Ryan Fitzpatrick's back, but Jets still have quarterback questions

Geno Smith slipped out of the Jets' locker room late Thursday night without talking to reporters. The clock was winding down on the one-year anniversary of the event that changed the trajectory of his career -- the locker room punch from a former teammate that fractured Smith's jaw and shattered his chance to be the Jets' starter -- and now, Smith was gone again, just as his personal reclamation project hit its stride.

This preseason, after all, amounts to an audition for Smith, who is performing not so much for Jets decision makers but for whoever might consider employing him next. Smith seems almost certain to be Gang Green's backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick this season, because it is hard to imagine the team going without an experienced No. 2. But Smith will be gone next season, because he is in the final year of his rookie deal and his time in New York has been, to put it gently, star-crossed. The Jets, who held open the starting job until Fitzpatrick signed a deal for this season on the eve of training camp, clearly hope they never have to watch Smith in the regular season.

But if the preseason games don't count, they still matter for Smith, the rest of the quarterback room and the Jets, who will have franchise-defining decisions to make at the end of this season.

The Jets have -- stop us if you've heard this a few times in the last decade -- one of the most unusual quarterback situations in the league. And there is the possibility that it will grow even odder by the time the rosters are set for the season. There is a legitimate chance that the Jets could keep four quarterbacks, which would make them a significant outlier in a league where specialization has made every last roster spot so precious that many teams carry just two quarterbacks, the better to keep an extra offensive lineman or receiver. The last time an NFL team took four quarterbacks into the season was 2013, when the Washington Redskins (with Robert Griffin III coming back from injury) and Minnesota Vikings did it.

For the Jets, though, it could be the right decision. Quarterbacks are the ultimate currency in the NFL. To have too many is a rare luxury. To have none is a disaster. The Jets can't be sure they have even one good one for this year -- considering that last season ended with a spectacular Fitzpatrick flameout -- or, for that matter, the future. But the abundance of arms gives them more chances to get it right. The danger of getting it wrong was on full display at the preseason game, too -- in the press box, where two former Jets general managers, Terry Bradway and John Idzik, neither of whom landed a long-term franchise quarterback, were working in lower-rung positions for other teams.

The Jets' conundrum was obvious against Jacksonville. The Jaguars have what the Jets crave -- a young franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles. That role might someday be filled by Christian Hackenberg, the Jets' second-round draft pick. But he is viewed as such a long-term project, with such a steep learning curve yet to be surmounted, that he did not play at all in the preseason opener because, head coach Todd Bowles explained, it would have been unfair, considering how few practice reps he'd gotten the week before. The future, then, is on a distant horizon, with Hackenberg the No. 4 quarterback this season. The present, in the form of the 33-year-old Fitzpatrick, is already established, with the preseason merely a way to chip off the rust caused by the absence of offseason work with the team.

So the Jets are staging a high-stakes competition for the backup job, and Smith's role in it could be summed up in the very first game. He threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to the outside shoulder of Charone Peake, who was stationed by the goal-line pylon. It was the kind of pass that Smith has occasionally tantalized the Jets with, displaying all the promise of progress that made him the favorite to start last season before that fateful punch. But Smith also was booed by fans after a series of incompletions -- he finished 8 of 14 for 79 yards -- showing just how little patience Jets supporters have for him. Smith may yet have a future in the league, but it won't be in New York.

Bowles allayed some of the speculation about Smith's role when, on Saturday, he said that after one game, Smith remains the No. 2 quarterback.

"You're not making competition after one preseason game," Bowles said.

Nor should he. For all his considerable foibles in his two seasons as a starter, Smith gives the Jets something few other teams have: an experienced backup who has won games. Ask the Dallas Cowboys how important one of those is.

That leaves Bryce Petty as the No. 3 quarterback, with Hackenberg fourth. Petty is the wild card, with a strong arm and a gunslinger mentality. The second-year pro directed a nine-play drive Thursday that ended in a missed field goal. When asked about his preseason opener, Petty summed it up with one word: comfortable.

That's nice, but he'll have to do more than that to overtake Smith as the backup in the few weeks left before the Jets' season opens Sept. 11. The real intrigue will come in the rest of the preseason, when we see in which order the backups play.

The long-term hope might be that Petty will be Hackenberg's backup, but the future can wait. The short-term order is that the Jets have an opening to make the playoffs now -- with a stellar defense, an offense that has a comfort level between Fitzpatrick and receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and, not incidentally, a four-game suspension for Tom Brady creating at least a whiff of unpredictability for the Patriots in the AFC East. That practically demands that the Jets give themselves the best chance to win right now. It is a rare opportunity. And the Jets might have to do something rarer still to seize their moment.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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