FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Geno Smith has noticed his teammates responding differently to him these days.
A year ago, he was merely a wide-eyed rookie trying to find his way in the NFL. Now, he’s the undisputed starting quarterback of the New York Jets.
Smith is brimming with confidence, and with that comes increased respect in the locker room. The bottom line, though, is the success — or failure — of Rex Ryan’s team could depend on Smith’s performance this season.
“You can only inspire the guys and you can only be that leader if you are on top of your game and you know what you’re doing,” Smith said. “I appreciate the fact that they have always stuck with me and they have always been confident in me because they’ve seen the way that I can bounce back from a tough game.”
He had plenty of those last season, when he threw 12 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. But Smith also had some promising moments, particularly during a four-game stretch in which the Jets went 3-1 to end the season 8-8 and saved Ryan’s job.
The Jets went into the offseason determined to give Smith every opportunity to show he deserved to be the starter. They also brought in Michael Vick to push Smith, as well as to mentor him — and to be ready to step in if Smith struggled.
Well, Smith hasn’t flinched.
Even with a still-effective Vick eager to show he’s still one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Smith got nearly 80 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense in training camp and played well enough to not force Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to stray from the plan.
“His composure under pressure is definitely showing up this year,” wide receiver Jeremy Kerley said. “He’s showing he won’t be rattled in pressure situations. Just his learning ability has taken over.”
Smith has also become more vocal on the field, and his understanding of the offense has improved. Vick has liked what he has seen from Smith, too, even if that means he’ll be kept on the sideline more than he’d like.
“Geno’s working extremely hard to be the best quarterback that he can be in this game,” Vick said. “You see guys around the league around his age going out having success and doing some good things for their ballclubs and I think he wants to fall right into that echelon.”
Here are a few other things to watch this season as Gang Green looks to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 campaign.
REX RELOADED: Ryan received a multiyear extension during the offseason that could keep him in New York through at least the 2016 season. The heat’s still on, though.
If the Jets miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season — the longest drought in owner Woody Johnson’s tenure since taking over in 2000 — Ryan could be the scapegoat. If Smith doesn’t progress, the Jets could be in the market for a new coach, a new quarterback and starting from scratch. Again.
CORNERING THE MARKET: After Smith, the most important players are in Ryan’s secondary. Or, maybe more accurately, those who aren’t there.
Starting cornerback Dee Milliner might not be ready for the season opener while recovering from a high ankle sprain. The status of Dimitri Patterson, expected to be the other starter, is uncertain after he was suspended indefinitely by the team for going AWOL and not showing up for a preseason game. Third-round pick Dexter McDougle is out for the year with a torn knee ligament.
General manager John Idzik could be looking for reinforcements after cutdown day.
“Absolutely, no excuses one way or the other,” Ryan said. “I believe that we will be just fine.”
SAVE THE DATE: The cornerbacks, whoever they might be, will be thrust into the spotlight quickly.
After opening the season against Oakland, the Jets take on six straight potentially potent offenses: Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. New York will know a lot more about where it stands after that tough stretch in the schedule.
NEW PLAYMAKERS: Smith and the offense could be forced into some scoring slugfests if the secondary struggles.
The Jets should be a bit more dangerous with wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Chris Johnson and rookie tight end Jace Amaro. New York might have one of the league’s top backfield trios with Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Decker, after catching passes from Peyton Manning in Denver the past two seasons, gives the Jets a legitimate top receiver to pair with the sure-handed Kerley.
‘SONS OF ANARCHY’: Led by Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison, the Jets’ defensive line is expected to be a force again. All three are Pro Bowl-caliber players, capable of disrupting offenses.
That could take some pressure off the secondary if they can stifle the run and get to the quarterback, something linebackers Quinton Coples, Calvin Pace and Jason Babin will be counted on to do.
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