Jets' opener: Ballad of Revis and the rookie

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
6:21
PM ET


FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If Darrelle Revis intercepts a pass Sunday, a tray of hors d'oeuvres might come flying out of owner Woody Johnson's luxury suite at MetLife Stadium. If Revis returns it for a touchdown, the caviar (or whatever billionaire snacks are served in Woody World) could get thrown right back at him.

This could be a nightmare opening day for Johnson's team. Or it could be the best possible season opener. It's really a referendum on the new New York Jets.

Revis represents the bygone era, the once-in-a-generation player who nearly led the Jets to two Super Bowls -- and was shipped to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because Johnson refused to meet his outrageous contract demands. The new hope is Geno Smith, whose claim to fame in these parts is that he's not Mark Sanchez.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesGeno Smith threw three picks and stepped out of bounds for a safety in his lone preseason start.
Smith throwing, Revis lurking. It's perfect.

The Jets are a faceless franchise, praying that Smith -- the talented, raw quarterback from West Virginia -- can inject energy into a season that has the makings of 5-11. Or worse. Even Rex Ryan, the haggard face of the franchise, acknowledged the Jets don't have a marquee player. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson has the talent to be that guy, Ryan said, but he added, "I don't know how many tickets Mo will sell."

Smith will sell plenty of tickets if he can play, but here's the thing: Nobody knows for sure. There's always a sense of the unknown with rookie quarterbacks, but there's more uncertainty in Smith's case because he has no experience in a pro-style offense and, oh yeah, he missed half the preseason.

It was just coachspeak when Ryan said, "This is his offense now," meaning Smith has a total grasp of Marty Mornhinweg's playbook. He doesn't. The coaches know it and the players know it, which is why they will use a game plan that accentuates Smith's strengths (short-area accuracy and athleticism) without cluttering his mind with too many X's and O's.

Smith is a wild card because, frankly, some questions have arisen along the way. First of all, it wasn't love at first sight. As we reported in March, the Jets were turned off by Smith in their meeting with him at the scouting combine. He came across as detached and sulky, sources said. It wasn't until the subsequent sit-down, on the eve of his pro day, that team officials were impressed.

Smith's classroom habits early in the offseason also raised concerns, sources said. There was also the day in training camp -- the day of his "brutal" practice -- when he asked out because he claimed his sprained ankle was bothering him. Maybe that explains why Ryan gave such a harsh assessment that day. The coaches wanted him to practice on the bum ankle to show his toughness. That should be a red flag.

Then, in his one big spot, he threw three interceptions against the New York Giants.

Smith got the opening-day start by default, with Sanchez banged up, but it wasn't presented to him as a permanent gig. The Jets didn't do that, in part, because they want to keep the rookie on edge. One of the knocks on him before the draft was that he got complacent at West Virginia. The Jets want to avoid a repeat, so they will keep the pressure on. It's straight out of the Bill Parcells coaching handbook. Wise move.

[+] EnlargeDarrelle Revis
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDarrelle Revis is eager to return from last September's knee injury.
To his credit, Smith has projected a strong, positive image in recent days, looking and talking like an NFL starting quarterback. There's an air of confidence about him, and that's what you want in a quarterback.

People wonder if he can duplicate the amazing rookie performances last season of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Asked about that, Smith said, "I want to exceed those expectations."

For the record, Luck and Wilson struggled in their openers, Luck throwing three interceptions and Wilson managing only 153 yards. You never know. Four years ago, Sanchez was terrific in his first start as a rookie, winning a blowout in Houston. Of course, he was surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast. Smith doesn't have that luxury.

The Jets' offense is an amalgam of question marks, maybes and hopefullys. There will be a new system, a new philosophy and a new quarterback on display Sunday against Revis and a formidable front seven. The Bucs owned the league's top-ranked rushing defense last season, which could prompt the pass-happy Mornhinweg to let Smith throw all day. Boy, that would be a mistake. The Bucs will pressure him, you can count on that.

"I think Geno's shoulders are big enough, I honestly do," Jets guard Willie Colon said. "If they try to heat him up, he has enough savvy and poise to fight his way through it. If he's able to do that, sky's the limit."

The sky is always clear and blue on opening day, when teams like the Jets -- 32nd in the ESPN Power Rankings -- can dream about the Super Bowl. Ryan said "our team will be a hell of a lot better than people think." People understand it's a rebuilding year, but it'll be hard to tolerate an opening-day loss, knowing the Jets' best player -- Revis -- is now the Bucs' best player.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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