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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Geno Smith asked for just a little protection, just a little personal space, and he did it with 34 seconds left on his own 20-yard line, a time and place where this New York Jets opener was scheduled to die.
If he did summon the spirit of Yogi Berra ("It's never over," the quarterback told his offensive linemen), this pep talk wasn't to be confused with Joe Namath's guarantee, or with Joe Montana's ice-breaking request to his tense Super Bowl teammates to check out John Candy in the stands.
"It wasn't a Hollywood script," guard Willie Colon said. "It wasn't 'Remember the Titans' or anything like that. It was just Geno telling us that if we give him some protection we'll find a way."
So the rookie who had spent his preseason staggering about on a bum ankle, who had thrown three interceptions and had stepped out of bounds in the end zone against the New York Giants in a dead-on, "Saturday Night Live" impression of Mark Sanchez, suddenly found a way to beat a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that spent most of the afternoon trying to beat itself.
|ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said that he's been impressed by the toughness of Jets QB Geno Smith.|
But this surreal 18-17 victory for the home team at MetLife Stadium wasn't about another show of embarrassing coaching for the local boy made bad, Greg Schiano, who followed up his amateur-hour, kneel-down follies against last year's Giants by building a monument to disorganization against this year's Jets.
It wasn't about the ungodly number of Tampa penalties, or the late hit on Smith committed by Lavonte David with 7 seconds to go, giving Nick Folk the chance to nail the 48-yarder that sent your New York Jets into a Thursday night meeting with that fellow first-place team (and how does that sound?) to the north.
This was about a 22-year-old quarterback showing a 32-year-old's presence and poise. This was about Geno Smith finding Kellen Winslow for 25 yards on that final drive, and about Smith putting David in position to commit that foul by racing 10 yards to the sideline and getting out of bounds.
If a tennis fan at the US Open might view David's 15-yarder as an unforced error, an educated football fan would see that the Jets' quarterback set up the penalty by showing a willingness to run (not to mention the foot speed to do it) that Sanchez never showed.
"I wasn't looking for it," Smith said after completing 24 of 38 passes for 256 yards. "Actually just playing situational football."
And how many rookies under that kind of endgame stress would engage in situational football while playing for a lame-duck coach and with lame enough talent to make a quarterback duck?
Eli Manning wasn't one of them. Nine years ago, the two-time Super Bowl MVP-to-be threw two interceptions and missed on 20 of his 37 pass attempts in losing his first start to Atlanta in a season that saw Manning go 1-6. Michael Vick told Eli after that game he could turn out to be as good as Peyton, and it turns out Vick was just about right.
But the 2004 Eli didn't deliver much of what the 2013 Geno delivered Sunday, which might turn out to be an encouraging development, or just a twist of charmed fate against an ill-prepared team. For now, this much is clear:
Smith doesn't look the least bit afraid of the challenge here, and the same couldn't always be said of his predecessor. Sanchez's right shoulder is so badly damaged that he warmed up Sunday by throwing left-handed passes, meaning Smith won't be shadowed and stalked like Sanchez was last year by a natural left-hander named Tebow.
"We knew that he's a much better quarterback than he showed in that one preseason game when he was hobbling around," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
Ryan got Sanchez pancaked in that Giants game, so he would be wise to handle Smith with caution. The rookie made the expected rookie mistakes against Tampa, giving the Bucs a touchdown on a fumble and responding with an equally dreadful interception.
But Smith hung in there, worked the problem, and answered Josh Freeman's own interception with the first touchdown pass of his career, a 7-yarder to Winslow.
"The game wasn't too big for him," the tight end said.
Not even close. Smith was facing the returning Darrelle Revis, and a pair of safeties who nearly decapitated Jeff Cumberland and Jeremy Kerley on throws that led the receivers into harm's way (the rookie needs to work on that). Smith was also working around a nonexistent running game (his 47 yards beat the combined sum, 44, of Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory), and a set of receivers who don't scare anyone. Outside of Jets fans, that is.
And yet Smith outplayed the veteran Freeman and outlasted some highly questionable play-calling from new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who seemed to be channeling his inner Tony Sparano by ordering up Wildcat sets just as Smith's hand was getting hot.
"The kid," Ryan said, "showed a great deal of poise."
Especially when the Tampa front doled out its fair share of pain and punishment. "I was sure when I was hitting him early on he would be rattled," Gerald McCoy said. "But the guy just kept sitting in there. 'Man, how many more times [do] I've got to hit you?'"
Smith was crushed by Adrian Clayborn on a successful screen pass that set up the Jets' first go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. He dusted himself off and led the winning drive after Ryan's blown defensive call gift-wrapped the Bucs a field goal of their own, and after Rex allowed precious seconds to bleed off the clock before calling his final timeout.
"I never think about the hit," Smith said. "I never look at the rush. I'm out there playing football. The game never changes for me."
He backed up his words on the Jets' final offensive play. While chaos reigned around him, Smith scrambled right and headed for the sanctuary of a sideline that would stop the clock and allow his team one last heave into the end zone.
Only the Bucs weren't nearly as calm, cool and collected. David dealt him an unnecessary shot, and that was that.
"I don't like to brag on myself," Smith said. "Resilience is something that you have to have at this position, and that's something that I think was always instilled in me at an early age.
"I'm never going to panic. I'm never in panic mode. It's a game. It's something that I've been playing my entire life."
So with 34 seconds to go, Geno Smith asked his guys for a little help, maybe an extra one-Mississippi or two. One of the veteran linemen, Colon, said it was nothing out of a Hollywood script.
The rookie gave them a Hollywood ending, anyway.