There has been a lot of talk about how the Jets should learn from the mistakes they made developing Mark Sanchez as it relates to Geno Smith. Three popular concepts are getting quality coaching, keeping a talented and consistent receiving corps, and not pushing him to do too much before he is ready. I think there is one big thing few have mentioned which touches on all three. The Jets should make things simple on offense for Geno Smith in the short term.
Moving to the NFL is a big transition. Players are on their own for the first time. Football is now a full-time job. They usually move to a new city where they do not know anybody. The opposition is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. They have to learn how to train and face more complicated schemes than they have ever seen. Quarterbacks who move to New York have to deal with further pressure and expectations. Any one of these things would be a challenge on its own, but Geno Smith will face all of these at once just as Mark Sanchez did in 2009. Given all of these challenges, it makes sense for the Jets to make things as easy on their new quarterback as possible. This includes making sure the system he is running is simple. They did not do that with Sanchez.
In Sanchez's rookie year, Brian Schottenheimer reportedly gave Sanchez the whole playbook right from the start. Looking back on it last year, one report indicated Sanchez, "crammed as many plays as he could into his brain," during training camp in 2009. That really was no way to function. Whenever you are in a situation where you are teaching something complicated, it is important to break things into pieces. There should be benchmarks. Once the student masters one task and only then, you move him on to the next task. It builds confidence and momentum. It gets the person on a winning streak. It gives the student a basic understanding of simple tasks to build upon as he moves onto more complicated tasks.
We also knew that Sanchez was very raw coming out of USC after starting only 16 college games. He did not have a firm foundation in the basics. If anybody needed things simple at first, it was Sanchez. Once he mastered something simple, he could move on to something more complex. When things got rough, he would have a basic set of plays he could fall back upon and know he could use with success.
You want a quarterback to have as many plays down as possible. The fewer plays a team can run, the easier it is for a defense to be able to plan. However, the ultimate measure of success is the ability to execute. It is better for a team to run five plays it can execute than one hundred it cannot. The Jets probably would have been much better-served limiting Sanchez's playbook early, letting him master a few key concepts, and building from there rather than just giving him a superficial knowledge and limited mastery of everything. Back in 2009, the Jets had an offensive line that was so good that they could lean on the run game against almost anybody. A simplistic passing playbook could have worked. There are stories about how Ben Roethlisberger only knew the routes of Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward during his rookie year. Sanchez might have benefited from something similarly basic.
The problems with Sanchez did not stop with Brian Schottenheimer, though. By the end of Sanchez's third year in the league, it was clear that he was not making the progress the Jets wanted him to make as a player. Frankly, things looked bleak, but he still might have been salvageable. The Jets hired Tony Sparano under the promise Sparano would simplify things and help Sanchez build from square one or so it seemed.
Then last summer came this article from Jenny Vrentas.
The key lies in flexibility, allowing the quarterback and his receivers to make fluid and choreographed adjustments in order to best attack the voids and weaknesses of the opposing defense. As Sparano told the offense in a meeting Thursday morning, “We are not robots.”
Sparano’s offense has a heavy emphasis on sight adjustments and hot routes — in which a receiver’s route can be adjusted in response to a blitzing defense — and it also includes a variety of tags and option routes that allow receivers to find open spaces against the coverage.
These are widespread concepts in the NFL, and they existed on some level in Schottenheimer’s system, too. But as receiver Santonio Holmes put it, “We have more than we did last year, let’s just say that.”
There were a number of moments last offseason that made me say, "Uh oh," and this article was one of them. If you aren't familiar with sight adjustments, here's a brief explanation. When an offense calls a passing play, sometimes there are options built into the play that allow the receiver to adjust his route if he sees something particular from the defense. If the defense blitzes from a certain spot, it might be built to stop the play you are in so a sight adjustment allows the receiver to adjust and take his route to a spot on the field that the defense's play will leave open.
It sounds good, right? It allows an offense to be dynamic instead of static. It can stop a perfect defensive call from blowing up a team. Some teams do not have these at all. Others use them extensively. Why is this? Sight adjustments are very difficult to execute. They require wide receivers to correctly read a defense and make the right decision to adjust a route in a split second. They require the quarterback to see the same thing and make the same decision in the same timeframe. The quarterback and receiver also need to have great chemistry. The receiver needs to know that the quarterback will see what he is doing, and the quarterback needs to trust the receiver will make the right read. If any of these incredibly precise calculations is off, the play could become a catastrophe. It can lead to a gimme interception. Option routes are a similar concept, but they give the receiver a choice of where he goes based on the coverage.
When you hear about the job Jim Harbaugh did to improve Alex Smith's game, this is an area that few talk about, but it might have been the most significant thing Harbaugh did. The 49ers essentially eliminated sight adjustments from their playbook. They were going to run the play that was called exactly as it was called regardless of the defense. If the defense had the right call, Smith's job was to avoid the killer mistake and live to see another day. In this context, you can see why Smith succeeded. Things were made much simpler for him. You can also see it put a ceiling on how successful he could be. If the defense was in the right call, the play was dead. There would be no adjustment on offense. That is probably one reason the Niners felt Colin Kaepernick had a higher ceiling. It's better to have players capable of making proper adjustments than not. If you do not have have players capable of doing so, however, it is best to not even try.
As it pertained to the Jets last year, it felt like a recipe for disaster even as Vrentas was writing the article in June. As we touched upon before, Sanchez never learned how to read a defense in part because Schottenheimer never taught him the basics and built upon it. He was a guy who needed to be broken down and start from square one. Instead, the Sparano offense was making even more demands on him to make complicated reads.
It was a bad idea for another reason. Even before Santonio Holmes went down, the receiving corps looked suspect. When we talk about receivers being raw, we frequently talk about their ability to run crisp routes and catch the ball, but reading the coverage and making adjustments is also an important part of the position, an understated part of why rookie receivers seldom make an impact. It takes time and seasoning to understand what a defensive look means and the necessary steps to take. Stephen Hill in particular was a very raw rookie, and the roster was loaded with players who were either raw, not good, or both at the position. Beyond that, few of these receivers had chemistry with Sanchez.
To make an offense with an emphasis on sight adjustments and option routes work, there are three essentials, a quarterback who understands how to make complicated reads, receivers who understand how to make complicated reads, and chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers so they each knows what the other will do in any situation. The Jets had none of these three. While it is next to impossible to tell whether somebody made the wrong adjustment on a given play, when you watch the mess the Jets were on offense, there are far too many cases for comfort where it appears this was a problem on a particular play.
This is not to say the coaching and only the coaching is why Sanchez has failed to reach his potential. Sanchez is ultimately the most responsible for this. There are plenty of other indications that he was never on his way to greatness. I do think you can point to this as one reason he is not even a functional quarterback, though.
Geno Smith is more seasoned than Sanchez was entering the league, probably way more seasoned. He still comes from an offense that lacks a lot of basic NFL concepts. Some things will be similar, but certain concepts will be foreign to him. Some of the defensive looks he gets will make his head spin. It will be best to not put too much on his plate. That goes beyond just playing time or the number of throws he makes. If this means he works with a limited playbook at the start with limited sight adjustments and option routes, so be it. The Jets should stick to the basics until he shows a mastery of them. Then they can move on to the more advanced concepts.