FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The name above the locker stall has been stripped away, the contents long emptied. But Ryan Fitzpatrick’s place inside 1 Jets Drive is being preserved for his long-awaited and much-expected return.
The veteran quarterback remains unsigned almost four months into free agency, but his locker symbolizes the ultimate placeholder — the bridge between who the Jets were in 2015 and who they hope to become this season.
“I think the team, the coaches, people upstairs, guys in the locker room, everyone has said it,” receiver Brandon Marshall said Wednesday, when asked about Fitzpatrick’s locker being unoccupied. “It’s just the business side of things has to work itself out.
“But everyone said that he makes us better, having him on our team. So obviously, there’s an opportunity for him to come back and he’s just trying to get to that point.”
Even though Fitzpatrick is not with the team, his presence is felt — in the myriad questions posed to Geno Smith, the presumptive starter until Fitzpatrick returns, and in the empty locker that purposely was not assigned to another player.
Fitzpatrick’s camp balked at the Jets’ three-year, $24-million offer in March. The deal carries a maximum value of $36 million with incentives and $15 million guaranteed. But with no other suitors calling, both sides remain hopeful for a reunion despite their equally obstinate approaches.
Despite the contract impasse, Fitzpatrick’s spirits remain high, according to Marshall.
“He’s doing good,” Marshall said, smiling. “Yesterday, one of his kids was stuck in a tree. So we were FaceTiming and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get my kid. He’s stuck in a tree’ and I’m like, ‘What?’
“He’s funny. His beard is back. Like literally, all the way back. So that’s going to be a question — what are you going to do? Are you going to cut it? Keep it? I guess that’ll be a team decision if he comes back.”
Jets coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday there was nothing new to report on Fitzpatrick. “No, afraid not,” he said. Bowles said he hasn’t even spoken to Fitzpatrick.
“If [a player] is not under contract, you pretty much go about business as usual. So you just go ahead and coach your guys,” Bowles said. “You can’t worry about guys that aren’t under contract. And if he gets back under contract, we’ll probably talk a lot more.
“ . . . What am I going to say?”
Fitzpatrick helped to lead his team to a 10-6 finish last season. His return won’t guarantee the Jets a winning season or a playoff push in 2016, but players believe they’re better with him than without him.
So at what point will Bowles become concerned?
“I don’t think you do,” he said. “You worry about the team and the team chemistry. And like I said last week, it’s like an injury. If he gets injured and he’s out for the year, you don’t grow concerned. You get the next guys ready to play and you go out and play football. As a coach, that’s how you’ve got to treat it.”