If I had one criticism of Marty Mornhinweg as a play caller, it is he throws it too much. The NFL is a passing league, but Mornhinweg sometimes takes it too far, throwing it in situations where it seems crazy to not run it. Mornhinweg's teams also too frequently fail to establish the run. In thirteen years as either a head coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL, his teams have finished in the top ten in passing attempts ten times.
Two rookie quarterbacks who have seen significant playing time with Mornhinweg, Joey Harrington and Nick Foles, have averaged 37 passes per game. It would be crazy to have Geno Smith throw 37 passes a game. That would pretty much put the entire offense on the shoulders of the rookie quarterback. Think about it. The wide receiver corps looks unremarkable. The right side of the offensive line will probably be a bit leaky in pass protection. The number one back on the team has three career receptions in three NFL seasons. A pass happy offense would put all the pressure on a rookie quarterback. That is probably a recipe for disappointment.
Take a look at last year's class of three star rookie quarterbacks. The Redskins and Seahawks went out of their way to protect the rookie quarterbacks. Both teams ran the ball more than they threw it. They did everything they could to put Robert Griffin III into manageable second and third downs. Griffin threw 30 passes four times. Wilson did just three times. It was about making the job of the quarterback throwing it as easy as possible.
The Colts took a different approach. Andrew Luck threw it 627 times. He was forced to carry the load. He did not have much surrounding talent, putting even more on him. Bruce Arians' offense requires high difficulty throws, putting still even more on him. Luck is a special talent and did quite well. People look at raw numbers and say Luck wasn't in the class of Griffin or Wilson, but he had a much tougher job carrying more of the load with less supporting talent to help him. What he did was spectacular.
It came at a price, though. The heavy workload Luck got probably led him to hit the rookie wall. His completion percentage dropped almost 10 points in December, and he dropped about half a yard per pass attempt from where these numbers were the first three months, roughly when he was used to his college season ending and he hit the number of passes he threw in a typical college year. Wilson threw almost 15 less passes per game. It might not be a coincidence he was playing his best ball of the year near the end of the season as Luck's numbers fell off a cliff. Griffin was battling injuries, which makes evaluating his year difficult.
Andrew Luck is an extraordinary prospect. Geno Smith has a lot of potential, but I do not think many would argue he is on Luck's 2012 level coming out of West Virginia. It feels very unlikely Geno could carry an offense this early in his career. This is not unusual either. You know how people scoff at the idea of Joe Flacco getting that big contract from the Ravens because he was only part of a Super Bowl team with many other great players? He was part of the solution but he didn't carry the load. The same was true of guys like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Eli Manning at that point. There are a handful of super human prospects, but many franchise quarterbacks take years, up to seven, before they really start dominating. Some franchise quarterbacks start out as effective pieces of the puzzle, not the entire puzzle. After a few years, things can click, and they can take their game to the next level. If Geno is successful, he figures to be one of those. How can the Jets help him? This is where it gets tricky.
Wilson and Griffin were able to take some of the pressure off their passing with their running ability. Designed quarterback runs became a staple of the Seattle and Washington offenses. This had two effects. First, it gave their teams an extra option for picking up yardage without throwing the ball. Second, it made their running backs more effective. Defenses could not overplay running backs receiving handoffs. The threat of a fake was there where the quarterback could pull the ball back and run to the spot vacated by an overpursuing defender. This gave the backs extra room to operate.
Geno Smith is a pretty good athlete, but he is not on the same level as Griffin or Wilson as a runner. Those guys are dynamic athletes with gamebreaking speed for quarterbacks. Geno has enough athletic ability to buy himself extra time as a thrower, but he is probably not going to take the game over as a runner. It is difficult to imagine designed quarterback runs becoming a regular part of the offense. We will probably see them to some degree but not to the extent we saw them in Washington and Seattle.
What can the Jets do? As we covered above, they do not have a great receiving corps or pass protection to make life easier on Geno. Heck, they do not even have a good receiving corps. This team is probably built more to have the conventional run game carry some of the load.
It felt like the Jets were making a concerted effort to beef up their run game this past weekend with the additions of Chris Ivory and Brian Winters and to a lesser extent Oday Aboushi and Tommy Bohanon. Using the conventional run game is certainly a way to take pressure off a rookie quarterback. If you rush first effectively, you open up play action, slow down the pass rush, and force the defense to take resources away from pass defense to play the run.
Can the Jets become an effective run first team? That is unclear. The backfield probably has more talent than a year ago. The right side of the offensive line could conceivably be a very strong run blocking unit with Nick Mangold in the middle and Brian Winters and Austin Howard to the right of him. It's possible but certainly less than ideal that a third round rookie guard needs to step in right away and play at a high level. We also don't know whether Howard will improve with a year of starting under his belt or regress without having Brandon Moore next to him. Moore clearly has not gotten the deal he was expecting as a free agent. If he continues to be out in the wild, maybe the Jets can bring him back.
A strong run game is not guaranteed, but it is probably the best shot the Jets have of taking pressure off Geno. Imagine the ease with which could can run first effectively was the same as the ease with which you could start a fire. The 2008-2010 Jets had a Zippo lighter. The 2011-2012 Jets with Shonn Greene were banging two rocks together. The 2013 Jets probably have matches.
This is the most plausible path to an efficient offense. The question is whether Mornhinweg can look at his team and adjust his offense to what he has. The Jets made personnel moves over the weekend at odds with the kind of offense he usually runs. Rex Ryan favors a more conservative offense. He seems to view this side of the ball as a necessary evil whose first job is to do no harm. An offense is successful if it does not turn the ball over. The goal is to put his defense in a position to win the game. In many instances during his tenure, this has been counterproductive, and the offense has been flat. I think the hope is maybe Mornhinweg and Rex can balance out each other's extremes and make the end result the perfect harmony. The worst case would be a situation similar to Rex with the pass happy Brian Schottenheimer, wildly fluctuating on a weekly basis from a very conservative offense when Rex put his foot down to one with the Jets throwing it around at an astounding rate as Rex lost interest in the unit.
John Idzik also will play an important role. The coaching staff controls what happens on the field for the most part, but the way a franchise quarterback is groomed should be an organizational decision on some level. We cannot say how much Idzik had to do with the way Seattle groomed Wilson last year, but he did have a front row seat seeing how a smart team struck the right balance with a rookie quarterback, maximizing his skills by putting the right amount on him. If the Jets are smart on this front, the front office will likely deserve some credit. If the Jets are not, the front office will surely deserve some blame.
Unless Geno Smith is so far in over his head that he will be a disaster, he probably should and will be the Jets' starting quarterback. He is the only quarterback on the roster with upside. Once he does start, the Jets cannot put too much on his plate. That means Marty Mornhinweg will have to adapt. We might find out how good of a coach Marty really is.