By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t. Or maybe their just plain damned.
For the vast majority of the past 40 years the Jets have gotten the quarterback position all wrong, and that’s primarily the reason why their fan base treats the back-to-back AFC Championship game appearances from a few years ago as consecutive Super Bowl titles.
By and large the Jets got to those games in spite of their quarterback. Mark Sanchez certainly had moments, but you have to believe if the Jets had even a modest upgrade over him they might have walked away from the 2009 and 2010 seasons with at least one ring.
Back then fans looked at their rookie and then sophomore quarterback and lived with his shortcomings. The team was getting it done the old fashioned way, earning it with a punishing running game and superior defense, so they didn’t mind — or perhaps weren’t paying as close attention as they should have — that Sanchez wasn’t really showing the type of progression one would expect from such a high first-round pick.
And then in 2011 and ’12, when the run-blocking and defense started to drop off and the Jets became an average team at best, many of the diehards were suddenly left shocked and shaken because their great fallback plan — their starting quarterback — was nowhere to be found. He simply wasn’t good enough to pick this team up and carry it on his back.
That’s why quarterback was, is and shall remain the most important position in all of sports.
And as training camp opens this week up in Cortland the Jets are in no better shape now than they were when they drafted Sanchez all those years ago. Sure, he’s now in his fifth season and, according to all football logic and progression, should be in the process of becoming a household name for far more than what he’s really known for.
But he’s not. And all attempts by the Jets — as half-hearted or constricted as they were — have left the franchise in the same type of situation as it was after the 2008 season.
The majority of the fans are fed up with Sanchez, and who could blame them? But many are putting whatever eggs they have left in Geno Smith’s basket. Smith, whose talent is undeniable, may not be ready come September because his NFL education is just beginning. He’s got a huge arm and by all accounts very good accuracy, but it will take a lot more than that for him to be a good quarterback in this league.
There are questions about his practice habits, which I’m sure will be analyzed to death over the next five weeks. His new coach, Rex Ryan, has already cautioned everyone that Smith will be a work in progress because what the Jets and new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg plan to feed him would be a series of difficult lessons for even a ready-made NFL QB, let alone one passed over for 38 picks in the draft.
The bottom line, to me anyway, is if you are banking on Smith to take the NFL by storm or to at the very least win the camp competition convincingly, you might be in for some disappointment. Just because general manager John Idzik worked in Seattle and helped turn the Seahawks into Super Bowl contenders doesn’t mean Smith is going to be the next coming of Russell Wilson right away, if at all.
Personally, I believe Smith has enough raw ability to one day be a very good NFL quarterback, but it’s hard to know if he has the mental game to go along with the arm to survive the shark-infested waters of the New York market. And the Jets would be crazy to want to find out starting in Week 1.
I’d ease Smith along because in the NFL practice matters a lot. Maybe more than in any sport in football a player can become game-situation ready by going against his teammates day in and day out.
Let Geno earn this. Because if the Jets don’t and he fails his growth could be stunted. While fans will be patient because they understand he’s a rookie, these are, after all, Jets fans. Their timetable for what a player should become has always been much more accelerated than fans of other teams, simply because of what the Jets have been for the better part of their existence — a mediocre at best franchise living in the shadow of something far superior just a handful of miles away.
Smith might be the lesser of two evils, but unless he leaves no doubt that he’s the man during camp the Jets would be better off in the long run during a season of extremely low expectations to just see, at least initially, what Sanchez can do in the new West Coast offense Mornhinweg is installing.
I can’t tell you how many people threw dirt on Sanchez’s grave after the debacle in Tennessee last season. The headlines spoke of a funeral. The social media horde quickly grabbed shovels. But the Jets’ salary cap situation being what it was at the time should have spoken a larger truth. Sanchez wasn’t going anywhere, at least for another season, no matter how many outlandish or seemingly plausible scenarios were conjured up by loyalists and the media.
So here we are, back in 2009 again. But this time Sanchez is learning a new offense that could emphasize his strengths and hide his weaknesses, as opposed to this largely great unknown that he was back on draft day. The Mornhinweg offense figures to limit his opportunities for calamity. Sanchez is good when he doesn’t have time to think too much. We already know he has a penchant for locking in on his first read. Maybe the idea of the short passing game will help Sanchez avoid tripping over himself.
The Jets will be better than last season in at least two facets of the game — running the football and along their defensive line, which may not have been sexy back during the conference title game runs, but were more than adequate to do the job.
We know Ryan, despite his many faults within the big picture, can coach a defense. We also know the Jets have had well-documented problems applying consistent pressure on the quarterback. But this team is younger, stronger and faster on the defensive side of the football this time around. And while a lot of people will point to the loss of Darrelle Revis and the lack of a standout player at safety, the Jets are now in a position to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, the traditional way championship-caliber teams have been constructed.
So, regardless of how you see the Jets talent-wise I think it’s a safe bet to say they’ll be in far more games this season than you’d normally expect. How they can win more than they lose will depend solely on the play of the quarterback.
So the Jets really cannot afford to cave to popular sentiment. Unless Smith completely leaves no doubt during camp that he’s ready in all facets to be the next quarterback of this historically QB-starved franchise, Ryan and Co. need to make the smart decision, one that isn’t necessarily done thinking in terms of wins and losses, but rather the bigger picture.
Again, let Geno learn for a while. Don’t force-feed him a thing. Let him be a sponge. Because while he may not learn what to do from Sanchez while watching, he can certainly learn what not to do.
Who knows? Maybe the hook never comes looking for Sanchez. Maybe everything finally clicks into place for him. It’s hard to imagine him becoming more, but you never know.
In my eyes, Smith stands to benefit from Sanchez success, solely for the reason that it will prevent him from being thrown into the fire without the least knowledge of how to stop, drop and roll.
That’s something any Jets quarterback should be forced to master before they take even one step out on a field.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet