FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Geno Smith will finish his rookie season Sunday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, only a few minutes from his old neighborhood. He grew up so close to Sun Life that, four years ago, he saw Super Bowl XLIV (Peyton Manning vs. Drew Brees) on the stadium JumboTron from outside his house.
It makes for a nice story, especially with Smith playing better in recent weeks. It would be a better story for the New York Jets if the season finale against the Miami Dolphins actually meant something.
Yes, the Jets are proud of Smith's late-season baby steps, but it could be a case of too little, too late for Rex Ryan, whose job is in jeopardy. They needed Smith to turn it on last month, when the stakes were high. They needed him during their three-game losing streak, when his completion totals resembled something from a triple-option offense.
If Ryan is fired next week, it'll be that three-game debacle -- the 23-3 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 1, in particular -- that ruined him.
"That three-game period will bother me until I die," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said Thursday.
Ryan & Co. deserve another shot after squeezing seven wins out of a roster with marginal talent, but a third straight non-playoff season may have provided general manager John Idzik with the convenient out he needs to hire his own coach.
Things looked good at 5-4, when Idzik referred to Ryan as "our leader," but the offense lost its way after the bye week. The Jets lost to the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and Dolphins by a combined score of 79-20. That's where the playoff dream died, not on that Monday night miracle field goal by the Ravens' Justin Tucker to beat the Detroit Lions -- the mathematical end for the Jets.
No one is blaming Smith for the Jets' failure to make the playoffs. He was a victim of circumstances, having to learn on the job, surrounded by a mediocre supporting cast. It was the blind leading the bland, and it bottomed out for three, ill-fated games.
Smith was benched for the final two quarters of that 12-quarter stretch, a move that, in retrospect, certainly helped him from a mental standpoint. What if they benched him a week earlier? There are many what-ifs that could haunt Ryan and Mornhinweg.
Looking back, Mornhinweg said he was "probably playing too many guys" during that stretch, especially at wide receiver. If you remember, they had Greg Salas in the rotation, and they were trying to integrate Josh Cribbs with the Wildcat package. Santonio Holmes was coming back from an injury, and there too many moving parts.
"We almost had to re-start," Mornhinweg said.
They've scaled back the rotation, playing primarily with three receivers. You don't see as much wholesale substituting as you saw before. They've settled into their roles, and Smith seems more comfortable than before. In the last three games, two wins and a loss, his passer rating was a respectable 83.
They also convinced him to take advantage of his mobility, resulting in 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns over the same span. Why not sooner? It's all about trial and error, and it looks like they were too slow to adjust.
"I've been playing pretty well since [the halftime benching]," Smith said.
Smith has played well enough lately to show he belongs in the 2014 plans, competing in training camp against a veteran that isn't here yet or against another high draft pick. If he can close out the year by beating the team that tormented him earlier this month, nearly costing him his job, it would be the ideal springboard into the offseason.
"He's come a million miles," said Ryan, alluding to Smith's college background in a spread offense.
Smith had to learn the basics of the position -- three-, five- and seven-step drops -- while leading an entire offense. You think that's easy? A year ago, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson were well-versed in their respective offenses, having played those systems in college. That allowed them to thrive as rookies.
Smith has improved his footwork, his decision making and his grasp of the audible system. He showed his resilience by enduring extreme adversity, going back into huddle, day after day, knowing his teammates were looking for the slightest hint of doubt.
"The young man never flinched," Ryan said.
Save for that three-game slump, this coaching staff has done a nice job with him. The coaches speak highly of his future. The big question is: Will they will be part of it?