Breaking down the New York Jets' or any team's biggest training camp battle usually requires defending one's selection. However, in the case of the New York Jets, the biggest training camp battle is not in doubt. It's the battle for the starting quarterback job between veteran Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith.
In fact, the Jets' quarterback battle is a prime focus of the national media. NFL.com writer Gregg Rosenthal's article "Top 25 AFC position battles during training camp" ranks the Sanchez-Smith competition fourth. Rosenthal writes, "The rumor mill hasn't been kind to Smith, but we'd exercise caution in naming Sanchez the winner. The last two years of game film matters a lot more than practice reports."
At this point, it's just about time for the arguments to end. Ideally, the Jets' first two preseason games will show coaches, management, media and fans who the starting quarterback should be.
Until then, let's try to analyze this in the following ways: First, we'll look at the competitors' college statistics and see what they reveal. Then, we'll add the observations of competition witnesses.
That should start the argument all over again.
Since Smith has no body of work as a football professional, let's compare the players' collegiate careers. The Jets examined these numbers before drafting Sanchez and Smith. They're far from the only factors the team considered, but they're at least a starting point.
Sanchez's junior year at USC was his only collegiate campaign as the full-time starting quarterback. He skipped his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
As a junior, Sanchez completed 241 of 366 pass attempts for 3,207 yards and 34 touchdowns. He threw 10 interceptions.
Smith became West Virginia's starting quarterback as a sophomore and kept the job for three years.
In Smith's final year, he completed 369 of 518 passes for 4,205 yards and 42 touchdowns. He threw six interceptions.
Smith averaged 8.1 yards per attempt during his final collegiate season. Sanchez averaged 8.8 yards. Smith averaged eight yards per attempt and Sanchez 8.1 for their careers. Sanchez had the more efficient final season in that 9.3 percent of his pass attempts resulted in touchdowns compared with Smith's 8.1 percent.
The Jets may be designing plays to exploit Smith's superior mobility. That may mean he moves around the pocket better than Sanchez. If it means he's a greater running threat than Sanchez, that's open to debate.
It appears from the statistics that planned runs for either quarterback consisted largely of sneaks to pick up first downs or scores when a yard or less was necessary.
The statistics say Smith ran more often, gained more yards and averaged more yards per carry than Sanchez. However, Smith was not a prolific runner in college. He averaged 1.4 yards per carry, rushing 245 times for 342 yards and four touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Smith's senior year was his best all-around rushing year. He averaged 2.3 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns, running 66 times for 151 yards.
Sanchez's numbers, 70 carries for 33 yards and four touchdowns, are even more typical of a quarterback whose runs were limited to short-yardage plays. He averaged 0.5 yards per carry.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have to prove he can take care of the football.
Here's an interesting statistic from the collegiate records of Sanchez and Smith. Sanchez threw 16 interceptions in 487 pass attempts, an interception percentage of 3.3. Smith threw 21 interceptions in 1,465 attempts, an interception percentage of 1.4.
In their final collegiate seasons, Sanchez's interception percentage was 2.7. Smith's interception percentage was 1.2.
Sanchez's NFL career interception percentage is 3.7, just 12 percent over his collegiate rate. Project that increase for Smith, and his NFL interception percentage becomes approximately 1.6.
In other words, for every 500 attempts, Sanchez throws between 18 and 19 interceptions. Based on his projected NFL rate, Smith would throw eight. To put it another way, Sanchez averaged over a pick a game during his NFL career. Smith projects to averaging a pick every two games.
The statistics favor Smith. He has produced passing yardage more consistent with the productivity expected of modern NFL quarterbacks while taking better care of the football than Sanchez. Sanchez's significant edge was in touchdown percentage. However, that rate fell from 9.3 percent as a college junior to 3.6 percent in the NFL.
Neither quarterback seems especially mobile, but Smith has a slight edge there too.
This analysis is incomplete. It doesn't consider factors like strength of schedule or the quarterback's offensive set. Scouts would consider those factors as well as game film before making a final decision.
However, if Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith were in the same draft class, statistics make a good case for selecting Geno.
Rookie vs. Veteran
It's time to see if a four-year gap between drafts changes anything. Sanchez now has four years of NFL experience on his resume that Smith does not.
That experience hasn't been all good, or Smith wouldn't be a contender for Sanchez's job. Sanchez's main Achilles' heel has been turnovers, both fumbles and interceptions. He had 52 over the last two seasons.
What's more, Sanchez hasn't compensated by generating offense. In college, his ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions was better than 2.5 to 1. That ratio has fallen to approximately one-to-one in the NFL. Add fumbles to the mix, and Sanchez is more likely to produce a turnover than a touchdown on any given pass attempt.
This ESPN First Take video sums up the frustration Jets fans are feeling with Sanchez. They feel, regardless of extenuating circumstances, that he's had his chance.
The only question to some is how quickly to replace him.
As ESPN New York's Rich Cimini says, "The Jets know what they have in Sanchez. The purpose of the camp is to find out about Smith. So far, the decision-makers (that's plural, by the way) are intrigued."
Because of his recent track record, observers will interpret every mistake Sanchez makes as further evidence of irreversible decline. They'll forgive Smith's mistakes to a point, but they'll be more appreciative of positive plays. After all, Smith is a rookie. Rookies make mistakes. Veterans entering their fifth year should have put rookie mistakes behind them.
If the following quotes are a reliable indication, there's wide agreement that Smith is physically superior. He has a better arm, is more athletic in the pocket and makes highlight-reel plays. What's more, he's less turnover-prone.
- Rich Cimini, ESPN New York, July 28: "One trend that already is emerging in camp: Sanchez can handle the basic stuff better than Smith, but Smith has the ability to make the 'wow' plays."
- The Star-Ledger's Mike Vorkunov compares Sanchez with Smith as follows:
Geno Smith has impressed during four practices of training camp so far, if only because he has not made many mistakes....It’s the inability to avoid mistakes that plagued Sanchez the past two seasons. He had 52 turnovers over the past two seasons.
- NFL Network's Heath Evans observes, "You see a lot of accuracy, a lot of zip on the ball obviously from Geno. You see some balls sailing, or what I would say floating, for Mark Sanchez."
- Jane McManus, ESPN New York, July 29:"His [Smith's] passes find air and fly better, while Sanchez seems to have more success on short gains and the screen passes offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg prefers."
McManus' comment and Joe Namath's endorsement on the accompanying video may be the most positive comments anyone has made about Sanchez's capabilities this year. They sums up Sanchez's strengths in this competition, NFL experience and competence with basic passes, neatly:
Sanchez is making the routine plays. That sounds trivial next to 50-yard bombs and "wow" factors. However, even in Marty Mornhinweg's version of the West Coast offense, routine plays are essential.
Mornhinweg might like the deep ball more than a typical West Coast offense coordinator. However, the heart of his system is still short-range and medium-range passes that rely on the receiver's ability to make positive yardage after the catch.
Mornhinweg would rather have a quarterback who completes a high percentage of these bread-and-butter plays than a quarterback who is more physically talented but inconsistent.
That means the most important measurements to watch in this quarterback competition might not be longest throw completed or the tightness of one's spiral. The two key factors that might decide this competition are completion percentage and turnovers.
After four practices, Sanchez had a 60 percent to 50 percent edge in completion percentage. Smith has given up zero interceptions compared to Sanchez's two. (Interceptions include seven-on-seven drills.)
Unfortunately for Sanchez, that completion percentage figure has fallen. After the July 31 practice, in which he went 3-of-10, Sanchez's completion percentage has slipped to around 54 percent. That won't help him sustain drives or generate points.
We don't know if the mix of throws either quarterback has attempted reflect that which he'd attempt in a game. For example, you'd expect completion percentage to be lower if practices focused on long passes. Presumably, the preseason games will display a realistic mix of plays.
Regardless of his completion percentage, Sanchez's NFL past constantly haunts him.
In contrast to Cimini's understated report of Sanchez's strengths, when he threw his first interception in a full team practice, ESPN New York's Jane McManus' headline read, "Practice report: Sanchez throws INT." McManus described the fans' reaction: "A few fans groaned, a few laughed. They’ve seen this movie before." There's no room for redemption here.
In other words, it's still a horse race. It's also still tighter than it should have been, given Sanchez's experience. I wanted a Hollywood ending to this script in which Sanchez rediscovers the potential that made him a first-round pick, reclaims his job and completes a long, successful NFL career.
However, Geno Smith's training camp exploits threaten to end that fantasy.
Challenges for Each
Here are some challenges for each contender.
Avoiding turnovers is not enough.
It's also important to instill confidence in teammates, coaches and fans. He must demonstrate he can make touchdowns a more likely outcome of his passing attempts than turnovers.
Sanchez will have to be more resourceful than Smith because Smith is physically superior. Sanchez must continue to make the routine plays and work with David Lee to stop passes from sailing or falling short. Most importantly, he must build on that higher completion percentage to generate sustained drives, improved time of possession and scoring opportunities.
Game management is not enough when competing with a game-breaker. Sanchez must find ways to march the Jets downfield.
He's established his physical superiority. Now it's time to focus on routine plays.
The routine stuff won't "wow" teammates, fans or coaches with one play, but it will raise his completion percentage and sustain drives.
He must also reduce sacks. That means he must get rid of the ball when his primary receiver is covered by either locating secondary receivers more rapidly or throwing the ball away.
NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus has also reported issues with Smith's conditioning. The significance of one post-practice drill is debatable, but if Smith wants to last for 64 quarters this year, his durability might be a factor.
That brings up another, final point. Who finishes the Jets' 2013 season as their starting quarterback is more significant than who assumes that role in Week 1.
If the Week 1 starter lasts 16 weeks, that's the best outcome for his career. If it's Sanchez, he may not spend the rest of his NFL career with the Jets. But he will have reestablished his credibility as a quarterback and raised his market value. That's a possible outcome even if Sanchez plays a credible partial season and Smith replaces him in a planned role transfer.
If it's Smith, it could be the beginning of a long career wearing green and white.
The unanticipated role changes are what could make or break careers. If Sanchez opens the season as starter and reverts to his 2012 form, his viability as a starter in the NFL is gone. The Jets would probably release him in 2014. He might never play in the NFL again.
If Smith opens the season and does poorly, his future depends on the Jets. If they perceive him as a genuine prospect who needs a better team around him, he will remain the starter regardless of personal or team performance, at least through 2014. That assumes the Jets will complete rebuilding the offense through the 2014 draft.
However, if Smith performs poorly and the Jets conclude that the promise he displayed in training camp will never translate to an NFL game, they will replace him with the quarterback most capable of winning now. That will most likely be Sanchez. Smith will be relegated to backup status, possibly for the rest of his career.
Is Sanchez salvageable? Is Smith this year's rookie quarterback sensation? The first half of August will begin to answer these questions. Preseason games will bear watching.
- College Football Statistics: College Football on Sports-Reference.com
- NFL Statistics: Pro-Football-Reference.com
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid