CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets say they're a closer team than a year ago. You could point to several reasons, starting with more continuity on the roster and the addition-by-subtraction departures of Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie. But there's something else and, like a lot of things in the NFL, it involves the quarterback position.
Without a doubt, the Geno Smith-Michael Vick chemistry is better than the Smith-Mark Sanchez dynamic. A year ago, Smith and Sanchez were engaged in a fiercely competitive battle for the starting job. There was no outward animosity between the two, but they weren't the best of buds, either. They were in difference places in their careers, Sanchez desperately trying to reclaim what he lost, Smith trying to validate the organization's faith in him as The New Chosen One.
"It was tense," guard Willie Colon told ESPN.com Wednesday after the Jets' final open practice in Cortland. "It was tense."
That tension was felt throughout the locker room. At times, it created a walking-on-eggshells vibe. Some of the older veterans were loyal to Sanchez, who was often spotted around Cortland with those same players -- some of whom recognized that Smith was being fast-tracked for their friend's old job. It was a weird deal. When the Jets broke camp last summer, they had no idea who'd be behind center. That's not a good thing for a team.
The landscape changed, of course, when Sanchez was injured in the third preseason game. He was the likely opening-day starter, but there would've been a short leash. The organization preferred Smith, who got the job by default. If it weren't for the injury, it had the makings of a full-blown quarterback controversy. As it turned out, Sanchez wasn't around the team as he recovered from shoulder surgery, allowing Smith to endure his growing pains amid peace and quiet.
But it was too quiet; he didn't have anyone to lean on. The Jets signed graybeard David Garrard at midseason to serve as a mentor, but that was a stretch because he was viewed as more of a coach than a peer. That isn't the case with Vick, who has the respect of his teammates and, most importantly, Smith. They have a good rapport. They talk a lot. They talk about football and life. Vick has experienced a lot of life in his 34 years, not all of it good. He tries to share his wisdom with Smith, 11 years his junior.
Their chemistry has rubbed off on those around them. Nothing is more damaging to a locker room than a toxic quarterback situation. The Jets have a nice setup, thanks to Vick. Instead of behaving like Smith's No. 1 threat, he's his No. 1 fan. And others have noticed.
"Mike is a leader and a motivator, and he supports Geno," Colon said. "Geno understands he's the guy. We all believe in him."
On the final day in Cortland, where the Jets trained for three weeks, the theme was team unity. Three years ago, the Jets were torn apart by well-documented dissension. In 2012, the Tim Tebow circus was a major distraction. When Colon signed with the Jets in March 2013, he noticed factions in the locker room.
"We're way, way closer than last year," he said. "When I first got here, the team wasn't close as a whole. From top to bottom, everybody was kind of sticking to themselves. I understand they went through some tough spells, losses and suffering things as a team. It was shocking to me because, in Pittsburgh, we prided ourselves on being a family."
The front office imported team-oriented players in the offseason. There was Chris Johnson, once one of the biggest names in the sport. On Wednesday, Johnson said, "Of course, I'd like to rush for 2,000 yards again, but making the playoffs is more important than 2,000 yards." He hasn't reached the postseason since 2008. There was Eric Decker, who has brought maturity and accountability to the wide receivers room. It's no longer a Holmes-centric room, and that's a good thing.
"I wish him the best," Colon said of Holmes, "but right now our stock as a team and family is going up. And that's what you want."