Note: This is the first in a series of posts discussing players on the Jets, the season they just had, and how they fit the team in the big picture.
It is a truth of the NFL. When the young quarterback does not develop, people get fired. For all of the personnel and coaching missteps, John Idzik almost certainly and Rex Ryan maybe would have survived had Geno Smith shown more growth from 2013 to 2014. The Jets sure would have posted a better record than 4-12.
For their part, the Jets did little to hedge their bets with Geno. For all of the outside factors that contributed to his 2013 campaign, Geno was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the league as a rookie. They passed up opportunities to draft quarterbacks until Tajh Boyd in the sixth round, a player who failed to meet even the low expectations that come with a selection at that pick. The Jets did sign Michael Vick in free agency, but they went on to make it clear through their actions that Vick would only get to take the reins in the event Geno and the season were already in a state of debris.
This isn't to say things would have necessarily played out any better had the Jets hedged their bets more. It isn't easy to find a quality quarterback in the Draft. Vick also looked like a shell of his former self for much of the time he actually played. Still, even if there were outside factors helping along his poor rookie season, Geno Smith looked like anything other than a sure bet after the 2013 season. Yet all we heard in the offseason and preseason was the Jets talking him up over how much he improved.
Really from the outset of 2014, there were warning signs. In a Week 1 win against the Raiders, Geno put up some gaudy stats but also made three critical errors. He threw an interception from staring down a receiver on his end of the field to set up an Oakland touchdown. He fumbled away a ball in the red zone, and he took a brutal sack to knock the Jets out of field goal range in the second half when a field goal would have put them up two scores. He followed that up with a decent outing at Green Bay. Then the bottom caved in. He played poorly three straight weeks. He was adequate against Denver and New England, but melted down against the Bills, throwing 8 passes, 2 of which were completions and 3 of which were interceptions. This brought on a needed benching, but it was too late to save the Jets.
After sitting a few weeks, the Jets turned back to him following a terrible Vick effort against the Bills in Detroit. The rest of the way Geno was a tad better than early in the season, but the same killer mistakes were there. There were more bad sacks to hurt the team's field goal situation in critical spots. There was a pick six against Minnesota in an overtime loss. There was a momentum swinging interception in a loss to New England.
Geno did finish on a high note, a 358 yard, 3 touchdown outburst at Miami in the finale, perhaps the best game of his career. The flashes of brilliance have been few and far between, though. One of the big problems has been that when Geno is on, he's adequate, and when he's off, he is the worst quarterback in the league. That isn't a good combo.
There was also a discernible lack of progress in key areas.
One of the most important parts of quarterbacking is the ability to handle pressure. Yes, it is better to protect your quarterback. Pressure is a fact of life in the NFL. Quarterbacks need to be able to handle it. A lot of quarterbacks could make it in the NFL if there were nothing but clean pockets. We might be talking about Kevin Kolb: Franchise Quarterback. Part of it means being able to identify where blitzers are coming from through film study. A quarterback can adjust his protection or throw hot. Part of it means knowing how to slide in the pocket to avoid rushers while staying in throwing position. Geno hasn't been very good at any of these things. He had the 29th best completion percentage in the league under pressure as a rookie. He had the 29th best completion percentage in the league under pressure in his second year.
Making correct reads and delivering the ball on time is another big problem for Geno. In the NFL receivers are rarely open all day. It isn't uncommon for a receiver to be open for a second or less. A quarterback needs to be able to be decisive and throw accurately. Even more, sometimes the quarterback has to be able to anticipate when a receiver will be open before he actually is. He has to know the coverage and the type of route the receiver is running. Geno isn't decisive with the ball, and it has hurt him. As a rookie he averaged 3.06 seconds between the snap and the throw. That was the fifth longest in the league. That number actually went up to 3.10 seconds in 2014. That was second highest in the league. There is a major caveat too. Russell Wilson was the quarterback who held it longer. Wilson has an uncanny ability to extend the play and turn it into a big gain. Geno does not.
That is a perfect transition to another disturbing trend. One of the few areas Geno was effective as a rookie was as a downfield passer. He was the third most accurate quarterback in the league on passes traveling 20 yards as a rookie. That abandoned him in 2014. He rated 23rd out of 25 quarterbacks.
He also didn't protect the ball. His 3.5% interception rate was actually quite a bit better than his 4.7% as a rookie, but it was still way too high and well above an acceptable rate. It put him in the same range as players named Sanchez and Bortles. So there are issues beyond making plays. Ball protection is also a major problem. In 29 career starts, only 6 have ended with no turnovers.
You end with a player who was dead last in quarterback rating as a rookie and fifth worst as a second year player. There just have not been many redeeming signs.
I'm not a big fan of giving up on early picks after two years, but the picks also have to show some degree of potential. Geno showed minimal growth from year one to year two. He had a full offseason to train. He understood the work it would take to stick in the league. He had a firm grasp of the playbook. Things still didn't improve. Why would they now?
It's easy to sit around and blame the coaching. People frequently pin a young quarterback's poor play on the coaching. Much more often than not, a new coach changes nothing. Marty Mornhinweg had a pretty good track record as a coordinator before coming to the Jets. Is it really more likely that an established coach sunk the quarterback than the other way around?
There are certain quarterback flaws that can be hidden by a system. The things we talked about above really cannot be. They are dealbreakers. If a quarterback cannot read a defense, handle pressure, or protect the ball, it is really difficult to hide that quarterback.
I think in an ideal world, the Jets would be able to move on. In today's NFL teams only dress two quarterbacks on game day. There really isn't much of a reason to have more than two. If the Jets could find their young quarterback of the future and a veteran to pair with him, there wouldn't be room for Geno.
This isn't an ideal world, though. Young quarterbacks don't grow on trees. They have to be found in the Draft. There is also no guarantee the Jets a young quarterback would still be on the board when the Jets pick or that they will like any of the options when they are on the clock.
If the Jets do draft a quarterback early, it might be in everybody's interest to part ways. I don't think it's a good idea to pair the new quarterback of the future with the failed former quarterback of the future. There are too many potential complications. The Jets tried it with Kellen Clemens and Mark Sanchez. They tried it again with Sanchez and Geno. It isn't a good idea. Will the locker room be behind the incumbent they know? Will the regime be inclined to throw the rookie into the fire too soon because it already decided to move on from the old guy? It is better to bring in a stopgap/competition veteran from the outside and eliminate the possibility for these complications.
Under the new practice squad rules, they could stick him as a third quarterback on the practice squad. Maybe it would make sense to have him compete for that spot with another developmental guy, but I don't see any good coming from a high pick vs. Geno situation.
I know that might not be a popular thing to say, but it is tough to see much potential in Geno. The flashes of potential have been few and far between. There are too many essential parts of the job he does as poorly as anybody in the league.
If the Jets can't find a quarterback early in the Draft, they might as well bring back Geno. They should have one of those four quarterback training camps and throw the competition wide open. Maybe you will get a miracle, and Geno will get a ton better. It's just tough to envision right now. I can name a number of quarterbacks who started their careers as poorly as Geno. I can't name many from that group who went on to have success.
Either way, there are no circumstances under which Geno Smith should enter training camp as the undisputed starter for the 2014 Jets.