The Jets’ see-saw of a season dipped low enough to scrape the ground for three straight hours Sunday afternoon.
It was televised torture, with Geno Smith seemingly attempting to one-up himself on every turnover. By judging what I saw on Twitter when it was over, Jets fans were more speechless than angry, their spirits in worse shape than Jake Locker’s hip.
Smith’s sandlot decisions, combined with the Jets’ penchant for untimely penalties, meant the game was all but over before the half. Even so, there was Geno in the third and fourth quarter, dropping back and trying to put a green and white bow on a rotten apple. He even managed to lead an 82-yard touchdown drive despite a wide receiving corps that was down to just Jeremy Kerley and Ben Obamanu at that time in the game.
It wasn’t all Geno’s fault. He lost his favorite deep target when Stephen Hill left the game following an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit on the second play of the game. And in just his second road start, Smith again operated within a game plan that’s built for someone with far more experience.
Despite a running back who’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry this season, Marty Mornhinweg continues to insist Smith throw the ball at least 30 times a game. It’s not a coincidence that the Jets’ and Geno’s best overall offensive effort came in Week 3 against Buffalo. Facing a fairly stout Bills defensive line, the Jets ran the ball 41 times and threw it 29. It was as close as the Jets have come to the rookie playbook. It was also the only time the Jets scored 20-plus points through the season’s first quarter. On Sunday, they threw the ball 11 more times than they ran it and Smith finished with his worst-rated game by any metric. That is not a matter of chance.
What good plays Geno did make Sunday were often wiped out by penalties. An early drive that appeared destined for seven points only produced three thanks to Willie Colon’s blow to the face. Meanwhile, Vlad Ducasse was completely overwhelmed once again. By the middle of the third quarter, the Titans defensive line was basically living in Geno’s front pockets.
Last week, the defense was able to overcome the penalties and the turnovers, but asking them to do it again against a better team in Tennessee was naive. Faced with short rest and often shorter fields, the Jets were unable to keep the Titans out of the end zone. Although the front seven remains excellent, the secondary struggled mightily against Locker. In fact, three of the Jets’ top five tacklers were defensive backs. Last week, only Antonio Cromartie cracked the top five.
NFL teams and coaches like to evaluate their teams after four-game chunks and through the first quarter of the season, the Jets are an appropriate 2-2. There will be some who call the team a circus after Sunday’s debacle and make “behind-the-butt fumble” puns. There will inevitably be campaigns beseeching the Jets to bench Smith in favor of former camp arm Matt Simms. Those claims should – and will – fall on deaf ears.
Although Smith is far from a polished product, he’s nowhere close to finished. His mechanics need serious work and he appears completely unable to protect the football for longer than 15 minutes, but, he’s the best healthy quarterback on the roster. Beyond the politics of benching a potential “franchise quarterback” after only four games, there’s no one better suited to lead this team on a week-by-week basis right now.
He needs a strong running game and a healthy receiving corps. The return of Mike Goodson, and eventually Chris Ivory, will help the former, but the latter may just be impossible. For all of the talk about the Jets’ pass catchers being underrated, the group is painfully thin. Outside of Kerley, Hill and Santonio Holmes, there is not a single wideout capable of playing more than 15 snaps a game, if that. So, when even one of those top three is unavailable, an offense that’s already operating at a loss gets stretched to the breaking point.
In addition to keeping certain players on the field, Rex Ryan has to find a way to keep the yellow flags off of it. The Jets are not good enough to commit 30 penalties over two weeks and expect to win those games. Be it physical punishment in practice, an emphasis on ball security in meetings or off-the-books fines, Rex must get his team to play a smarter brand of football, or else this season will go sideways fast.
While it’s hard to imagine the bar ever falling lower than it did Sunday, the NFL is a never-say-never league.
I didn’t ever think Nashville, Tennessee, would become the Jets’ personal Waterloo, nor that it would happen twice. Neither did I expect anyone to attempt a duplication of Mark Sanchez’s performance from last December’s Music City Massacre. But I also didn’t think I’d ever see a quarterback mimic a high school point guard mid-sack.
There are going to be a lot of people telling the Jets “never” after this week – and rightfully so. But the Jets can change that by being self-aware and playing to their strengths.
After four games, the see-saw is even. Let’s see if it is in the same spot after the next four.