- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- At the risk of being flagged for a delay-of-name penalty, the New York Jets refuse to anoint Geno Smith as their starting quarterback. It's just semantics, of course. Whether they declare it or not, they expect him to begin 2014 as the starter.
You don't need to be a detective to figure that out. The Jets' hierarchy has used the NFL scouting combine as a pro-Geno platform, expressing optimism -- publicly and privately -– in the second-year quarterback.
But let's face it: The Jets are stuck between a Roc Nation and a hard place. If Jay Z's client backslides this season, they will return to the combine next year with a new coach and a quarterback-needy general manager.
With limited options, the Jets are embarking on a Geno-or-bust journey in 2014. This is the situation that John Idzik has created. The second-year GM handpicked Smith, and you can bet he'll do everything he can to help him succeed.
He'd better be right. If not, the Jets will be in the Marcus Mariota sweepstakes next year, just another draft-lottery team desperate for a franchise quarterback. No team wants to be in that predicament. For the Jets, it would be yet another do-over at the most important position.
So, yeah, they have a lot invested in Smith. They're gambling that those final four games were a harbinger of a bright future, not simply a mirage. It's risky business, placing significant weight on three wins over mediocre competition, but the Jets believe he matured down the stretch.
"He had some rough spots, as the rest of us did as well, but I like the way he finished," Rex Ryan told the national media.
Ryan showed up at the combine armed with research. He mentioned how Smith engineered five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, second only to Tom Brady, and he noted that Smith's QBR over the final four games (78.9) was second-best in the league. Just recently, Ryan took great pleasure in describing how Smith advanced by "a million miles" through the course of the season.
"We were encouraged by the way we, as a team, finished 2013, in particular how Geno finished," Idzik said. "He finished on a strong note. There were a lot of positive signs."
Former longtime general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, agreed with that assessment. But he said of Smith, "Now he's got to make a jump as a professional quarterback. That means fewer interceptions. That's the bottom line."
Polian, reaching into his past, noted how Peyton Manning also struggled in his rookie season, 1998, but that "the arrow was up for the last six games, so we felt good going into the offseason. I'm sure the Jets feel good about [Smith]. His arrow was up for the last four games."
The Indianapolis Colts weren't about to ditch Manning after one year because he was a No. 1 overall pick, so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison with Smith. He doesn't have that kind of long-term security, but he'll get another season to prove himself as a franchise-caliber quarterback.
What choice do the Jets have?
They own the 18th pick in the draft, high enough to select a quality playmaker to help the offense, but not high enough to take one of the top three quarterbacks. If they draft one, it'll be a developmental player in the later rounds.
Free agency? The market will be filled with short-term fixes, former starters who now project as backups. The Jets probably will sign a David Garrard type, presumably one with healthy knees who can actually get on the field. Maybe it'll be Michael Vick, 33, but he'd be a Band-Aid, not a solution.
Mark Sanchez? Idzik didn't want to go there last year, so there's no reason to think he'll change his thinking, especially with Sanchez coming off shoulder surgery.
Somehow, Idzik must fortify his depth chart with a seasoned quarterback.
"You have to have a quality backup; I'm living proof of that," said Polian, who got burned in 2011 when Manning sat out the season with a neck injury. "If we had one, I'd be talking to you in a different capacity. The bottom line is, you have to have that guy. Who it is isn't as important as what it is."
So true, but the Jets aren't going to land a future starter -- unless they find a winning lottery ticket in the dumpster. The upcoming season is all about Smith, his ability to improve and lead the team to the next level -- the postseason. He's out of mulligans.
If Smith regresses, Idzik will be back in Indianapolis next February, looking for a new quarterback to pair with his new coach.