What should Geno Smith have to do on Saturday to win the starting QB job?
The coaches obviously have their own standards in mind. But what if it were you? What would be enough for you to say Geno has beaten Mark Sanchez for the starting QB position?
To try to answer that question from a purely results oriented point of view (as opposed to things like pocket presence and command of the offense and a hundred other things that will surely factor into the decision but are harder to quantify), I think the first question we have to answer is, what Mark Sanchez is Geno competing with? If Geno is competing only with the Mark Sanchez of the 2013 preseason, then the answer is obvious. Geno has to do better on a prorated basis than Mark's results so far in 4 quarters of work: 23-36, 294 yards, 2 TDs, 2 TOs, a roughly 88 passer rating. But I don't think this is the appropriate standard for Geno to have to beat, whether you think this is a great stat line, a terrible one, or something in between. I think for Sanchez the standard has to reflect his entire career.
Sanchez has for his entire career been the big tease. Sanchez has often in the past looked good for short stretches, even for a couple of games, before crashing back to his default setting of utter ineptitude. So far in the 2013 preseason Mark has played almost exactly 4 full quarters - one full game. If he had gone 25-30 with 4 TDs and 0 turnovers, should we believe he has been transformed overnight into Peyton Manning? Of course not. So the 2013 preseason performance of Mark should have some minor influence over our judgment of his competence, but really we are judging him on a 4 year body of work. And that body of work is not pretty.
In fact, that body of work is really, really bad. Consider the following. A sort of minimally functional performance at QB might be to turn the ball over less than twice in a game and put 20 or more points on the board. That kind of performance is far from stellar, but it gives your team a fighting chance to pull out a win if your defense plays well. How many games would you think Sanchez managed to achieve even this low level of QB competence? 70% of his games? 50%? Try 28 out of 67 games (including playoffs), a paltry 43% of his starts. To give you some insight into just how bad that is, consider this. In 2011 only 5 teams averaged more than 2 turnovers per game. That's for the entire team, not just the QB. In 2012 6 teams had more than 2 turnovers per game. So asking Mark to produce less than 2 turnovers is only asking him to do individually what all but the bottom 20% of the league's entire teams did in 2011 and 2012. Mark produced 26 turnovers by himself each of the last 2 years. That was more than all but 13 TEAMS (not QBs, teams) in 2011, and more than all but 10 TEAMS in 2012. Needless to say, we are not setting the bar too high by asking Mark to turn the ball over less than twice per game.
Likewise, by asking Mark to put up 20 points or more, we again are not setting the bar too high. To put that number in perspective, in both 2011 and 2012 only 9 teams scored less than 20 points per game. So by asking Mark to put up 20 points in a game we are only asking him to do what all but the bottom 1/3 of teams do on a regular basis. Yet Mark has been able to achieve this badge of mediocrity, this statistical embodiment of "Meh" substantially less than half the time he has stepped on the field. 20 points, less than 2 turnovers. Doesn't seem like asking much, right? But for Sanchez it has too often been a bridge too far.
A look at how often Mark has managed to achieve this paltry standard illustrates his increasing inability to give the team even a fighting chance to win. Take a look:
Number Of Games Per Season With 20 Points and Less than 2 Turnovers
(Jets record in those games in parentheses)
2009 ... 7 (5-2)
2010 ... 11 (10-1)
2011 ... 7 (5-2)
2012 ... 3 (3-0)
Some quick observations. First, the Jets defense has been good enough to get the Jets a win in 23 of 28 games in which Sanchez performed at a minimally functional level. That's 82% of the games. Somewhat surprisingly, there has not been been any real falloff as the Jets defense has moved from superb to just pretty good. In 2009 and 2010 combined, when the Jets defense was elite, the Jets won 83% of such games. In 2011 and 2012, when the Jets defense clearly had taken a step back (one step slower?), the Jets still won 80% of such games. So perhaps we can make a tentative conclusion that as long as Rex is coaching this defense, minimally functional QB play will get us the win approximately 80% of the time.
The second takeaway from this chart is the horrific meltdown of Sanchez over the last 2 years. From a high of 11 minimally competent games in 2011, Sanchez has quickly sunk to a disastrous 3 such games in 2012. He simply has given the Jets no chance to win a large majority of games the last two years.
The third takeaway, which can be inferred from the games not listed in this chart (i.e., the 57% of games where Sanchez played at an utterly incompetent level), is that even when Sanchez has completely stunk, the Jets defense has been good enough to pull out wins approximately 30% of the time (a 10-24 record). If this success rate were to hold over subsequent seasons, it would mean that in order to get the 10 wins that are usually the minimum required to be invited to the postseason dance, the Jets QB would have to put up approximately 10 performances at a minimally functional level per season. The math works like this: 0.8 times 10 games of decent QB play = 8 wins, plus 0.3 times 6 games of horrendous QB play = 1.8 wins. 8 + 1.8 = 9.8 wins for the season, or rounding up, a record of 10-6. That's roughly what the Jets need to make the playoffs. Mark Sanchez has delivered that level of borderline ineptitude only once in 4 seasons, not coincidentally the one season the Jets won more than 10 games.
The fourth and perhaps the most important takeaway from the above chart is just how little we actually need from the QB position to perhaps again be a perennial playoff contender. Put up 20 points. Limit turnovers to less than 2 (not for the team, just for the QB). Win a lot of games. It's almost that simple. To give you an idea of how little this is asking, Andy Dalton, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford and Jay Cutler all achieved this 10 times or more in 2012. That's the level of QB play the Jets need to be a playoff team almost every year. Bump that up a couple of games and we get a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
So there it is. My standard for Geno tonight. If he plays a half or less, he needs to put up 10 points and not turn the ball over. If he plays into the 3rd quarter, put up 14+ points and limit his turnovers to no more than 1. If he achieves these relatively modest goals he will have outperformed, on a prorated basis, Mark's level of incompetence in 57% of the games Mark has played. More importantly, he will have performed at a level that has a very good chance of returning the Jets to the playoffs.
Obviously there are a multitude of other, less quantifiable things the coaches will be looking for. There are a multitude of caveats to add. If he goes 2-20 but achieves those goals, I doubt he'll be starting week 1. But let's assume he manages to complete at least 50% of his passes ( a modest goal to be sure). That low level of achievement already puts him in the neighborhood of Mark's career average. So assuming he does not look completely inaccurate, overwhelmed or befuddled out there, that's my simple test. On a prorated basis, 20 points and less than 2 turnovers per game. If Geno does this tonight, he will instantly have outperformed Mark's career performance level. He will vastly have outperformed Mark's recent level of play. And as a result, if Geno does this, I think the starting job should be his. And Mark should have thrown his last pass in a Jets uniform.
But what about you? What do you think Geno should have to do to earn the starting job? Not what do you think the coaches will do, but what would you do? If you were the Jets' braintrust, what would get it done tonight for Geno Smith?