Commentary

Geno Smith is Rex Ryan's mulligan

The Mark Sanchez experiment ended in disaster, so Rex has reversed course

Updated: August 20, 2014, 9:29 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Geno Smith is going to be the New York Jets' starting quarterback when the regular season arrives, unless he goes out and injures himself in Friday's preseason game against the New York Giants that seems to be growing in hype by the minute because of each team's concerns. But there's no need to play along with the silly charade that anything else is up.

Even Michael Vick grew a little tired of it Wednesday when reporters descended on his locker and started asking questions as if he had a realistic chance of being anything other than Smith's backup when opening day arrives. Vick finally said, "I thought we already settled this. ... Where are these questions coming from?"

The answer precedes the arrival of Smith or Vick with the Jets.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsGeno Smith's real challenge is to take the Jets to the playoffs, not beat Eli Manning in a preseason game.

It's happening this way because Smith is Rex Ryan's mulligan as a head coach.

Smith is Ryan's second chance to develop the first-rate franchise quarterback the Jets thought they were drafting when they moved up to get Mark Sanchez. If you remember, Ryan even joked with Sanchez about it back then, pointing out they were both rookies at their new jobs and that if Sanchez didn't turn into the quarterback he was supposed to be, they'd both be gone.

As it turned out, only Sanchez is. Rex has so far avoided the axe. But everything Rex was told from inside and outside his own locker room that he didn't do with Sanchez -- such as bring in a backup more threatening than Mark Brunnell, or make Sanchez feel he had to earn the job rather than having it handed to him -- is now in play for Smith and Vick.

Asked if the delay in saying this was Smith's team might mess with either player's mind, or hurt or delay their ability to lead the locker room, Jets' veteran offensive guard Willie Colon wagged his head no Wednesday and said, "I think Mike has already said over and over that he's here to help and support Geno."

And Smith?

"I just have to continue to stay in the moment, work day by day," he said.

There's been so much talk about how much more self-assured Smith in this second pro season of his compared to his first, it almost seems sometimes as if the bar beyond that isn't being set high enough for him.

The snowballing talk this week about who ever thought Eli Manning would be the one with something to prove, not Smith, because of Manning's struggles with the Giants' new West Coast offense, is another storyline to forget. Manning does need to play better. And fast. But if Smith outplays him Friday, it won't make Smith the best quarterback in New York. He's got a long way to go to eclipse Eli. And it's not going to happen in a year.

The real measuring stick is for Smith to keep improving and play well enough to led the Jets to the playoffs. It's for Smith to be able to put up enough points so the Jets and their questionable cornerback situation can hold up against a schedule that will throw a Who's Who of NFL quarterbacks at them. Wednesday, he spoke about how so many things feel "a lot more natural" to him.

"I think it's a result of knowing my reads a lot better and understanding defenses and ways to get in and out of the pocket a lot better," he said. "I'm seeing things a lot better as well. My vision is really good right now. So I've just got to keep that up. Continue to make smart plays. Take it if it's there. And if the pass is not there, pull it down and gain some yards for us."

Another important thing to watch for Friday will be whether the Jets continue to show the effective multi-back running attack they'll need to make Smith's job easier -- especially since the Jets' wide receiver position was so much flux even before a few role players got hurt. After No. 1 receiver Eric Decker, Smith can rely on, well, who? Who is the Jets' other starting wideout?

Is it scatback-sized Jeremy Kerley, who seems better suited for the slot? Or oft-injured and perennially disappointing Stephen Hill, the former second-round pick whom general manager John Idzik complimented on WFAN radio Wednesday for his good, um, blocking?

"He's not a pulling guard, he's a wide receiver," show co-host Boomer Esiason shot back. God bless him.

Smith seems to know all this. And yet he doesn't get sidetracked by angst or silly subplots himself. He seems to have his emphases in exactly all the right places.

Decker, who has talked in recent days about how he "researched" how Smith played as a rookie before leaving Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos as a free agent over the winter, said Smith has been what he hoped he would be.

"I think a big thing I looked at is you want to know that physically a quarterback is capable of doing big things, and I definitely saw a lot of that in Geno last year," Decker said. "But even more than that, for me, it's the personality. At this level, that's what separates players, and that's what separates the good from the great.

"The adversity that sometimes you face out there, the adversity you face when you lose, the way he carried himself, the way he was confident in his demeanor -- I looked at that [about Smith] and I guess my intuition, my instincts, said, 'OK, this guy gets it. This guy wants to be good. He wants to be great.' And he's not shying away from the pressure. Or his mistakes. Geno is taking command of the huddle. He's taking command of the room. He's definitely stepping up as the quarterback."

Has Smith asked him a lot about Peyton?

"Oh yeah, right away -- that was another thing that impressed me," Decker said. "Geno was like, 'We need to sit down and you need to talk to me about what made Peyton so good. What did he do to separate himself?'"

When you think about it, that's is a far better focus for Smith than smaller battles like how he does against Peyton's brother Eli on Friday in a goofy preseason game nicknamed the Snoopy Bowl.

Smith said he does look at this game as a fun chance for one team to grab bragging rights over the other. When asked what he remembers about his own play last season, Smith smiled a little and was unsparing about himself: "Tough one, man. I had a tough outing. I can remember them throwing a lot of blitzes at me. They had a rookie quarterback. They sent a lot of different disguises and looks at me, and I had a tough one."

Then he added this: "I look forward to this game and seeing how much I've improved since."

Ryan could have wound up with a worse mulligan as his No. 1 quarterback than Smith.

Even if he still won't officially call Smith that yet.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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