn 34 this November. Fitz held out, missing all of the Jets’ offseason program, before signing a one-year, $12 millon contract in time for training camp in late July.
It was nothing new for Fitz, who played for four different teams in four years from 2012-15. During his Bills days, he often said that no matter how well he did, he would always revert to the “rag-arm from Harvard” in the public’s eye when he failed on the field.
“It was an interesting offseason with that,” he said, “because there was some good stuff we did and some stuff we could build on this year. But the whole offseason, I was without a team, sitting there waiting and hearing all the bad things that were said about me.
“I think it’ll always be that way for me. That just my career in a nutshell, the narrative that will always be there. I don’t really dwell on that. I come in to work every single day for my teammates to try to get better and try to get these guys to the playoffs.”
Fitz said it took him awhile to get over that final game in Buffalo a year ago. But he had a heart-to-heart with Gus Frerotte, who played ahead of him in St. Louis when he was a rookie.
Frerotte encouraged him to keep plugging away and put the bad times behind him. You never know how many shots you’ll get, especially when you’re operating on one-year contracts.
Thursday’s game is a critical early-season test. Like the Bills, the Jets lost their opener, falling 23-22 to the Bengals on a late Mike Nugent field goal. The Bengals sealed the win by intercepting a Fitz pass in the final minute.
That’s been a recurring theme in his career. Fitz often tries to make the risky throw and turns it over. The Bills’ defensive backs talked about it a year ago. Bide your time and Fitz will give you a chance for a pick. Robey-Coleman said it. So did Leodis McKelvin, who intercepted Fitzpatrick deep in Buffalo territory early in the fourth that day.
“Yup, we’re looking for the same thing this year,” Robey-Coleman said. “He’s a good quarterback. Fitz likes to get the ball out fast. That can be an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage. If we know where he wants to throw it, put pressure on him and make him throw the ball, then we can jump routes. It can be a double-edged sword.
“In my eyes, if we put pressure on him and make him get the ball out quick, it’s going to work into our hands, period. That’s the way we like to play.”
The secondary knows Fitzpatrick, and so does Rex. The numbers don’t lie. It’s hard to see him walking into New Era on Thursday and doing something radically different from what he’s done so many times before. He’s fine with it. He’s used to being underestimated.
One way or another, it’s put up or shut up time for the two division rivals. One thing you can count on is that at some point, Fitz will put it up for grabs.