BALTIMORE -- In a strange way, the New York Jets are suffering from their early success. If they started out like everyone expected, struggling in Year 1 of GM John Idzik's grand rebuilding plan, Geno Smith's issues would be considered normal growing pains for a rookie quarterback -- on-the-job training with a learning curve.
But the Jets ruined that narrative by playing their way into postseason contention, raising expectations. And now they have a serious problem because Smith is bringing down the team, and the locker room is losing confidence and patience, judging from what was said -- and not said -- after Sunday's brutal 19-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
Coach Rex Ryan is caught between a rookie and hard place. He needs wins to save his job, but he risks losing his locker room if he sticks with Smith, who delivered yet another stinker -- three more turnovers, bringing his total to 23.
Ryan should stick with Smith for another week, if only because going to backup Matt Simms would be akin to a Hail Mary. Chances are, Ryan will opt for the status quo, but he wasn't ready to go there after the game, letting Smith twist in the wind -- and there was plenty of wind in Baltimore.
For the first time, Ryan refused to commit to Smith as next week's starter, falling back on the I-have-to-watch-the-tape answer -- the oldest line in the coaching handbook.
"I'm not going to talk about one individual," he said. "That's not where I'm at tonight."
You could read a lot into Ryan's noncommittal stance, but it doesn't mean he's done with Smith. He answered the same way during some of Mark Sanchez's epic struggles, only to stick with him as his starter.
For what it's worth, Smith remained undaunted. Asked whether he still believes he's the guy to take the Jets to the playoffs, he replied confidently: "I know I am."
That's how you want your quarterback to respond, but this isn't about words, it's about deeds -- and Smith is immersed in a serious funk. One touchdown pass and 10 interceptions over the past six games won't inspire confidence among teammates. The frustration was palpable in the postgame locker room.
No one publicly criticized Smith, but the confidence is waning. The coaches have simplified game plans to help him, vexing some players who believe it's hurting the overall offense.
"You're going to make me curse ... so next question," he said.
Santonio Holmes turned defensive when asked about Smith.
"Why would I do that? Why would I blame it on our starting quarterback?" the wide receiver snapped. "Next question."
There were some supportive comments, but no one offered a strident endorsement of Smith, not even Ryan.
"He's had better days," said Ryan, whose offense produced a season-low 220 yards and went 1-for-12 on third down.
It's hard to be worse than Smith, which is the campaign platform of the pro-Simms contingent.
The Jets (5-6) tried to win this game without a quarterback. Well, not exactly, but they ran so much Wildcat in the first quarter that you wondered whether Marty Mornhinweg had scrapped his West Coast offense in favor of the single wing.
They tried to pull a Georgia Southern. Unfortunately for them, the Ravens (5-6) refused to play the role of Florida.
The Jets used the Wildcat on four of the first 11 snaps, including Josh Cribbs' 13-yard completion to Smith, of all people. All told, they ran eight Wildcat plays, trying to minimize Smith as much as possible. It looked like the coaches had more confidence in Cribbs throwing than Smith.
Smith completed only 9 of 22 passes for 127 yards, padding his total (if you can call it that) with some concession yardage in garbage time. The truth is, he was 4-for-15 for 42 through the first 56 minutes.
His final passer rating was 22.3.
A week ago, it was 10.1.
"Everybody wants to put a new quarterback in, and I understand that," Smith said. "I'm not worried about anything other than trying to get better as a player. I'm not going to sit here and say I'm 100 percent secure, because every single person in this locker room has to prove himself daily. That's the way we work around here."
Smith said he's "very hot and cold." Problem is, he hasn't been hot since that starry night in Atlanta two months ago. The offense has managed only one touchdown in its past 31 possessions with him at quarterback, resulting in the Jets' first set of consecutive losses. They could've played all night without reaching the Ravens' end zone.
Aside from the usual array of errant passes and happy-feet movements in the pocket, the most alarming play was the lost fumble -- an embarrassing play in which Nick Mangold's shotgun snap ricocheted off a receiver in motion, Greg Salas.
Smith never actually touched the ball, but the fumble was credited to him. No one blamed him for the blunder; it seemed obvious. Mangold said he simply snapped on Smith's command. That Smith was oblivious to Salas in motion speaks to a lack of awareness.
"I've gone eight years without that play happening," Mangold said. "I think it happened maybe once in college. Obviously, it's a rarity, but it's devastating when it happens."
Bad things keep happening to the Jets, and "we're out of lifelines," Colon said.
Maybe not. Ryan can poll his audience. If he does, it wouldn't end favorably for Smith.