FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York Jets coach Rex Ryan knows his team needs a win on Sunday to remain legitimate contenders in the AFC playoff picture.
But that won’t be easy against Cam Newton and the 9-4 Carolina Panthers.
“For us right now, it’s all about this game,” Ryan said Wednesday. “How important is this game? Well, it means everything to us. We know how important this game is and that’s it.”
To have a chance the Jets can’t have many big mistakes from quarterback Geno Smith, who was more R2D2 than NFL quarterback for a few dismal weeks. Playing stiff and pre-programmed, the rookie signal-caller just needed to loosen up and let his skills take over.
“It just comes down to playing football,” Smith said. “You’re not a robot out there and, at times, I was playing like a robot.”
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg talked last week about wanting to have Smith “turn it loose” more freely. Smith needed a boost in a big way, especially with no touchdowns, six interceptions and being benched during the Jets’ three-game skid.
“I was dropping back, five-hitch and throwing it,” Smith said. “I know that’s the way it’s drawn up in the game plan and the way it’s supposed to be run, but everything is not ideal on the field. Sometimes you’ve got to improvise, so I think that’s what Marty was speaking of.”
Smith and the Jets’ offense got positive results in a 37-27 win over the Oakland Raiders. He worked out of the shotgun more than usual, allowing him to roll out easier when the passing lanes were clogged. He threw for 219 yards and added 50 yards on five carries — including a 32-yard scramble.
“Throughout the game, I was just playing freely,” Smith said. “It goes back to not thinking about all my past mistakes. I think I kind of got into this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect and that’s almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a rookie. There were times where I was so caught up in running the play and executing it to perfection that I didn’t allow my natural ability to take over at times.”
The problem was that the miscues were piling up at an alarming rate, and there were few positives to take from his performances. After all, he went into the game last Sunday with just one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions in his last seven games.
Against the Raiders, Smith threw his 20th interception, but had his best game in weeks by throwing for a touchdown and running for another as the Jets (6-7) set a season high for points. Ryan took the blame for being too conservative with Smith in the passing game during the three-game losing streak. It was a stretch in which Smith completed a total of 21 passes.
“Maybe when you look back on it, maybe I did a poor job of that of just stressing it,” Ryan said. “And maybe that took away from us a little bit. So, I’m obviously the guy responsible for that.”
Smith appreciated the coach saying that, but insisted he didn’t feel he was being limited by the conservative playcalling.
“Not in my mindset,” he said. “I always think to go out there and just cut it loose. Marty, he coaches me that way and he calls the plays. Rex, he made that statement, I don’t know how he feels about that. But in my mind, I just go out and execute the plays that are called.
“I love to throw the ball, obviously, as a quarterback.”
But, as he has learned the hard way, there are times when an NFL quarterback must be conservative, depending on what the defense is doing, and others when they can just fling the football. It’s that balance that is still a work in-progress for Smith.
The Jets might need their young quarterback to be able to improvise and make plays on the run quite a bit this weekend against the Carolina Panthers, who have the league’s second-ranked defense behind only Seattle.
“I see many challenges,” Smith said, pointing out the Panthers’ run-stuffing defensive line and playmaking linebackers.
Carolina, though, knows to possibly expect a more active Smith from the one that scuffled during the stretch that put his starting job in jeopardy.
“I think one thing with him is he’s more athletic than I think guys give him credit for,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “He runs the read-option well, he can get out of trouble in the pocket. Guys will be swarming around him, he’ll sneak out and make a throw.”
Despite his struggles, Smith has already set the Jets’ rookie passing record with 2,475 yards, surpassing the mark set by Mark Sanchez (2,444) in 2009. Smith also has four rushing touchdowns, the most by a rookie QB in franchise history.
Smith did it all last week. Now, he gets to show whether his “robot” days have been terminated.
“Execute the game plan and do the things that I’m coached to do and we’re coached to do as an offense,” Smith said, “but just have fun and play freely.”
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