The Texans Bench Fitzpatrick: Is Ryan Mallett the Answer?
The secret society of NFL head coaches must have held a meeting recently, during which they discussed the merits of benching quarterbacks. Over the past couple of weeks, there have been multiple high-profile changes at the quarterback position unrelated to injury, and this week alone two teams are swapping out their starter for a backup.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the first to reveal their swap under center, naming Josh McCown starter ahead of Mike Glennon. I wrote about that change, and believe that it's a sign of backwards thinking by the Bucs' decision-makers.
The decision in Houston to move on from Ryan Fitzpatrick and place Ryan Mallett in the starting lineup is nearly the exact opposite of the scenario in Tampa, as a halfway decent football team is risking their competitiveness this season to "see what they've got" in a young quarterback with debatable promise.
You Get What You Pay For
If the Houston Texans are disappointed in Ryan Fitzpatrick's production this season, they have no one to blame but themselves. Playing on his third team in three seasons, the Ivy League product was performing just as well as he has in recent campaigns. Check out his Net Expected Points (NEP) output in the chart below.
|Year||Passes||Pass NEP||Pass NEP/P||Pass Success Rate||Rushes||Rush NEP|
Ryan Fitzpatrick is still Ryan Fitzpatrick; a below-average thrower and a capable runner who can help a team win games by not being awful at playing the quarterback position in the NFL. And that's exactly what the Texans have needed this season. Houston ranks 22nd in Adjusted Passing NEP as a team (adjusted for strength of opponent), which has been good enough to allow their solid rushing attack to carry the offense. Houston is the only team in the league that runs more often than it throws the ball on offense, meaning the quarterback position is relatively less important.
But when they do choose to throw the ball, they were able to turn to Fitzpatrick, who was completing nearly 62 percent of his throws and running at an efficient clip this year. His per-opportunity production is the same as it's been for the past four years, which is good enough to not lose games in the NFL, but apparently not good enough to keep a full-time job under center.
So how will the move to Ryan Mallett impact the Texans moving forward?
Diving Into the Great Unknown
This quarterback situation is unfolding a lot like an episode of Let's Make a Deal. The Texans currently have a pretty decent prize to take home, but they see something shiny and exciting behind one of the curtains and just can't help themselves. The problem with that is what they're gambling away, and what they stand to gain.
The Texans currently rank 14th in our team rankings, and are one of 12 teams squarely in the playoff race in a top-heavy AFC. They've posted the third-best opponent-adjusted defensive metrics so far this season, and have been good enough on offense to compete every week and post a respectable record heading into the second half of the season.
Which is why this decision is such a stark contrast from the Buccaneers and Jets decisions to move on from their young quarterbacks and go with a veteran. The Texans have a lot to lose as the season goes on, and they're handing the keys to the offense to a totally unproven player with a limited track record that doesn't exactly impress.
Ryan Mallett has only thrown four regular season passes, and one was intercepted. And according to Patrick Daugherty of Rotoworld, Mallett's preseason numbers for his career are less than stellar. He has produced eight touchdowns to only three picks in his exhibition appearances, but those have come on an inefficient 53.8% completion percentage with a meager 5.45 yards per attempt.
Mallett is very tall and has a huge arm, but lacks touch, mobility, and anything resembling a real chance to show he's capable of managing an NFL offense. He's a physical specimen that most coaches would love to mold and shape into a franchise quarterback, but those sorts of projects go wrong (Josh Freeman, Jamarcus Russell) more often than they go right. Inaccurate, unreliable passers usually stay that way over the course of their careers, and Mallett's preseason play has been proof of that.
So while Mallett's deep-ball ability might spark a bit of excitement in the Houston passing game, his unreliability and lack of experience - combined with the drastic decline in running ability from the quarterback position - are likely to set the Texans offense back in the short-term. Houston is hanging onto hopes of a playoff push, and have made a decision that feels like throwing in the towel and looking forward to the future.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was not setting the world ablaze with his play, but he was also not playing poorly enough to be the reason the team was struggling to win games this season. And in most cases, the backup quarterback isn't any better of an option, it's just a different option.
Maybe the Texans are basing this decision on that slim chance that Mallett is a stark improvement over Fitzpatrick, and are using their familiarity with the Arkansas product from his time in New England to justify that viewpoint. But they're likely going to find that this move puts their playoff aspirations on ice for a season while they evaluate whether or not Mallett is going to be "the guy" moving forward.
As for Fitzpatrick? He'll probably wind up starting somewhere next season. As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus tweeted, Fitzpatrick is one of the best quarterbacks in the world, but struggles just enough to always be on "borrowed time." That "borrowed time" will likely be on another team in another town next season, when we'll have this same discussion all over again.