By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
It’s quite possible the only person who wants to see Mark Sanchez start for the Jets this season is Sanchez, himself.
However, if Geno Smith is to be the guy, he really has no choice but to make Saturday’s second preseason game against Jacksonville all about him — especially after its over.
But he can only do that if he’s given opportunities, and I’m not just referring to him improvising should the pocket collapse.
We know Smith will start and probably play well into the second quarter. Those 20-25 minutes are going to be extremely telling — not because anyone actually expects him to be immortal, but more because if he doesn’t show he can take advantage of the limited window and engineer drives that turn into touchdowns the Jets’ decision-making-by-committee conglomerate may very well come away from the game thinking he’s simply not ready.
And they’d be right to do so.
Less than one full game of preseason football may be an awful way to determine a starter, but the Jets really have no time for extra scrutiny. The third preseason game is generally the personnel dress rehearsal for the regular season opener, the last chance, really, for the presumed starters to get into the flow of what the overall approach will be for Week 1. Smith must be afforded a true chance to put that quarterback walk-through on hold.
The final preseason game is almost always the last-gasp showcase for the stragglers to show they are worthy of a spot on the 53-man, or, in some cases, the final proving ground at certain positions.
But it won’t be the case at quarterback. Geno needs to do his talking this week and then further the conversation next week.
For Smith to win this job he has to first shine against the Jaguars. He has to give general manager John Idzik, coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg a real reason to say and truly believe that the competition is a dead heat going into the game against the Giants a week from Saturday.
And Smith can do this with a solid effort with the first team offense regardless of what Sanchez does against what will largely be Jacksonville’s second team defense.
If Smith produces touchdowns it won’t matter if Sanchez doesn’t throw an incompletion, let alone another pick-6 interception. The pressure to continue holding off on naming the starter will grow and the stage will be set for a winner-take-all showdown when the New York teams meet at MetLife Stadium a week later.
As far as I am concerned, the book on Sanchez is written. The coaches, whether they want to admit or not, know his ceiling. They know it because he hasn’t given them any reason to believe he can be any better than he’s ever been at his best, which has certainly had its moments but has never been all that impressive. And while Sanchez should get a lot of credit for turning things around following his awful start in Detroit on Friday, you just cannot under any circumstances feel confident that he’ll pick up where he left off and never look back.
It’s at the point now where Sanchez could start the season as the No. 1 guy, be highly efficient, produce points and have minimal turnovers and every last person associated with the Jets — fans, coaches, executives and teammates — would still have no choice but to be mindful of that other shoe dropping at some point. They’ve all been socialized to be believe so.
Sanchez has not earned a reprieve. That kind of trust can only be awarded after the season is over, after he’s proven he can be the guy for not just one or four or eight games, but all 16.
That’s just how it has to be now if the idea is to go in a certain direction at the position, with both eyes on the long-term health and success of the franchise.
Smith, on the other hand, still remains the largely unknown, the player with incredible athleticism, a cannon for an arm, and a presence in the pocket that demands he not be dismissed so easily. More importantly, Smith has no history that should get a Jets fan thinking about potential disaster. He’s given no reason to believe he’ll only complete 50 percent of his throws or will turn the ball over 50-plus times in a two-season span.
Smith is also skilled enough to not be one-dimensional, and therefore predictable. What he could potentially do with his legs to extend drives would force Sanchez to be more like a quarterback who completes 60 percent of his throws, something he’s never come close to doing in four full seasons in the NFL.
But Smith has to take advantage of the opportunity and he has to do it now. If he doesn’t, the Jets would certainly be in their right to put whatever trust they can muster into the devil they know over the one, it turns out, they don’t.
Now, having said all of that, Smith is going to need some help. He’s going to require true demands be made of him.
Smith went 6-for-7 for 47 yards against Detroit and the big rationalization I read after the game was that he really wasn’t asked to do anything. Well, that cannot be the case against Jacksonville. Mornhinweg needs to empty the playbook to a degree. I’m extremely confident Smith can complete quick outs and screen passes and dink and dunk his way down the field. But what Mornhinweg needs to do is ask Smith to spread the field, use the vertical game, and use play-action looking for the tight ends 20 yards down the middle.
Mornhinweg needs to demand Smith show he’s a quarterback, a true field general — not a game manager. Jets fans have seen entirely too much playing not to lose over the last few years. At some point quarterback needs to become the most important position on the field, rather than the guy everyone hopes doesn’t destroy any chance the team has to win. The man dropping back can no longer be a glorified middle man to the running game. He needs to be a feared weapon.
We have to see Smith get that opportunity, if for no other reason than to confirm he is the guy or to convince us that for the time being he’d be better suited being a sponge, watching and learning what not to do and developing his chops in practice.
So as much as the Jacksonville game should be about Smith proving his worth, it’s also going to be a form of mini referendum on Mornhinweg’s early tenure. If you see the Jets try to spread the field, you’ll know this offensive coordinator wants to see if his rookie has what it takes. If Smith is asked to do nothing of substance, you’ll know the Jets have had Sanchez penciled in as the starter from the start. What other logical conclusion could you come to?
And if the latter ends up being the case, then shame on this front office and coaching staff.
All that said, though, the Jets have so far been true to their word on this competition. They’ve earned more time to let it all play out.
But if Smith ends up a spectator while on the field Saturday there will be hell to pay. And that which you’ve always assumed but never really wanted to publicly admit will finally be confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt.
If Smith doesn’t get designed opportunities, the Jets cannot be trusted. It’s that simple.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet