This time will be different with Geno Smith and the Jets

Oct 17, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) looks to pass during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) looks to pass during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

Quarterback Geno Smith will now be the starter for the New York Jets. What are the chances that Smith does better this time around than last? What did his last opportunity teach us?

It is important to get some perspective on quarterback Geno Smith‘s 2013-2014 inaugural run with the New York Jets. It was bad, but there are solid reasons that have little to do with him. We’ll start by analyzing a little word that should be used far less: “but.”

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This little word “but” sneaks into thought patterns and gets in the way of common sense. In football analysis, it frequently follows a phrase that ought to end with a sigh. Often, the phrase after the “but” contradicts another truism the same analyst has repeated a thousand times. One example “The offensive line can’t protect him, but he still needs to make plays.”

Everything from the “but” on should be stricken. If the quarterback is unprotected, he nearly always will fail. This will be made worse when the offensive line also cannot block for the run. Of course, analysts know this. That is why you will also hear them say, “The game is won in the trenches.” This saying has the virtue of being true.

To make our point stronger, let’s look at a quarterback universally thought to have excelled in the league: Troy Aikman. Six Pro Bowls, three Super Bowl wins, astonishingly accurate passer. We can assume that he was able to “make plays.”

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In his first year in the NFL, Aikman was picked off 18 times, double the number of touchdowns he threw. He was sacked 19 times in eleven games and the team went 1-15. For the record, the other quarterback, Steve Walsh, was sacked an additional 11 times.

The following season, Aikman played fifteen games, the Cowboys gave up 43 sacks and went 7-9. Aikman had 18 interceptions to only eleven touchdowns.

You really need to watch games from these seasons to know just how bad it was. Fans of the Cowboys couldn’t help wonder if he would survive. I don’t mean survive as an NFL quarterback, I mean survive, full-stop. He took Andrew Luck type beatings regularly and, unlike Luck, he was a sitting target.

Fast forward to 1991 and Aikman throws 10 interceptions, is sacked 32 times, and gets to the playoffs. What changed? Well, many things: Norv Turner became the offensive coordinator; they added wide receiver Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith in 1990; and, their offensive line began its all-world ascendancy in 1991 with the addition of guard Kevin Gogan and center Mark Stepnoski.

Sacks remained a problem (Aikman was downed eleven times in one game against Philadelphia). But it is noteworthy here that even without the future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, the Cowboys won their final four games of the season. For the 1992 season, they added Erik Williams at right tackle and they were off and running to two straight Super Bowls.

Was Aikman a bad quarterback that first year? The second year? Hardly. By 1991, when they went 11-5 and posted Jimmy Johnson’s first winning season with the team, they had a different offensive coordinator, most of the line talent they would need, and stud players at wide receiver (not only Irvin but also Alvin Harper), running back and tight end. The lesson: talent is a non-negotiable when it comes to winning.

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Jan 31, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Dallas Cowboys former quarterback Troy Aikman on the red carpet prior to the NFL Honors award ceremony at Symphony Hall. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Here is another one: “The receivers are not getting any separation, but he really needs to find a way to get them the ball.” Especially if watching from home this one is trickier as it is difficult to see whether wide receivers are getting open or not. But receiver malfeasance can be painfully obvious in the stadium where you can see the entire field.

I recall a game at MetLife Stadium against the 49ers when Mark Sanchez was the quarterback. The Jets played maximum protection all game with few receivers in the routes. Fans there could see what the quarterback was looking at. And it was not pretty. He had nowhere to go on nearly every down.

Admittedly, there is the back-shoulder throw and the ability of an Aaron Rodgers to “throw the receiver open.” These can work for a while. However, as we saw against Seattle, even the back shoulder throw can only work so often and more often than not against the lesser talented cornerbacks.

Against the Richard Shermans and the Tyrann Mathieu’s of the NFL, you are going to need some big time talent. And so the “but” needs to retire here as well. A talented line and a corps of talented receivers are not optional for success; they are necessary to it. If Aikman can’t win without it, we are only being silly to think Geno should have been able to.

All of this is to say that we have not yet seen Geno with a real opportunity to succeed. In his first full year as a starter, he was sacked 43 times. This is not all on the offensive line as he did tend to hold the ball longer than necessary. But recall that his receivers were not getting open either.

As for the following year, in a recent ESPN radio interview, Eric Decker called the 2014 receiver room “maybe the least consistently talented room I’ve been in” during his NFL career. Let me repeat that: “the least … talented room.”

Instead of adding a top talent like Michael Irvin or Alvin Harper, the Jets were headed in the opposite direction. Add to a general lack of big-time talent on an aging offensive line, rotating offensive systems and the level of criticism—especially its vehemence—he faced in New York is almost laughable.

So the truth is that we do not know much about how Geno will play with actual talent on the field. There are some reasons for hope.

new york jets
new york jets /

Aug 27, 2016; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) looks to pass against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

While it is a shame that Decker is out for the season, the Jets do have talent at the receiver position and at the running back position. Brandon Marshall is a true number one receiver. But the rookies show genuine skills and Geno has had as much or more time with them than Fitzpatrick.

Geno, then, might be less inclined to zero in on Marshall and instead look to other open receivers like Quincy Enunwa, Charone Peake, Jalin Marshall or Robby Anderson. He may also check down more quickly to running backs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell.

We also know that he has a big arm and that he can run away from defenders. His football has a nice arc to it as well; it comes down into receivers’ hands. We can hope that he will throw in front of Anderson on some of those deep balls rather than asking him to spin around and pick the ball off the cornerback’s helmet.

In addition, the Jets have settled into a system they know and understand. Geno has been with this system for two years: learning it, working on it, getting reps with it. Before the great jaw incident of 2015, remember, he was primed to be the Jets’ starter. Questions remain of course: will he read defenses better; will he refrain from the killer mistake? All of this we will see in the coming weeks.

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However, cause for concern is real. The offensive line has looked bad recently. Some of the players, including left tackle Ryan Clady and center Nick Mangold, are dinged up. The right side of the line cannot get much of a push for the run. Of course, this is against premier defenses. The Ravens bring some defensive beef and will provide a serious challenge to this line, but they are not the Seahawks. If the Jets can get decent line play, I expect them to win this game. But that is a big if. And, as we know from the analysts, “the game is won in the trenches.” No “buts” about it.