In between now and training camp, I'm looking at some of the veteran players on the Jets roster to assess what kind of contribution we might expect from them in 2016. Today, we're going to take a look at Geno Smith and his suitability for a potential starting role if the team fails to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick. We'll re-visit Smith's sole 2015 appearance, when Fitzpatrick was injured in Oakland, to try and determine if that tells us anything about his progress or otherwise since he lost the starting job.
Much of this offseason has been conducted under the assumption that Fitzpatrick will eventually re-sign with the Jets and be reinstated as their starting quarterback. That may still happen, but in recent weeks you get the sense that players, coaches and even fans and media are starting to talk themselves around to the alternative notion of handing "the keys to the Porsche" back to Geno.
While we recognize you probably hate the "Same old Geno" headline, this is all about trying to find evidence that he's advanced since he last started and that we're not just settling back into an inadequate alternative to Fitzpatrick. At the end of the day, even if Fitzpatrick does re-sign, it's still a worthwhile exercise, because Smith will probably still be an injury away from getting called on again.
Note: Some stats from this article are exclusively provided by Pro Football Focus.
The current situation
This time last year, Smith was right where he is now; atop the Jets' depth chart as their starting quarterback. Despite getting booed, he was navigating his way through camp pretty well, as he didn't throw his first interception until the 10th practice. We all know what happened next. An off-field dispute with IK Enemkpali escalated to the point where Enemkpali struck Smith, breaking his jaw and putting him out for a month.
By default, Fitzpatrick was now the starter, although many felt he would have had a good chance to eventually win the job anyway. Had he not been coming off a broken leg, perhaps Fitzpatrick would have had more of a shot up to that point.
Fitzpatrick fared well as the starter, leading the Jets into the bye at 3-1 to secure the role for the rest of the season. However, a thumb injury against the Raiders forced him out of the line-up and gave Smith the chance for his only game action of the season. Fitzpatrick played through the injury for the remainder of the season and the coaching staff said he'd be the starter again if and when he re-signed after the season.
All of this brings us to where we are now. Despite the fact the Jets have been the sole realistic suitor for Fitzpatrick from the start, disagreements over the 33-year old's value have meant that he still hasn't signed. The team seems open to the fact that he can sign between now and the start of camp and still be the starter, but has been proceeding on the basis that he's not here and so Smith has been taking all the first team reps.
By all accounts, Smith has fared well, although you'd expect him to stand out given the relative inexperience levels of the quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart. With even the media forced to admit the Smith has been impressive at times, the looming specter of another year with Smith at the helm perhaps doesn't seem so bad after all.
However, with the pads yet to go on, we're forced to revisit that one appearance from last season for a more informative look at whether he will fare any better as a starter than he did before he first lost the job.
The Jets headed into Oakland in week eight having just missed the chance to go 5-1 with a loss to New England the previous week. Oakland, however, were flying high, coming off a blowout win of the Chargers. The Jets' preparations had been thrown into chaos because Nick Mangold had suffered a neck injury late in the Patriots game and was unable to play, only for Fitzpatrick to then get knocked out of the game on the opening drive.
This forced Smith into action for the rest of the game, although Fitzpatrick was forced to re-enter and handle a couple of snaps late in the fourth quarter when Smith himself was hurt.
When I initially reviewed this game, my approach was to gloss over Smith's performance to some degree, on the following basis: Firstly, anything good he did was while the team was trailing heavily. Secondly, anything bad he did was partly due to the fact that was thrown out there at short notice without getting a decent chance to prepare. Finally, even at that time, it seemed likely that Smith would probably be gone at the end of the season anyway, so there seemed little point in nit-picking everything he did.
Here we are though, so perhaps it is worth revisiting the game in more detail, even if we're accepting the fact that we shouldn't overreact to anything he did or didn't do well, for the above reasons.
Smith's performance: The numbers
On the basis of the boxscore, this was one of the best games of Smith's career. He completed 27-of-42 passes for 265 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Smith posted the fifth best completion percentage and the third best quarterback rating of his career. Full disclosure: I'm excluding a 2014 performance against the Bills where Smith relieved Mike Vick with the Jets trailing heavily and completed 10 of 12 passes, mostly throwing short.
It was also his fifth best yardage output and one of only six multiple-TD pass games Smith has posted. Smith also rushed for 34 yards on two carries and, while he was sacked three times for 19 yards, he picked up two first downs for 29 yards on pass interference calls.
It wasn't all straightforward dink-and-dunk either. He fared well when blitzed and/or pressured and completed six passes further than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, including two of over 20 yards.
Smith's performance: The film
As good as the box score looks, Smith still made some elementary mistakes which stalled drives and cost the Jets a couple of chances to score and get back into the game. Let's recap his day.
First of all, when he took over from Fitzpatrick near mid-field, he was able to get the Jets into range to take the lead on a field goal. This largely came from one play as he hit Jeremy Kerley on a well-placed throw over the middle on third and six and then Kerley turned it into a 23-yard gain by breaking a tackle and weaving down near the red zone. This was the only pass Smith threw on the drive.
That would essentially end up being basically Smith's only positive moment of the first half, although this wasn't entirely his fault. The Jets had chewed up eight minutes on their first drive and Oakland had three drives of more than five minutes each, which didn't leave Smith many chances to achieve much.
On their only other first quarter drive with Smith under center, the Jets were unsurprisingly cagey. He threw three short passes on the first drive which ended in a punt. The last one, on third and nine, saw him dump the ball to Kenbrell Thompkins on a drag route underneath as all the other receivers ran to the sticks. However, the Raiders stayed in zone coverage and watched his eyes so nobody bit on the decoy routes and Thompkins was stopped well short.
In the second quarter, Smith got even fewer chances. In fact he didn't throw his third pass of the quarter until the 2:13 mark. After going 14-3 down, the Jets went three and out with Smith handing the ball off twice and then failing to connect deep with Eric Decker. Then, after the Raiders made it 21-3, this happened on the next play:
That was obviously bad, although it's difficult to justify the play call in that situation, even from an it's-so-crazy-it'll-be-the-last-thing-they-expect standpoint. Still, Smith either needed to do a better job of looking off the safety or to not throw that pass with Woodson ranging over.
At that point though, it's a quick-strike low percentage shot, where you're looking to give the team a shot in the arm and a quick route back into the game. Also, to some extent, you're relying on Brandon Marshall to go up and over the defender(s) to make a play. So, maybe you can't fault Smith entirely for taking a shot.
At the end of the half, Smith - at this point just 2-of-5 for 27 yards with an interception - managed to drive the Jets into range for a field goal to cut the lead to 21-6. He was 4-for-5 on the drive, including 13 and 14 yard completions to Decker and Marshall. However, each of these came on underneath completions with the defense playing back.
That lead would grow to 22 before Smith touched the ball again, as the Raiders scored another touchdown on their first drive of the second half. Smith played his best football over the next quarter or so, leading the Jets to a touchdown on two of their next three drives, going 6-for-6 on one and 5-for-7 on the other. However, Oakland had added a couple of field goals, so these scores only got the Jets within 14.
When the Jets forced a three-and-out to get the ball back with eight minutes to go, the comeback was still potentially on, but they failed to convert on fourth and short when they drove down inside the Raiders 40. The next drive was a three-and-out and on their final drive the Jets again got down inside the Raiders 30, but again turned the ball over on downs.
While he threw the ball effectively in the second half, racking up 204 yards, some of Smith's old issues resurfaced on their four unsuccessful drives in that second half, causing each of those drives to stall.
On the first one, he hesitated in the pocket on third and one and ended up taking a sack when he easily could have taken off and got to the marker had he been more decisive. The next one ended when he bailed out of a throw under pressure and misfired badly on fourth down. The third drive saw him roll out on third and short but he saw an open Thompkins too late and ended up taking a sack to keep the clock running and take the Jets out of a fourth and short situation. On their last drive, with time paramount, he hesitated badly and lost 11 yards on another sack as the announcers implored him to "Throw it away!"
Ultimately, this comes down to the fact that even though his numbers under pressure were reasonably good, how he actually coped with those situations was disappointing.
Those weren't his only mistakes, though, as there were miscommunications with receivers and timing or accuracy issues on several of his throws. Again, that perhaps comes down to a combination of rust, a lack of chemistry and the fact he was thrown in there at short notice. However, there were several passes that could easily have been intercepted where defensive players he didn't appear to see almost jumped a route or dropped off into a passing lane or where his throw was either underthrown or overthrown and a defender almost came down with it. Most of those throws were just as concerning as the one interception he actually threw.
While his detractors will say that he was able to exploit a soft prevent style defense and rack up stats by taking what the defense gave him, which was certainly true to some extent, it's still worth praising some of the things he did well.
A beautifully placed 28-yard throw over the top to Marshall on a corner route was definitely his best throw of the day, but he did have some other well-placed passes into tight windows. He also converted with two touchdown passes in the red zone, including one where he showed good poise when the initial play call for Kellen Davis to leak into the back of the end zone didn't work so his primary/only option was covered. However, he extended the play as long as he could before getting nailed on the roll-out giving Davis just enough time and room to catch his well-placed throw at the back corner of the end zone.
So, we've analysed how well Smith threw the ball and added context by considering the game situation and the defensive gameplan. However, there are still a few other factors that impacted on his performance.
First, Mangold's absence was a huge factor. If Smith starts this year, or if he gets called upon to replace an injured Fitzpatrick/whoever, then he'd presumably lean heavily on Mangold's ability to set protections, make line calls and generally filter out any distractions. That his only game of last year should coincide with Mangold's only missed start of the year was unfortunate. Mangold also missed significant time in the win over the Jaguars and the first Bills loss.
While Johnson being in there might have contributed to some of the pressure Smith had troubles with, it may also have affected the offensive line performance generally. Chris Ivory rushed for just 17 yards on 15 carries as the Jets were held to 74 rushing yards - 46 of which were on quarterback scrambles. Rather than galvanize and raise their game, as the line memorably did for Greg McElroy when he replaced Mark Sanchez in a 2012 win over the Cardinals, the offensive line performance was poor, as were the team's body language and effort levels once Fitzpatrick went down.
Another issue that could be a factor if Smith was the quarterback for longer than just one game was his over-reliance on Marshall. It's not difficult to imagine a half-time conversation between the two whereby Marshall would have put his arm round Smith and said "I've got your back - keep looking for me." However, Marshall's nine catches for 108 yards came on 18 targets, 17 on which were thrown by Smith, including 13 in the second half. How would Smith have fared if Marshall - who did leave the game injured on two occasions - was out?
Staring down his primary target has been an issue for Smith in the past and could certainly lead to issues if defenders he doesn't see are dropping off into passing lanes or jumping routes. However, this issue isn't unique to Marshall. On two of his completions to Thompkins, Smith stared him down so he was stopped for a short gain on one and squeezed in one throw which would have been a pick-six if it was a beat later. There's no reason for Smith to have chemistry with Thompkins, who arrived halfway through the season.
One positive from the Raiders performance was perhaps the fact that Smith protected the football with just the one interception and no fumbles. However, not only did he have several near-interceptions, but he also didn't really protect himself, unnecessarily taking a big hit on the sideline after his 29-yard scramble. He was also temporarily knocked out of the game in the last minute after taking another big hit.
Rhythm is another important factor and, as noted, it was difficult for Smith to get into any kind of rhythm in the first half with the Raiders going on a long drive three times and the Jets struggling to sustain their own drives with a conservative approach. However, he did get into a good rhythm in the two minute drill and on both touchdown drives in the second half. Still, that was when the Jets were raising the tempo and the Raiders' secondary was backing off.
Footwork has been an area where Smith has really struggled in the past and this game showed few signs that he'd made any progress in the previous year. Maybe it's something he's still working on refining, but this game saw sloppiness from him, forcing him to rely on his arm strength due to being off-balance or unable to step into a throw effectively.
Ultimately, would his performance be looked upon differently if the Jets had won? The defensive performance was one of the worst of the season, with the Jets struggling to get off the field and gifting the Raiders two long touchdowns with sloppy tackling. Entering that game, only two of the Jets' seven opponents had scored more than 20 points, so if the defense had played up to their usual standards, perhaps it would have been a close game. Then again, maybe Smith's production wouldn't have been as good if the Raiders didn't play conservatively on defense to protect their big lead.
Reliving Smith's only performance of last year was actually more discouraging than expected, after having recently read some positive things about how well he did. There were some factors which made it difficult for him to impress in such a one-off appearance, but if we dwell too much on those we're at risk of being labelled as apologists just making excuses for him.
The buzz out of OTAs and mini-camp was definitely good, although there seemed to be a pattern of Smith looking impressive all day but then having an interception or two in team activities. That's not a pattern they'll be keen for him to follow in game action, because playing well all day but then making a costly mistake when it counts isn't likely to translate to positive results overall, even if it does indicate some level of progress. His performance in the Raiders game was almost the opposite of this though.
Despite Smith looking far from flawless, he ended up with decent numbers, which was a pattern observed in the play of Sanchez throughout his third season as a starter in 2011. Sanchez led the Jets to an 8-5 start before slumping badly and missing the postseason altogether. However, that was on a team suffering from in-fighting and locker room tensions and perhaps a more supportive environment would have led to a more positive outcome.
Maybe it's too much to expect Smith to come in play flawlessly week in and week out, but if he can put solid numbers together, limit back-breaking mistakes and keep the offense ticking over, then perhaps it's not out of the question for him to provide a facsimile of the base-level competence the Jets got from Fitzpatrick last year. That can win you games if your defense and running game show up.
Let's not kid ourselves though, Smith still has a lot to room for improvement and hopefully has still been developing as he gets all the reps in the offseason. If the Jets opt to pay big money for the solid-but-unspectacular Fitzpatrick then it speaks volumes as to how they feel about Smith as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract. If not, they'll have to work hard to minimize Smith's weaknesses, otherwise a repeat of 2014 where a tough first half schedule led to a rough start could be on the cards.