If the season began today, Geno Smith would be the starting quarterback. The door remains open for a Ryan Fitzpatrick return, but there is a nonzero chance Geno will make his third career Week 1 start against the Bengals in two months.
Smith didn't make a start in his third season and saw extended action in only a single game. He was the starter for most of his first two seasons. There were some high points but many more lows. I wanted to take a moment to explore just where he rated among recent young quarterbacks and what the odds are of having a successful career after a difficult start.
I took a look at the Pro Football Reference Play Finder and went back ten years from the point where Geno was drafted. I took a look at quarterbacks who attempted at least 500 passes in their first three NFL seasons. One thing in particular stuck out.
These were the quarterbacks with a passer rating of 80 or higher.
These were the quarterbacks with a passer rating below 80.
What does this tell us? Not every quarterback in the top group was successful. Guys hovering around 80 like Locker and Leftwich were busts. Others like Foles, Kaepernick, and Griffin seem to have peaked early and have greatly regressed.
It still is striking how there are almost no success stories from quarterbacks who did not play credible football in their first three years.
Eli Manning is one of the most frequent references of fans with a struggling young quarterback. If you look at this list, though, he is the only one resembling a franchise quarterback who struggled to such a degree early in his career. There are 23 other names on the list. Clearly there are exceptions to any rule. Manning proves that. Still, anybody who uses Manning as a reason for hope would be well-advised to consider how many more struggling young quarterbacks failed to grow into something special. Even if we want to go with players who eventually developed into credible quarterbacks, Smith and Orton would probably be the only two other examples.
Another frequent argument is that young players improve. This is true. Guys like Roethlisberger, Wilson, and Newton are certainly better players than they were the day they entered the league. They were already pretty good, early in their respective careers, though. It isn't a long trek to go from good to very good. Going from poor to very good is a long trek and one that very few seem to be able to make.
Is any of this to say it is impossible Geno Smith will become a good player? Of course not. Manning proved it is at least possible. I do think it is important to understand the odds here, though. Yes, it is possible he will show greater ability to improve than almost any other quarterback in recent history. Yes, it is possible he really had greatness in him but was bogged down by horrific surroundings. When you look at the players he performed similarly to and their subsequent outcomes, however, there seems to be a fairly substantial chance things haven't clicked for a reason. If you get past broad comparisons and generalizations about young guys improving, it is a large and very difficult hill to climb.