By Steve Lichtenstein
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Contrary to the views of some, I’m not calling Sunday’s 24-13 triumph over Cleveland “a big win” for the Jets.
It may have been for certain INDIVIDUALS associated with Gang Green, but not for the franchise per se.
With the Jets eliminated from the postseason picture by virtue of last week’s 30-20 defeat in Carolina, all Sunday did was cloud their future and lower their draft slot. At 7-8, they’re not as miserable as many (and mine) preseason expectations, yet they’re still far away from a team that can compete with the league’s elite on a weekly basis.
But I get that it wasn’t too late for some to update their resumes in last-ditch efforts to get management to consider them for employment next season.
Most of the focus has been on speculating on coach Rex Ryan’s future. Unfortunately, with owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik mum on their true feelings on the subject to date, that’s all we can do. Will Idzik want to change the team’s voice with ‘his own man,” and will Johnson, known for having Ryan’s back these last few non-playoff years, allow him to do so?
The answers to those questions will likely trump the outcomes of Sunday’s game or next week’s finale in Miami.
Instead, the biggest decision the Jets face in the near-term is the same one they struggled with at the beginning of the season.
Who will be the quarterback that gives them the best chance to get back into Super Bowl contention? And, if he’s not currently on the roster, where should they try to get one?
The Jets haven’t had a quarterback whom opponents feared since Vinny Testaverde in 1998. Of course, Testaverde tore his Achilles in the opening game of the following season and neither he, nor the Jets’ air game, has ever been the same.
The NFL, on the other hand, has become more and more quarterback-centric. Take a look at the playoff standings. What team in contention, except for maybe Chicago, is unsettled at that position?
Geno Smith, the Jets’ second-round draft pick who was handed the job by default after incumbent Mark Sanchez injured his shoulder in a preseason game, has experienced many of the growing pains common among rookie quarterbacks. Locking onto receivers, poor decisions, holding onto the ball too long — all these traits have to be corrected for Smith to progress to the next level.
Of course, all of those were still being exhibited by Sanchez during his fourth season in the league, which was why I wasn’t too upset that he didn’t take a snap this year. He may get lucky and land an opportunity to compete for a handful of starting jobs next year, but it’s more likely someone else will bring him on as a backup to an established No. 1.
When given time and open receivers, however, Smith certainly delivered the ball with more zip and for longer distances than Sanchez ever could. Third-and-longs are no longer an automatic prelude to a punt. And I love what Smith can do when he chooses to escape the pocket.
After a horrific five-game midseason stretch of games during which he threw eight interceptions without any touchdowns, Smith has been better in the last three contests.
But how much weight do you give to the games at home against Oakland and Cleveland — both of whom are 4-11?
Which is why next week will be Smith’s figurative postseason game. On the road. At Miami, which desperately needs the game to earn the AFC’s final playoff berth. Against a team that won’t be shy about sending pressure to attempt to force turnovers.
Unlike the matchup between the two clubs on December 1, when the Jets were embarrassed at home, 23-3, Smith will have a full slate of weapons at his disposal.
Against Cleveland, Smith was able to spread the ball around, throwing two touchdowns to David Nelson, converting three third downs on throws to Jeremy Kerley and finding tight ends Kellen Wislow and Jeff Cumberland a combined five times for 65 yards. Even Santonio Holmes got open to catch a couple of passes.
Sunday will be Smith’s final exam. He’s had all year to study and there are no excuses. Has he learned how to make plays while simultaneously protecting the ball? Does he still panic in the face of pressure? And when adversity strikes, will he find a way to get the Jets back on track?
If Smith can pass this test, I believe the Jets have their quarterback for 2014. They should focus on obtaining a veteran backup — not named Sanchez — and upgrading their skill positions in the draft.
If not, Idzik will certainly have to go back to the drawing board and do some heavy research at both the college and pro levels. Smith can’t expect to get the keys to the franchise for another ride if there’s not enough evidence of the requisite growth.
No matter who coaches the Jets next season, the Jets won’t get the opportunity to play truly big games if they keep getting mediocre production from their quarterback.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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