By Steve Silverman
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Preseason games are among the most misunderstood entity on the American sporting scene.

Fans dislike the preseason because the games don’t have any “significance” to them, even though they are paying top dollar for the privilege of entering an NFL stadium and watching these exhibitions.

You rarely hear any hue and cry about baseball, basketball and hockey exhibition games. Fans seem to take in stride that all players and teams need to get ready for the season by conducting games that don’t count in the standings.

NFL preseason games are far from meaningless. Tell that to the rookies or second-year players who must have a strong showing if they want to make any of the NFL’s 32 rosters. Take a look at the veteran who is hanging on to a roster spot and is hoping that the coaching staff doesn’t discover that he’s not quite the player he was a year ago.

Training camp and the preseason is life and death to these players. A second-team left guard may not see any action once the games start for real. But because that player sold out in the so-called exhibition games, he earned a spot on the roster and is earning the NFL minimum. His life is basically made because he was successful in the summer.

The preseason is also vitally important to Geno Smith. The Jets’ second-year quarterback had a difficult baptism in his rookie year, with some positive moments towards the end of the season, and some painful turnovers that left the Jets and their fans shaking their heads.

It’s difficult to take game-changing errors from a quarterback, but it’s somewhat understandable when they come from a rookie. However, significant improvement has to be demonstrated in Year 2. Smith will quickly go from prospect to reject if he doesn’t start turning things around as a second-year player.

Last year’s performance is not going to get it done. Smith completed 247-of-443 passes for 3,046 yards with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Smith also ran for 366 yards and six touchdowns, and demonstrated the ability to run away from trouble and create plays with his feet when he recognized that his receivers were not open.

That was far from a given last year. Smith was often baited into poor throws by opposing defenses that allowed him to think his receivers were open – even when they weren’t.

That’s what has to change for Smith, beginning when the Jets take the field Thursday night against the Indianapolis Colts. Smith has to demonstrate that he has improved when it comes to reading defenses than he was last year. Smith has to be able to read where the pressure is coming from so he can escape or at least buy time in the pocket.

However, the Jets’ coaching staff really wants to see improved recognition of pass coverage. The Colts will throw some disguises in their secondary that Smith must recognize. The same holds true for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Chicago Bears in the second and third preseason games.

Progress must be made, because the Jets have a backup quarterback in Michael Vick who can do the job better than Smith did last year. Vick, of course, has always had tremendous physical talent and is capable of creating highlight-film plays.

Vick, 34, has been through the wars. Perhaps more than any other quarterback, he has learned that physical skills alone won’t make a quarterback successful. Vick still has one of the strongest arms in the league and is capable of making big plays on the run. When he gets out on the edge, he still has the speed to run by linebackers and juke out tacklers with a series of quick moves. He had a career-best 61-yard run last season with the Eagles.

Vick is not the most consistent passer – just a 56.2 completion percentage over his career. He has never mastered reading defenses either, but his 128-82 career TD-interception ratio demonstrates that he is far ahead of Smith.

The Jets want their young quarterback to become the face of the franchise. They want him to grow into his talent and become a leader who can help them challenge and defeat the New England Patriots and take them beyond the division.

Smith is going to have to prove himself during the preseason. Maybe not in the first game and perhaps not even in the second. However, if he doesn’t show significant improvement by the time the Jets are ready to start the season against the Raiders in Week 1 (Sept. 7), head coach Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg will have a difficult decision to make.

Both men have to win if they are going to keep their job, and if they are not convinced that Smith has improved significantly this summer, Vick has to take over as leader of the Jets’ offense.

That’s reality in the NFL, and Smith knows it.

Preseason games don’t matter? Don’t tell that to Smith, because his career may depend on them.

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