Jeremy Kerley's touchdown catch against the Raiders proved to be a turning point for the quarterback who made the throw, Geno Smith.
Granted a reprieve after a halftime benching the previous week -- the low point of his rookie year-- the New York Jets' quarterback returned to MetLife Stadium for a game that had season-defining potential. It started badly, a first-quarter interception (his 20th) that resulted in boos and a stern, nose-to-nose lecture from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Facing the possibility of another benching, Smith trudged out for the next series.
Then something magical happened -- a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley, who made a twisting adjustment and caught the floater with his back to the goal post, falling down. Actually, it was a jump-ball situation, with five players in the area -- three Oakland Raiders defenders, Kerley and Santonio Holmes, who was in the neighborhood because he ran the wrong route. Kerley, only 5-foot-9, soared above them all. They all went down like bowling pins, five guys crashing to the turf.
The normally reserved Smith celebrated with two flying chest bumps. It was his first touchdown pass in six games -- six! -- and, in retrospect, it was a turning point. Over the final three-plus games, he threw only one interception in 108 attempts, convincing the Jets' brass to give him another season.
"To come back from that interception, it was just a big confidence boost," Kerley said Wednesday, reflecting on the low and the high of Dec. 8. "All that momentum, all that adrenaline, he rode the wave of it. Hopefully, that wave hasn't stopped."
Fittingly, Smith will begin his 2014 surfing against the Raiders, who return to New Jersey for the season opener. The expectations, of course, have changed. Even though he's still developing at the position, Smith is expected to develop and win. The honeymoon is over. Another 8-8 season isn't good enough. Yes, Michael Vick is lurking in the background, but the feeling around the team is that Smith won't be yanked at the first sign of trouble. Rex Ryan believes in him.
"The whole team has confidence in him," Ryan said. "Take off from where you left off. That's all he needs to do."
Ryan has emphasized the "take-off-where-you-left-off" theme with Smith, hoping he can build off his strong finish. It's a natural storyline for us folks in the media, but Smith wasn't buying into it. Oddly, he refused to answer any questions about last season, not even the softball questions about how much he has improved or how his confidence has grown. There was an edge to him as he stood in front of his locker, addressing reporters.
"I don't want to talk about last year," he said several times during the interview session -- or a variation of that.
We can give Smith the benefit of the doubt, assuming he already is wearing his regular-season blinders. You know, game face on. Thing is, there's no way to tell the Smith story without referencing last season. Even Ryan didn't mind going there, recalling his emotions as he prepared for the 2013 opener with a neophyte at quarterback.
"Come on, running game, just run that ball," Ryan said, laughing.
Ryan's counterpart, Dennis Allen, probably is thinking the same thing as he prepares to embark on a season with rookie Derek Carr at quarterback. Carr played well in the preseason -- Smith didn't last summer -- but none of that matters anymore. The preseason was elementary school, the regular season is grad school. The fronts are ever-changing and the coverages are confusing.
No one knows this better than Smith, but he wasn't in the mood to share his thoughts on what Carr could expect during his NFL indoctrination. Remember, Smith is looking forward, not backward, although he acknowledged this much about himself:
"There's a different level of maturity in myself and in all of us, that's just life. You're going to grow, you're going to get older, you're to get better if you work at it, and I've been working hard. My teammates, I think they respected me last year, but the respect factor has gone up."
Ryan said he wants Smith to "just do your thing." They expect to see a new Geno, a quarterback who discovered a wave -- and maybe himself -- with a jump-ball pass that found the right guy last December.