Commentary

Geno Smith finally shows up for Jets

Facing the awful Raiders was just what the doctor ordered for Broadway Geno

Updated: December 8, 2013, 7:29 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Geno Smith had not delivered a touchdown pass since October, so it was high time to look sideways at the guy who couldn't throw it straight. His NFL career already in peril a dozen games in, Smith was desperate for something, anything, that would grant him a reprieve.

More than anything, he was desperate for a team like the Oakland Raiders to line up on the other side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsGeno Smith threw his first touchdown pass since October 20.
Smith had been benched for a half against Miami, and he might've been on the verge of surrendering his job for keeps. A home loss to the 4-8 Raiders, who hadn't won in the Eastern time zone since 2009 (2009!), could've inspired general manager John Idzik to seriously consider replacing his second-round draft pick with a first-rounder next spring.

Even though the New York Jets had been outscored by 59 points during their three-game losing streak, it would've been too early to give up on Smith. That doesn't mean the Jets wouldn't have given up on him, of course, and ignored the long history of successful NFL quarterbacks who played like bums in Year 1.

Brett Favre could tell you that Jets owner Woody Johnson prefers star power at the quarterback position, and it's entirely possible that college football's latest rock star, Johnny Manziel, will still be on the board when the Jets are put on the clock. So Smith wasn't just playing Sunday to keep Matt Simms from taking the snaps against the Carolina Panthers.

He was playing to make some hopeful college quarterback drop a bit in the next draft, just like Smith himself dropped in this year's.

In that context, this 37-27 victory over Oakland amounted to a very good day at the office. Smith overcame a telegraphed interception in the first quarter, his 20th pick of the year, to throw his first touchdown pass in 22 quarters and to run for another score that reminded Jets fans of a talent his predecessor, Mark Sanchez, didn't offer.

Smith isn't the fastest kid on the block, but he is getting more comfortable on the move and more willing to take a hit for a necessary first down. In fact, Smith showed against Oakland that he's also willing to take a hit for an unnecessary yard or two.

With the Jets up 10 early in the fourth quarter, the game still in doubt, Smith broke up the middle for a long third-down run deep into Oakland territory. Instead of stepping out of bounds at the end of that run and settling for 30 yards, the quarterback lined up the safety stalking him, Brandian Ross, and lowered the boom with his shoulder for those extra two yards.

"I think part of it was me trying to send a message to my teammates," Smith said, "to everyone, that I'm their quarterback. I'm a tough guy."

He realized it was a mistake before the coaches reprimanded him on the sideline. "But you also love that enthusiasm and that competitiveness in him," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

Not to mention the ability to improvise. The Jets used Smith on more rollouts against the Raiders, a strategy Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg should've put in play long before it came to this, with the Jets sucking wind at 5-7 and trying to convince people they can still seize the AFC's final playoff seed.

That sell was only a bit more believable after three hours spent in the company of the Raiders, a team full of guys some coaches -- never mind fans -- had never heard of. On top of that, the Raiders, famous for a fan base that dresses up in living-dead costumes, traditionally morph into zombies on these cross-country trips. They'd lost 12 in a row in this time zone while stumbling about at a late-morning hour on their body clocks.

But hey, the Jets' job was to make it 13 in a row, and nobody said they had to paint a pretty picture in the process. Geno Smith didn't have to throw for the seven touchdowns that Nick Foles had thrown against Oakland. Smith had to limit only his turnovers and make the few opportunistic plays a rookie quarterback is asked to make.

Understand this: Smith is a certified pocket passer. "I've always played that way my entire life," he said.

But he's learning how to pick his spots with his feet, learning how to make those defensive backs pay for turning their backs on him and running with his receivers.

"Eliminate the indecision in my game," Smith said of the tweaks to his style. "A lot of things are happening to me for the first time. That's not to make an excuse, but sometimes I second-guess myself, and that always hurts, especially at quarterback."

He ran for 50 yards on five carries, and threw for 219 yards. Smith's day would've looked even better if Santonio Holmes hadn't dropped a perfectly thrown fade in the end zone, but that's show biz. All in all, the Jets seemed to rally around the rejuvenated vibe radiating from their quarterback, who had been wearing a loserville look for nearly a month.

Antonio Allen blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown for a 20-3 lead, and Jeremy Kerley, back from injury, soared high for a 25-yard jump ball that gave Smith his first scoring pass in forever, and a badly needed jolt of confidence.

The quarterback needed some help after his early interception, too. While Mornhinweg was busy correcting his student, Ryan was muttering to himself, "You've got to be kidding me."

Every Jets fan was muttering the same thing. Smith said he fought the temptation to wallow in self pity "because the minute I do that, I'm finished."

But it wasn't easy.

"I can't sit here and say I'm not human," Smith said, "because it's difficult. ... You start to think about all those mistakes in the past."

A number of Jets tried to reassure their man. On his way back onto the field, after the defense rewarded him with a stop, Smith was grabbed by Mo Wilkerson, who gave him a brief pep talk before patting the quarterback on the helmet.

"Keep your head up and keep going," Wilkerson told him. "Stay confident."

Smith listened. He hit Kellen Winslow for 30 yards on the very next play, then found Kerley in the end zone two plays after that. In the third quarter, Smith kept the ball on the read option and ran eight yards for a score that made it 27-10 for the home team.

"That's the mark of this young man," Ryan said. "He's a resilient guy, and he's shown he can bounce back."

For a change, Geno's offense covered for Rex's faltering defense, and the Jets remained alive and (barely) breathing in the scramble for the sixth seed in the AFC.

The quarterback bought himself some breathing room, too, in the fight to keep his job for the long haul. Some college hotshot's odds of getting drafted by the Jets in Round 1 just took a hit, if only a small one.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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