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Ryan Fitzpatrick Is Only As Good As Brandon Marshall And Eric Decker Make Him

The Gang Green contract dispute is over: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has re-signed with the New York Jets, on a one-year, $12 million contract with up to $3 million in additional incentives. Casual fans may wonder why it took so long for Fitzpatrick to re-sign — for months, it was clear that Fitzpatrick had no other suitors and the Jets had no exciting alternative. And, after all, Fitzpatrick was coming off of a strong statistical season. He threw for 3,905 yards last year — the highest single-season total by a Jets quarterback since Joe Namath in 1967 — and 31 passing touchdowns, a franchise record.

Perhaps most importantly, Fitzpatrick’s statistical output was far ahead of what Jets fans have come to expect from the position. Fitzpatrick averaged 6.46 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) last season, more than a yard better than any of the Jets’ starting quarterbacks over the previous decade. The chart below shows New York’s main QB each season from 2005 through 2015 and his average ANY/A. Fitzpatrick’s 2015 sticks out in a very good way:

stuart-fitzpatrick-1

On the heels of six Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith seasons, Fitzpatrick’s competent play represented a vast improvement. But Fitzpatrick’s numbers really only look great relative to the poor passers of Jets history and thanks to the rising tide that is lifting passing numbers leaguewide.

Before Fitzpatrick, the Jets hadn’t experienced above-average quarterbacking since 2006, and Jets passers had been far below average in each of the four seasons leading into 2015. Against that backdrop, Fitzpatrick’s ever-so-slightly-above-average numbers painted the picture of a bearded savior. But although Fitzpatrick deserves credit for the strong season (along with, perhaps, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey), his top two receivers were just as responsible for the big year.

The Jets signed Eric Decker before the 2014 season, and he had a productive year, but he couldn’t save New York’s passing attack by himself. After New York traded for Brandon Marshall in 2015, though, the duo quickly turned into one of the best one-two receiving punches in the NFL. Together, Marshall and Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards, second-most in the NFL behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Perhaps more importantly, Marshall and Decker also combined for 60.6 percent of all Jets receiving yards, easily the highest rate in the league for any pair of receivers:1

YARDS BY TOP 2 RECEIVERS
RANK TEAM TOTAL RECEIVING YARDS TOTAL PERCENTAGE
1 New York Jets 4,170 2,529 60.6%
2 Denver Broncos 4,216 2,439 57.9
3 Kansas City Chiefs 3,493 1,963 56.2
4 Atlanta Falcons 4,602 2,528 54.9
5 Jacksonville Jaguars 4,428 2,431 54.9
6 Pittsburgh Steelers 4,822 2,599 53.9
7 Houston Texans 4,079 2,179 53.4
8 Cincinnati Bengals 4,104 2,113 51.5
9 New York Giants 4,504 2,247 49.9
10 Cleveland Browns 4,156 2,009 48.3
11 Oakland Raiders 4,129 1,992 48.2
12 Carolina Panthers 3,873 1,843 47.6
13 Indianapolis Colts 3,928 1,857 47.3
14 Arizona Cardinals 4,775 2,218 46.5
15 Detroit Lions 4,463 2,027 45.4
16 Green Bay Packers 3,825 1,719 44.9
17 Buffalo Bills 3,600 1,599 44.4
18 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4,042 1,767 43.7
19 Seattle Seahawks 4,061 1,754 43.2
20 Miami Dolphins 4,231 1,819 43.0
21 Philadelphia Eagles 4,341 1,850 42.6
22 Dallas Cowboys 3,678 1,553 42.2
23 Tennessee Titans 3,893 1,637 42.0
24 New Orleans Saints 5,205 2,122 40.8
25 Washington Redskins 4,294 1,729 40.3
26 San Francisco 49ers 3,646 1,452 39.8
27 St. Louis Rams 2,931 1,162 39.6
28 New England Patriots 4,812 1,868 38.8
29 Minnesota Vikings 3,246 1,215 37.4
30 Baltimore Ravens 4,449 1,614 36.3
31 Chicago Bears 3,843 1,271 33.1
32 San Diego Chargers 4,855 1,480 30.5
League average 45.7
Which teams got the most out of their top two receivers in 2015?

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Marshall and Decker were also touchdown machines. In nine of the Jets’ 16 games last season, both Marshall and Decker reached the end zone: That made them the first pair of wide-receiver teammates to each score in nine games (and only the second pair of teammates, period, joining former Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin). Incredibly, Marshall and Decker by themselves caught 25 of Fitzpatrick’s 31 total touchdown throws, or 81 percent.

Thought of another way, Marshall and Decker saw 305 targets last year, with all other Jets players combining for nearly an equal number: 297. Yet Marshall/Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns, and all other Jets combined for 1,641 receiving yards and just seven receiving touchdowns. Marshall and Decker together averaged 8.3 yards per target; all other Jets averaged only 5.5 yards per target.

That difference of 2.8 yards per target between the Jets’ top two receivers and the rest of the team ranked third-largest in the NFL, behind two other teams that had star receivers doing most of the heavy lifting: Jacksonville (with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, at +3.7) and the New York Giants (thanks mostly to Odell Beckham Jr., at +2.9). Marshall/Decker’s rate of 11.7 targets for every touchdown also ranked fourth-best among top receiving pairings,2 but the rest of the Jets were targeted 42.4 times for every touchdown pass, the fourth-worst rate in the league for receiving groups outside a team’s top two targets.3 In other words, Fitzpatrick was putting up great numbers only when throwing to Marshall and Decker — not anyone else. It’s fair to say, then, that no passing game in 2015 was as reliant on its top two receivers as the Jets’ was.

Granted, the Jets’ other targets weren’t very good,4 so you would expect a large chasm in production between Marshall/Decker and the rest of the team. But that makes it more difficult to determine how much of Fitzpatrick’s numbers were the product of his own play, and how much was due to his top two targets. And that’s probably what caused such a disconnect between the Jets and Fitzpatrick’s camp during negotiations.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick signed a reasonable one-year contract, so we may be revisiting the same scenario next offseason, with the Jets having to ascertain their QB’s true worth once more.

Footnotes

  1. Defining a team’s top receiving duo as its two leading players in receiving yards.

  2. Behind the top duos of Seattle (9.0), Jacksonville (10.7) and New England (11.6).

  3. That ranked ahead of only Cleveland (56.8), Minnesota (57.2) and San Francisco (44.0).

  4. Bilal Powell, Quincy Enunwa, Chris Ivory and Kenbrell Thompkins were the only other Jets with at least 30 targets.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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