Geno Smith: To Start or Not to Start?

Mike Ehrmann

The great Kristian Dyer has a new article imploring the Jets to not start Geno Smith at quarterback right off the bat.

The Jets went down this road in 2009 when first-round pick Mark Sanchez was handed the starting job during the preseason, a decision that ultimately hurt his long-term development. A veteran-laden team carried the Jets to the playoffs his first two years in the league and Sanchez was asked to limit his mistakes and manage games. He lost out on valuable developmental time that could have helped his game in the long-run.

The Jets can’t make the same mistake with Smith.

A season with a clipboard in his hand, watching the things Sanchez or David Garrard do right and wrong, would be far more appropriate for Smith at this juncture in his career.

Dyer is one of my favorite Jets writers, and he makes a case that many smart people have made here on GGN. I do not think things are so simple, however. To say Sanchez was a rookie who shouldn't have started on day one, which means Geno shouldn't start on day one since he is also a rookie feels a bit lacking. It feels a bit like what we heard in 2009. A year earlier, rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had excellent seasons. That led people to believe there is no risk in starting a rookie.

The truth is more complicated. There is no one size fits all solution for quarterback development These are all different players and thus need to be looked at individually. Here are some of the questions I believe should play into the decision.

How far along is he developmentally?

As many of you know, Football Outsiders is a website that looks at the NFL through statistical analysis. Their studies suggest there is a direct link between number of games started in college and quality of quarterback play in the NFL. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The way I see it, a quarterback's late teens and early twenties are a critical time developmentally. This is when a player really learns the nuances of a position. As far as quarterback play goes, it is similar to your first few years in school when you learn the basics of science, math, reading, etc. and set habits that will be difficult to break the rest of your academic career.

In first grade, you learn reading concepts that you carry going forward. First grade prepares you for second grade. Once you get to second grade, the concepts get a bit more difficult, but you hopefully have enough of a background where you can get through your struggles and figure things out.

If you got dropped directly into fourth grade after first grade, you are going to have some problems. Sure, there will be the odd kid who is just so naturally smart he will pick things up, but it is going to be a struggle for most kids. They will be taking on much tougher material, and they will lack knowledge of essential concepts from second and third grade that could help them work through this. You have to play catch-up learning three grades of material at once, an impossible task. You will make mistakes and not have any background knowledge to figure out why the mistakes were made or how to fix them. Eventually, you will probably lose confidence, just start guessing, and maybe be less inclined to work hard because you can't figure it out no matter what you do.

How is this relevant? If the NFL is fourth grade, college is essentially first, second, and third grade. Each year of college, a good quarterback learns more and more about them. He fine tunes his mechanics. He figures out defensive fronts and coverages. He understands route combinations. He learns what are smart throws and what are dumb throws. The NFL is a big step up in competition, but those who have played and thrived in college for a long time have a firm foundation on which they can rely. Those who played sparingly in college do not have the same experience. They didn't even master college before they are thrown up two levels into the NFL.

What does this have to do with the situation at hand? Geno Smith had 1,465 passes in college. Mark Sanchez had 487. Geno should be much further along developmentally than Sanchez as a rookie simply as a result of his vastly greater playing experience.

We will never know whether Sanchez sitting that first year would have made a difference, but it is difficult to discount the possibility. He only started 16 games in college. That is a season and change. He hadn't mastered all of the concepts in college yet. Had he spent a year or two on the practice field, it might have prepared him better. He could have learned at his own pace instead of being thrown to the NFL wolves. He could have made his mistakes in the anonymity of practice. His coaches could have patiently worked through the problems.

I think there is a big difference between purely trying to develop a player and combining player development with trying to win. When somebody is a starter, you have to combine their development with doing what is necessary to get a W each week. That means less time working on what a player does since game planning and studying the opponent are critical. It means trying to hide weaknesses of players instead of working on them. It means trying desperately to avoid mistakes instead of accepting them and using them as lessons. It means playing purely to strengths instead of working on developing new strengths. In this light, I do not believe it is a coincidence that the greatest recent success story of an inexperienced college quarterback was a guy who didn't start until his fourth NFL season, Aaron Rodgers.

Sanchez probably could have used some time on the bench, but the same is not necessarily true of Geno. He has much more playing experience and should be more ready to go right off the bat.

Is there a good alternative?

Does an alternative exist capable of leading the Jets to a good year? If the Jets had a quality veteran, Geno might not even be the best option. Geno could avoid the pressure. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

The best other option is probably David Garrard. He hasn't played a meaningful down since 2010. On his best day in his prime, he was a middle of the pack quarterback. It's reasonable to expect there has been regression since he is now 35 and hasn't played in three years, possibly significant regression. He isn't much of an option.

Mark Sanchez? I think most of us have seen enough of this.

Greg McElroy profiles as a guy whose ceiling is a number three quarterback, somebody you can start on a very limited basis who won't make plays but will protect the football. If literally everything else is working, you can sneak a win with him.

Matt Simms' college stats were worse than Sanchez's NFL stats. I don't see that translating well.

There really is no acceptable alternative. Geno is the only quarterback on the roster with any upside. Unless he is totally unready, it is frankly difficult to envision a scenario where he does not give the Jets "the best chance to win."

Will he have to carry the bulk of the load?

It's no longer taboo to expect a rookie quarterback to play efficient football and be part of an effective offense. It's another thing to ask a rookie quarterback to carry the entire load. You cannot expect to stick him in the pocket the bulk of the time and ask him to do all of the work. Even the quarterbacks who eventually grow into this role like Brady, Ben, and Eli only did so years into their careers. Early on they had help elsewhere. The Colts asked Andrew Luck to do this. He did surprisingly well, but he was a superprospect. Even Luck had bouts with inefficiency and seemed to hit the rookie wall late in 2012 as the burden the Colts put on him weighed him down.

It is unclear whether the Jets can minimize what they ask of Geno. All of the ingredients are in place to potentially have a very good run game. The rushing attack, however, will depend on some unknowns, whether Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson can handle increased workloads, how quickly Brian Winters can be effective, and how Austin Howard will handle life without Brandon Moore. We also need to find out whether Marty Mornhinweg will get out of his pass first mentality and play to the strength of the team he has.

This one is up in the air.

What are the drawbacks to each course of action?

The decision to start or sit a rookie quarterback comes with drawbacks on each side.

Dyer noted the potential drawbacks of starting a rookie. If he isn't ready, you can sink his career. He can be overwhelmed, lose his confidence, develop bad habits, and never recover.

There are also real drawbacks to sitting a rookie. If he is ready to start, being too conservative can hurt your team. Just look at the role rookie quarterbacks like Ryan, Flacco, Luck, Griffin, and Wilson have played sparking teams to big seasons. These guys turned around their respective franchises. Once a team gets on the right track, everything becomes easier. Free agents are more disposed to coming. There are less locker room problems. People are excited to work hard. The coach gets players to buy into the program.

There's also the developmental aspect. Going back to our grade school analogy, somebody who passes the third grade isn't going to get any better by repeating the third grade. They need to expand their horizons, learn more, and take on tougher challenges if they are to get better. Sitting is wasting precious time in their development.

Finally, you want to have an idea what you have as soon as possible. You don't want to stick with somebody who is not a franchise quarterback for too long. Then you are wasting your team's future. You want to find out as soon as possible so you can cut the cord as soon as possible once it is clear a person will not work out.

Conclusion

There are a lot of things to be considered when deciding whether or not to start a rookie quarterback. Every case needs to be handled individually because there are pros and cons on each side of the fence.

In the Jets' case, I think the stronger argument is to be made for Geno Smith starting as soon as possible. After starting for three years in college, his game is probably as close to being refined as it will get before he takes an NFL snap. There appears to be a good crop of quarterbacks in 2014 which the Jets might be able to land if Geno flops so finding out about him as soon as possible is important. There is no solid alternative either.

Geno might not be ready to start on day one. There are some elements to his college playbook that do not necessarily translate to the pros, but his game should be refined enough that he should be ready at some point this year. If he is not after three years of college starting, that might be something of a red flag itself.

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