The spat between Ryan Fitzpatrick and the New York Jets lasted for several months and at least appeared to show faith in Geno Smith's ability to take over the reins as the team's starting quarterback. But on Wednesday, one day before Jets players were set to report for training camp, the dispute ended with a one-year, $12 million deal for Fitzpatrick.
Although it wasn't the long-term deal that Fitzpatrick was asking for, he's now the 12th-highest-paid quarterback in base salary and could add another $3 million by reaching incentives during the 2016 season. He's also the highest-paid player on the Jets' offense in 2016 and second on the team behind only Darrelle Revis.
Still, the contract isn't one that shows the Jets believe Fitzpatrick is anything more than a short-term fix while younger players on the roster develop. But it's starter money and there's no doubt who the team has penciled in at the top spot on the depth chart.
"It's Fitzpatrick’s job," Jets head coach Todd Bowles said on Thursday.
But what does that mean for Smith?
The 2013 second-round pick was less than 24 hours away from opening training camp as the Jets' starter, but now it's entirely possible that he never takes another snap for the team.
Why the Jets should cut ties with Geno Smith
The Jets have four quarterbacks on the roster and all of them represent a significant investment. Fitzpatrick is due to make $12 million, Smith was a second-round pick in 2013, Bryce Petty was a fourth-round pick in 2015 and Christian Hackenberg is a rookie who was picked in the second round in April.
Smith isn't even guaranteed the backup job.
"Geno's here at number two right now unless Bryce and Hack have some great gain, if they come along like gangbusters," Bowles said. "Number two right now, it's open."
Smith is the only one of those four who was brought in by a different regime. Mike Maccagnan took over as the Jets general manager in January 2015, a day before Todd Bowles was named the new head coach. In their 18 months on the job, the Jets added Fitzpatrick and drafted both Petty and Hackenberg.
Neither Petty nor Hackenberg has ever thrown a pass in the NFL, so it's tough to imagine the Jets parting ways before they have a chance to develop. And if they keep both of those players, as well as Fitzpatrick, that leaves the Jets with a choice: Keep four quarterbacks or part ways with someone.
Roster spots are valuable and few teams even keep three quarterbacks when it's time to trim down to 53 players. In 2000, the New England Patriots elected to keep four quarterbacks into the regular season rather than cut ties with a sixth-round rookie named Tom Brady who they thought might turn out alright. But that decision was a rare exception and keeping Fitzpatrick, Smith, Petty and Hackenberg into September isn't realistic.
Of the four, Smith is probably the one who could fetch the most in a trade, but even releasing him is an avenue that the Jets have to consider. The team could also cut Petty, but it would be hard for Maccagnan and Bowles to stomach shipping off a draft pick who hasn't even seen the field yet, especially when Smith is set to become a free agent after the 2016 season anyway.
And none of those reasons to part with Smith even mention how he has played on the field. In his 29 starts, the Jets are 11-18 while Smith has tossed 27 touchdowns and 35 interceptions. Fitzpatrick led the Jets to a 10-6 season in 2015 with 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Why the Jets should keep Geno Smith around
When Smith was drafted, it was assumed that the air raid product would take some time to transition into an NFL quarterback. The Jets had recently signed former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard and still had incumbent starter Mark Sanchez on the roster, even though his 2012 season was a disaster.
"We drafted Geno Smith because he has exceptional talent," former Jets general manager John Idzik said shortly after making the pick. "Let's get him into a situation where we can help him develop that and let's see where he goes."
But Sanchez suffered a shoulder injury in preseason that landed him on injured reserve and knee problems kept Garrard from taking the field.
Smith was thrown into the fire and struggled mightily. While the Jets finished with an 8-8 record, Smith held the team back with 21 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns. His 66.5 passer rating in 2013 is the worst for any 16-game starter since Joey Harrington's 2003 season with the Detroit Lions.
A year later, though, Smith made significant improvements in every statistical category. He had a higher completion percentage, threw fewer interceptions and finished with a 77.5 rating. Smith improved as the season went on and finished the last four games with 1,001 passing yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions and a 105.3 passer rating.
When Fitzpatrick was added to the fold a year ago, it was as a backup for the team's young, ascending quarterback who had matured right before everyone's eyes. Brandon Marshall, who has a close friendship with Fitzpatrick now, said he handpicked the Jets as a landing spot in a trade after a conversation with Smith.
Then all that momentum was derailed by a punch from IK Enemkpali that broke Smith's jaw and gift-wrapped the starting job to Fitzpatrick, who never gave it back. The only playing time for Smith in 2015 came in a loss to the Oakland Raiders after Fitzpatrick injured his thumb. Smith completed 27 of 42 passes for 265 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Smith was a player who required time to develop and the Jets have put in that time. The team can even save $3 million by letting Smith play and keeping Fitzpatrick from reaching his contract incentives. By giving Fitzpatrick the job again in 2016, the team is robbing itself of the chance to see what that developed product actually looks like.
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The likely scenario is that Fitzpatrick is the Jets' starter this season, and that Smith sticks around as the backup. Bowles made it clear that Fitzpatrick has earned the job, even if Smith will try to make it a competition.
"You want to be out there," Smith said on Thursday. "But you have to play the cards that you're dealt and continue to get better."
And he also knows that, even if he doesn't start, he has to show he's still improving.
"I'm auditioning for this team and 31 other teams in the NFL," Smith told Darryl Slater of NJ.com.
If Smith can't outplay Fitzpatrick to the point that he supplants him on the depth chart, the former West Virginia star could very well be in another uniform during the 2016 season.