FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- To fully understand the Jets' quarterback predicament on a hazy, hot day of offseason workouts, you had only need to take in a five-minute span of a recent practice.
The prodigal receivers -- Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker -- had returned after a week's absence from these voluntary sessions for what, after all, might not have been (or maybe was, depending on your level of skepticism) a show of support for their erstwhile quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Darrelle Revis was on the sideline, his head wrapped from the sun in a towel and his wrist injury meriting little more than a footnote compared with the weirdest stalemate of the summer. Even a true potential crisis -- the unhappiness with the franchise tag by the team's best player, Mo Wilkerson -- has been reduced to a funny line from head coach Todd Bowles about how he has seen Wilkerson around town.
That left Geno Smith in the spotlight and that brief practice sequence Wedenesday gave you the essence of Smith and, accordingly, the essence of the Jets' situation. Smith had looked crisp for much of the practice, and Marshall would say later that it seems as if the game has slowed down for Smith. Marshall embraced Smith a year ago, when the receiver was new in New York, Smith was the presumptive starter and the two roommates would walk through plays in their shared living room, the better to bond. Even when they were going over hand signals before the team started to practice their two-minute drill this week, Marshall said Smith seemed more in command than before, as would be expected from a quarterback in the second year of Chan Gailey's offense.
But then, in the drill, came the one blip that always causes pause with Smith. He threw an interception directly to Buster Skrine, who was in what might have been triple coverage on the intended receiver.
It was Smith's career arc in a nutshell -- providing flashes, often long flashes, of promise that convince coaches and teammates he can lead the team, followed by a head-scratching error, the kind Smith made when he was the Jets' starter. Smith is showing promise again this offseason, as he did last offseason -- remember, this regime planned for him to start in 2015 until he got punched in the face by a teammate -- but it is the lingering fear that Smith will undermine himself on the field again that has Jets fans and players all but pleading for Fitzpatrick.
In the absence of any real news here this offseason and in the presence of the open acknowledgement by Jets coaches and players that they long for his return, Fitzpatrick has taken on the mythical status of Joe Montana rather than someone who has had the misfortune over the years of looking, at inopportune times, a little more like Joe Schmo -- as he did in the season-finale meltdown against the Buffalo Bills with a trip to the playoffs on the line. Still, Marshall and Decker combined to catch 189 passes for 2,529 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, so their loyalty to Fitzpatrick is understandable. Whether they were telling the truth this week when Decker told reporters he did not stay away to make a statement -- and Marshall danced around the topic -- is almost beside the point. (For the record: Bowles does not think either was making a statement because, he said, both players told him they would miss the practices and explained where they would be.) The idea that the two veterans might have stood in solidarity with Fitzpatrick changed the tone of the Fitzpatrick dealings from what had been a sleepy standoff to a steely-eyed one, complete with leaks about the terms of the offer and the unrealistic trial balloon that Fitzpatrick might rather stand on principle to take significantly less money to be elsewhere.
"Being a former player, you've seen quite a few things in your day, contracts wise and management side," Bowles said. "I've seen quite a few things as well, but for me as a coach it boils down to, it's like an injury. If a guy's not here, you have to get the next guys ready to play. Whether you're suspended, whether it's contract, whether it's an injury, they're still not here. And as a coach you get paid to get your team ready to play and keep the team together, and regardless of who's playing at any position, you got to win ball games."
Bowles is playing it cool and he should. The time to start panicking would be when training camps open late in July. But it is still, in early June, hard to imagine this doesn't get resolved with Fitzpatrick returning. To do it, though, he will have to accept a harsh reality of NFL life.
It is clear from the Jets' three-year contract offer $12 million in 2016, but a team-friendly $6 million in each of the following two years) that Fitzpatrick is a placeholder -- maybe for one season, maybe for more -- until either Christian Hackenberg or Bryce Petty is ready to take over. The rest of the contract is well below starter's market value, but would presumably keep Fitzpatrick as a valuable backup if either of the youngsters are ready or as a very economical starter if they are not. Compared with what other starting quarterbacks around the league are making, the offer is on the low side. But this is a market economy and the market has spoken: Fitzpatrick has nowhere else to turn.
Complicating matters, though, is that the Jets don't either. This week, Marshall made a reference to the fact that, at age 32 and entering his 11th season, he has never been to the playoffs. The Jets -- who won 10 games last season in the first year under Bowles and with Decker and Marshall teaming up with Fitzpatrick for the first time, and without the benefit of much tight end contribution -- barely missed the postseason. Imagine trying to sell Marshall and every other veteran in the locker room on the idea that the Jets are now going to go with Smith when a playoff berth appears to be a possibility this season.
That is, in part, because there is plenty of drama elsewhere in the AFC East, too. The Patriots could be without Tom Brady if he has to serve his four-game Deflategate suspension, but they will still be the favorites to win the division. The Dolphins are in transition with a first-time head coach in Adam Gase. The Buffalo Bills have already endured injuries to Sammy Watkins and first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson and will almost certainly play the entire season with talk of Rex Ryan's job security swirling around them.