It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...
Whether Dickensian quotes have ever been apropos devices for describing a rookie football player's first two games, I don't know. But for New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith, it's not as if this sentiment is confined thus far merely to his rookie season; rather it's microcosmic of his career from college to the professional ranks.
Eugene "Geno" Smith was a highly sought-after dual-threat recruit out of Mirimar, Florida. He had offers from a number of major college football programs—Oregon, Clemson, Michigan, Florida, and Alabama—coming out of high school, before settling on West Virginia.
Smith's career seemed to be on an upward trajectory from the moment he took the reins as the starting quarterback in his sophomore season. Smith threw for 2,763 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions and chipped in an additional 217 yards on the ground. But the excitement didn't really take off in Morgantown until the architect of the Oklahoma State's school record-breaking offense, Dana Holgorsen, was hired to take over as head football coach at West Virginia.
Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to a top-20 finish in the polls, and in so doing orchestrated an attack that shattered nearly every school record on offense. However the spotlight shone firmly on Geno Smith, who would be entering his senior season at WVU hot on the heels of a 4,385-yard passing season, complete with 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
His name was bandied about as a potential top NFL draft pick, and the excitement surrounding WVU football heading into Smith's final season was palpable, especially considering that nearly the entire record-breaking offense from the year before was returning. It was then that—while personal statistical glory remained continuously within Geno's grasp (he even improved his touchdown and interception numbers his senior season)—poor defensive plagued West Virginia, and the Mountaineers hit a five-game losing skid in the middle of the campaign, eventually finishing the season with a very disappointing 7-6 record.
NFL talent evaluators still felt Smith had the goods to be one of the top quarterbacks in the 2013 NFL draft, but a whisper campaign had begun, culminating in the now infamous Nolan Nawrocki character assassination of Smith. Whether Nawrocki was told the things he reported by persons who actually knew Smith, or simply speculated on Smith's work ethic and locker room presence despite never having met him, as he did with his Cam Newton "fake smile" comments, no one knows.
The damage, however, was done.
Smith was put further under the already intense microscope that is the NFL draft process, and stories began to surface painting him in a negative light.
In the end Smith was drafted by the New York Jets, in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, surprising many by being the second quarterback taken (the Buffalo Bills took EJ Manuel in the first round).
Through training camp, the New York media, as is its want, left no opportunity unturned to criticize Smith, pitting his rookie camp struggles against the supposed improvement of the Jets' incumbent starter, Mark Sanchez of "butt fumble" fame.
Sanchez ultimately "won" the quarterback competition in camp but was subsequently injured, thrusting Smith back into the starting role.
Geno started a bit slow Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He held the ball too long and took a couple of sacks, but he eventually found his rhythm and led the game-winning drive that notched his first career win. The drive was heavily assisted by a late hit out of bounds on Smith by Buccaneers defender Lavonte David with seven seconds left. Still, Smith had rallied the team and put them into position to win
Smith was shown on camera after the game nodding and smiling, no word on whether it was of the "fake" or genuine variety, though it certainly seemed real to this humble scribe. He had hardly looked perfect, but the talent was certainly there.
His second game, against the New England Patriots, showed a different Geno Smith. He was still holding the ball too long and seemed afraid, as he had at times at West Virginia, to pull the trigger on passes to open receivers. Smith's confidence was no doubt rattled by the drops that seemed to plague every receiver in the stadium that night.
In any case but he seemed less steady, reverting back to the prospect whose confidence, according to some, could be shaken.
Smith's performances will be magnified by the scope of the New York media. His every success and failure will no doubt be analyzed with an intensity best reserved for interpreting constitutional law. It is, as it was during the draft process, too early to dismiss him. Smith is a rookie, still honing his craft. The game has yet to slow down for him, and it may never do so. Still, I wouldn't bet against him.
I find it difficult to believe we would want to be so harshly judged for a performance after only our second day on the job.
There will be many more ups and downs for Smith. Let's remember both the best and the worst of times, and hope he, and we, learn from them.