This has always been the fear about Ryan Fitzpatrick: As good as he has often looked as the Jets quarterback, the bad is just around the corner. He's a 33-year-old journeyman who is on his sixth team in 12 seasons, and has never once been considered anywhere near an elite quarterback.
On Sunday, the Jets were reminded why.
It's true that even the best quarterbacks are not immune to meltdowns, but the one Fitzpatrick suffered in Kansas City on Sunday was spectacular and couldn't have come at a worse time. Optimism surged after his dazzling, 374-yard performance in the Jets' Week 2 win in Buffalo. Then it came crashing down in a six-interception barrage and a 24-3 loss to the Chiefs.
That's the story of Fitzpatrick. He's a mostly average-to-good quarterback who builds up hope with steady and sometimes even spectacular play, but he's a step below the quarterbacks who are able to maintain that over time. No Jets fans need to be reminded of what happened last season when for most of the year Fitzpatrick directed a record-setting offense and enjoyed a career year, only to play like a journeyman again with 181 passing yards and three interceptions in a Week 17 loss in Buffalo eliminated the Jets from playoff contention despite winning 10 games.
That was worse because the Jets were out of time to recover. But this one -- with the Jets staring at a home game vs. Seattle and trips to Pittsburgh and Arizona -- was still pretty bad.
"To walk in today and have to face the guys, it's not an easy thing to do," Fitzpatrick said Monday. "But at the same time, I got to be the same guy everyday as a leader, as a player, and just come in. It's a message that everybody in this locker room needs to understand. Just put your work in every single day. The results are going to take care of themselves.
"And when it doesn't work out, come back and try it again. For me and my career, it's been the same thing the whole time. I put the work in and then do the best I can on Sundays. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't."
That's true for most quarterbacks, but for the ones in the margins, the ones without the pedigrees, the ones like Fitzpatrick who have never played in the playoffs, confidence is eroded every time it doesn't work out in a big spot. Sure, as Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said after the game, maybe it's true that "We still believe in Fitzy." But they don't have any other choice. And they wouldn't say otherwise anyway.
At some point, though, Fitzpatrick has to show them their trust is warranted in big spots with some consistency. That's what franchise quarterbacks are supposed to do.
Of course, Fitzpatrick doesn't exactly fit the "franchise quarterback" mold. Even the Jets realized that when they low-balled him in the offseason before signing him to a one-year, $12 million contract. If the organization truly believed in his abilities they would've committed to him longer term and would've gladly opened up their checkbook.
The organization obviously wasn't convinced, and Fitzpatrick's performance on Sunday won't make the front office feel any better. Such is the plight of the journeyman quarterback: Just as he did when he threw five interceptions in his third career start 11 years ago, Fitzpatrick still has to prove his ability and his worth.
"I'll tell you for better or worse, my mentality hasn't changed since then," he said. "When we're down 24-3, I'm not sitting there thinking how I've thrown four interceptions. I'm sitting there thinking about how I can get the ball down the field and try to win the game. (In 2005) I think I was still trying to figure out if I belonged or fit in the league or not. If I could play in the league, which at this point standing in front of you, I've been here for 12 years, so I know that I'm going to be OK."
He will be OK. He is OK. But the Jets want him to be so much more. They are a 10-win team thinking playoffs and facing a brutal schedule. They have two top-tier wideouts, a really good third receiver, a dual-threat running back and a good-enough offensive line. They have all the weapons to duplicate the record numbers they put up last season.
Fitzpatrick is the one that is supposed to make all that work.
"This isn't all doom and gloom," Fitzpatrick said. "Last week, everybody was talking about how we're the greatest show on turf, basically, after one game. The message last week that I tried to deliver was basically, you're only as good as your next game. Now, I wish the game would've gone better, but we're only good as our next game. We've got to come out and put the work in and try to put it together and be more consistent."
Yes they do, and so does he, and it has to happen now because time is already running out. The Patriots are 3-0 without Tom Brady, and it's hard to imagine they'll lose more than a couple of games the rest of the way. The Jets have already lost a couple and face the very real possibility of losing a couple of more in the next three weeks.
An elite quarterback would find a way to rise above that reality to drag his team through the difficult stretch and right into the thick of the playoff chase. There are times when Fitzpatrick looks perfectly capable of doing that, and times when he makes everyone question their faith.
That's the fear when someone who really isn't a franchise quarterback is leading the franchise. For the Jets to have the season they want, Fitzpatrick now has to rise above that fear, too.