By Jeff Capellini
In a perfect world, the Jets would be equipping Geno Smith — and only Geno Smith — for the 2014 season.
Instead, they are putting the fear of God in him with Michael Vick, who is still a name around the NFL, and, given the possibility that he stays healthy, is completely capable of not only winning the starting job, but also of having a lot of success in a version of the West Coast offense he once navigated with the greatest of ease.
I can’t say I blame the Jets. It speaks volumes about this team’s patience level when it comes to the most important position on the field.
And it’s about time.
It’s no secret that the Jets have been woefully substandard at quarterback for a very long time. I’ve written before about how this franchise has consistently gotten the position wrong and has paid for it as a result.
While Vinny Testaverde was a one-year wonder for the Jets back in 1998, the last time they really drafted and cultivated someone was the somewhat unfairly-criticized selection of Ken O’Brien back in 1983.
You remember the words as it was announced that this basically unknown guy out of Cal-Davis, wherever that is, was going to be given the keys to a three-wheel car once driven by the extremely enigmatic Richard Todd. And while we later learned that the Jets made a monumental mistake that day by taking O’Brien over noted Jet killer and eventual Hall of Famer Dan Marino, it wasn’t because O’Brien wasn’t good; it was because Marino was infinitely better.
For the most part, O’Brien was solid for the better part of his nine seasons with this star-crossed franchise, but he’ll never be properly credited because the Jets miscalculated the seemingly obvious in that draft.
In the court of public opinion, it matters little that O’Brien was no slouch and was better than he’s often given credit. While it’s true he could make every last throw, he had that glaring lack of mobility that ultimately defined him.
This might be one of the oddest stats you will ever see, but in O’Brien’s second season, 1985, he put up one of the great campaigns in Jets QB history, but at the same time showed the one fault he had in abundance that ultimately altered how the fan base views him today. He threw for 3,888 yards, completed 61 percent of his passes, tossed 25 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, and, oh yeah, was sacked an astonishing 62 times.
For his career, O’Brien threw for slightly more than 25,000 yards, with 128 TDs and 98 interceptions. He proved to be a vast upgrade over Todd, who in eight seasons with New York threw less touchdowns and 40 more interceptions. But the fact remains that many long-time fans of this team remember him being a statue back there more than they remember his solid efficiency.
All that said, two decades have passed and, unbelievably, O’Brien is still the second-greatest quarterback in franchise history by default, or because of the faults of the various front-office personnel that have followed him.
There was never a bona fide heir apparent to O’Brien, not until the established Testaverde had the best season of his long career in 1998, the only season he really made an impact with the Jets. Chad Pennington later had a few moments here and there, but by and large the Jets have bungled the position at seemingly every turn.
They didn’t learn a thing.
And how the Jets still somehow managed to get to three AFC Championship games in the post-O’Brien era remains one of the great mysteries in New York sports history that very few people talk about, mostly because conference-title game appearances mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Yet I still wonder all the time what it would have been like to have a given, rather than a big question mark, at quarterback. Would the Jets be 45 years without a championship? Would they be a standard-bearer of sorts in the AFC? Would they still be the second team in New York?
That’s why quarterback is the ball game, and why it seems that finally, after all this time, the light has gone on in the upper echelon of the Jets’ hierarchy.
You do whatever you have to do to get the position right.
Second-year general manager John Idzik drafted Smith, either out of desperation or because he saw a different kind of future. Which is it? We’ll likely never know, but we do know times and trends have changed league-wide. The days of waiting patiently for a young quarterback to find himself are quickly being phased out. Teams in many cases will now draft a quarterback, trade for one or invest on the open market whenever they can, regardless of the potential the incumbent has shown.
The Jets are now, thankfully, no different.
Logic suggests the final four games of last season should have been a reason for serious optimism with Smith, an indication that all those teams that passed on him in the 2013 draft missed out on a potential new-era prototypical signal-caller, one who can beat you with any number of attributes.
Idzik, however, has said repeatedly that he believes in competition, and it’s hard to argue that’s not a prudent philosophy. Regardless of the fact that Smith is probably the most talented choice the Jets have made at the position in the draft in ages, better than Todd, O’Brien, Pennington and Mark Sanchez, it’s simply not enough.
Smith’s arm may be very good, and his legs are an added bonus. His maturity may be evident. He may not be cowering in a corner feeling misled by the Jets for the Vick signing. His words seem to suggest he’s embracing it, as if to say, “I’ll see your move and raise you my game.”
“We needed to find a guy that was legitimately a guy that could come in and play. I think that’s what we did. Mission accomplished,” Smith said Saturday. “It’s just good to have a guy to compete with like Mike. We’re going to compete. We’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you’re the starter.’ And we’ll leave it at that. We want to get better. I love it.”
But regardless of Smith’s potential or how he truly feels, what happens next is on him. Excuses last season went beyond his age and a perceived lack of wisdom. They also included the Jets having wide receivers that couldn’t get separation. And though I get the feeling that won’t be an issue come training camp, it’s still not enough of a reason to blindly hand Smith the iron throne.
Idzik’s plan to build the Jets into a sustainable force has been met with a lot of skepticism, but his decision to put the heat on Smith may just end up being a stroke of genius, because it appears this kid is, indeed, up to this challenge, while the alternative comes in the form of a proven veteran who still feels like he has a lot to prove.
It’s quite possible that when all is said and done, the real Geno will be realized and he will render the Vick signing as a once-prudent decision that ended up being a big waste of time.
Then again, maybe he won’t.
But the Jets aren’t taking any chances. They are doing what they feel they must.
Because it has taken them forever to realize what many other teams have known for quite some time.
Quarterback is everything.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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