Geno Smith's torn ACL made the Jets' decision a little easier on Monday, but it still doesn't change the long-term reality of their quarterback mess. Ryan Fitzpatrick may have to be their starter for now, but he still isn't their quarterback of the future.
So the sooner they get Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg into some games, the better off their franchise will be.
They can't go to either of those two young quarterbacks right now, and it's important to understand that. That's why they're turning back to the 33-year-old Fitzpatrick less than a week after making it pretty clear they didn't want him to be their quarterback anymore.
Petty, the Jets' fourth-round pick in 2015, only returned to practice 11 days ago after missing six weeks with a shoulder injury. And in those 11 days, as the third-string quarterback, he's barely gotten any practice reps.
And Hackenberg, the Jets' second-round pick this past April, now gets even less time with the offense at practice since he mostly works with the scout team. The Jets think he's so behind, so not ready to play, that he played in only two preseason games (and terribly, by the way). And Jets head coach Todd Bowles already made it clear the rookie won't play this season in what Bowles called "a redshirt year."
So for now, it has to be Fitzpatrick by default. And he probably can keep the job for a few weeks too, especially with winnable games coming up against the Browns (0-7), Dolphins (3-4) and Rams (3-4).
The Jets are free to dream about being 5-5 at the bye week and returning home for what they'd hope could be a season-saving game against the Patriots. It may seem like a stretch to think they can get themselves from 1-5 into the playoff conversation, but there is always hope.
But the minute there is no hope left -- as soon as they lose another game or two, really, and accept the impossible scenario staring them in the face -- they have to end the Fitzpatrick Era because it won't do them any good not to. The minute they played hardball with Fitzpatrick and declined to commit any significant money to him beyond this season, they made it clear he would not be their quarterback in 2017.
Since they now know it won't be Smith -- since his season is over and his contract is about to expire -- they need to find out who that is.
It's possible their 2017 quarterback isn't on their roster. But they do have those two young quarterbacks sitting there, collecting dust. Petty, a 25-year-old out of Baylor, has been OK in limited preseason action the last two years, good enough at times to give some in the organization some hope. Clearly, since the Jets drafted Hackenberg in the second-round this past April, GM Mike Maccagnan and his staff weren't sold on Petty's potential. But there's enough talent there to warrant a look in a regular season game.
And it's important that Petty gets that look because he's a key piece of this puzzle. Even if the Jets don't think of Hackenberg as the mistake that so many others around the NFL think he was, they at least know he's more of a project than they expected. Many rookie quarterbacks in recent years have managed to thrive immediately as starters. It speaks volumes about Hackenberg that the Jets didn't think he was even ready for preseason games.
If he's their quarterback of the future, you can bet that they'll bring in a veteran next season to start until he's ready -- maybe just a stopgap free agent like Brian Hoyer or Mike Glennon. Or maybe they go bigger and try to engineer a deal for Jay Cutler or Tony Romo. But perhaps, if Petty plays well enough, he can be the stopgap. Maybe that's unrealistic, but there's only one way to know for sure.
And it wouldn't hurt, by the way, to take a look at Hackenberg, even if it's only in the regular season finale. If he shows no growth, no ability to handle himself after watching and working all season, maybe the conclusion will be that the Jets don't have a quarterback of the future on their roster -- or that his future is not as immediate as they hoped.
That will free them up to go look somewhere else.
They need to know, though. They need to know if they have to go back into the draft, or if they should pursue a young quarterback like a Colin Kaepernick, or if they just need someone to keep the seat warm until Petty or Hackenberg are ready. Playing Fitzpatrick doesn't help them reach any of those conclusions, and playing him enough to win a few meaningless games down the stretch doesn't help their future at all.
The only thing that will help now, once their playoff fantasy is over, is to see what they have in Petty and Hackenberg, to judge for themselves if they are capable of being a starter or not. Because the most important thing the Jets can accomplish in the final 10 games is finding out if they have a quarterback for next season. Pretty soon, nothing else about this season will matter at all.