Mark Sanchez watched from the sidelines as Geno Smith started his fourth NFL game as a professional quarterback. Smith led the New York Jets to a somewhat surprising 2-1 record during the first three weeks of the season, but the franchise suffered its worst loss of the season in Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans routed the Jets 38-13. Smith was front and center of the beat down with two interceptions and two lost fumbles.
With those kind of numbers, it's easy to see why some would think there isn't any real difference between Sanchez and Smith.
At this stage of their respective careers, it may be true that there is no real difference between both players. That wouldn't be taking into account everything that is important when evaluating quarterbacks, however.
When Sanchez last started for the Jets, he was 26 years old and had played the best part of four seasons of professional football. Against the Titans, Smith was 22 years of age and had started just three games of professional football.
At other positions, such as guard or running back, a comparison could be made. But because playing quarterback requires a certain level of post-draft development, the two players are at two completely different points in their careers.
To understand if any correlation exists between Sanchez and Smith, we must go back to Sanchez's rookie season and try to understand how he started his career.
The Jets selected Sanchez with the fifth overall pick of the 2009 draft. The then-22-year-old had only been a full-time starer in college for one season. Sanchez's individual talent was enough to make him the second-ranked quarterback behind Matthew Stafford in the eyes of most draft analysts.
In spite of his relatively limited exposure, Sanchez was expected to go in the top half of the first round. He did, but more important was that the Jets traded up to select him.
Expectations were as high as they could be for Sanchez. The trade, paired with the fact that he was following in the footsteps of Brett Favre and was the highest drafted Jets quarterback since Joe Namath in 1965, set an intimidating stage.
After Sanchez's first four games, the Jets were 3-1, and Sanchez had played very well for the most part. He completed 63 of 110 passes for a completion percentage of 57 with 744 yards. He has five total touchdowns with seven total turnovers, but four of those turnovers came in their sole loss in a difficult trip to New Orleans.
In comparison, Smith has started this season by completing 78 of 136 attempts for a completion percentage of 57 for 1,090 yards. He has five total touchdowns with 11 turnovers. Statistically, Sanchez proved to be much better early on during his rookie season than Smith has been.
However, as with all statistics, they are meaningless without context.
Even though Sanchez was drafted with very high expectations and taken at the top of the first round, he joined a roster that was extensively more talented than the Jets' current group of players.
During Sanchez's first season, the Jets had a truly elite rushing attack. Shonn Greene had just been drafted, but he was to sit behind the incredibly durable and resilient Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington early on in the season. Washington and Jones carried the offense early in the year. They ran behind a line that was guided by Hall of Fame-caliber guard Alan Faneca.
The importance of that rushing attack cannot be overstated.
When defenses set up to stop the offense, they focused on Washington and Jones, not Sanchez. Sanchez attempted just 110 passes and only threw for over 200 yards once during that four-game stretch.
In comparison, Smith has thrown 136 times for nearly 1,100 yards. Those are the two most important statistics, because those statistics reflect the situation.
Most star rookie quarterbacks join terrible teams. A byproduct of the blockbuster trade for Sanchez meant was that he was joining a roster that was already very talented and didn't need him to be a star.
Even though Smith was taken in the second round of the draft and only started because of Sanchez's absence, he has essentially had to be the focal point of the Jets offense so far this season.
Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory are not bad backs, but they're not on the level that Jones and Washington were back in 2009. Most importantly, the offensive line is no longer playing to the same level it was back then. The loss of Faneca was huge for D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and Nick Mangold alone isn't enough to make the unit dominant.
Instead of relying on the running game, Smith has thrown the ball at least 29 times in each game so far.
That wouldn't be a major issue in today's NFL, but he has done so without many legitimate receiving threats. Instead of reliable receiving options such as Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller, who were close to their primes when Sanchez was a rookie, Smith has been working with inconsistency across the board in Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill and Kellen Winslow.
That's not to say that Smith should be excused of everything negative that has happened in New York this season, but the simple reality is that he has shown much more than Sanchez had at this point in his career.
On 3rd-and-7 in the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, Smith showed off one of the most important traits of an NFL quarterback: anticipation.
This is actually Smith's first pass attempt of the game, but in spite of that he has no hesitation in ripping the ball aggressively down the field. The Bills come out showing a Cover 2 coverage, while the Jets have two players lined up in the backfield alongside their quarterback. Smith is going to focus on the right side of the field, where he has two receivers lined up initially.
At the snap, Smith looks directly at the deep safety to the left side of the defense. He keeps his eyes on that safety while also understanding that his receiver, Stephen Hill, is running a post-corner route and will be directly in front of the safety at any moment. This is the moment just before Smith begins his throwing motion.
Smith is now in his throwing motion, and it doesn't look like there is any receiver open. However, as the safety begins to move forward, Hill subtly turns back toward the sideline and continues running down the field.
When Smith releases the football, his receiver is nowhere near the position where he is going to catch it and isn't actually running directly to that point.
In a sense, Smith is making this throw blind because he is anticipating how the defense reacts to the route combinations. This is the type of throw that many veterans cannot make, and it's the type of throw that younger quarterbacks struggle with because it's an aggressive physical throw, an aggressive decision and a throw that requires an understanding of coverage.
Hill eventually catches the ball 15 yards farther down the field than where he was when Smith began his throwing motion and is now outside the numbers. He would have caught it even farther downfield, but Smith slightly underthrew the pass. Regardless of that, this is still what scouts would refer to as a professional-caliber pass. It required mental understanding and physical talent to execute effectively.
At this point, it's much too early to judge Smith's poise and his ability under pressure.
He isn't experienced enough to be consistently diagnosing defenses or manipulating coverage, but as a sheer physical talent, it's easy to see how he translates to the NFL.
Even though there was talk about extended Wildcat play during the offseason because of Smith's arrival, that type of play doesn't really suit him. Smith doesn't have the athleticism of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III or even Andrew Luck. Instead, he is a true pocket passer who can throw with precision consistently.
Smith's most impressive trait is his deep accuracy and his arm strength. In today's NFL, that is a very valuable commodity.
While Sanchez has an above-average arm, he doesn't possess the same level of arm talent as Smith.
There was one play in particular against the Bills that showed off that talent.
It was 2nd-and-5 midway through the second quarter and the Jets were leading 7-6. The pivotal player here is again Hill, who is lined up to the bottom of the screen. The Bills are already tipping their coverage somewhat with off coverage against Holmes to the top of the screen and press coverage with a safety deep over Hill.
Hill beats the cornerback with ease, and the deep safety doesn't play his assignment, which allows the receiver to come free down the sideline.
If you follow the ball, this looks like an easy completion for Smith. But when you go back and look at Smith's situation throwing the ball, you understand the arm talent he has.
Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams beat left guard Vladimir Ducasse at the snap and was immediately running toward Smith. Smith held the ball long enough to give his receiver a chance to get down the sideline, but when he let the ball go, he was unable to step into the throw. Furthermore, Williams landed a big hit on him and had his hands in his face when he let the ball go.
Most quarterbacks from that position won't be able to get the ball down the field. Even if they do, the trajectory is likely to carry, making it float. Floating passes usually give the defense a chance to make an interception or deflection, whereas quick, sharp passes often take the defense out of the play.
Despite being under that much pressure, Smith threw a pass with excellent velocity that cut through the air before landing in his receiver's hands. Hill was able to catch the ball without breaking stride so he could continue down the field for an even greater gain.
This is a play that Sanchez couldn't make. It's a dimension on the Jets offense that previously didn't exist.
Comparing Smith to Sanchez is fair, but in reality, most will want to compare him to recent young starting quarterbacks. Players like Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Luck and Kaepernick have completely changed the expectations for young starting quarterbacks. Measuring Smith against them would make the Jets' signal-caller look subpar, but it would also be an unfair measurement to make.
Will Geno Smith be the Jets' starting quarterback in five years?
Smith was considered a developmental prospect coming out of the draft. Even those who saw his talent understood that his inconsistencies were a major issue. Those inconsistencies are what will ultimately define Smith's career.
At his very best, Sanchez was a consistent but limited quarterback. In that sense, Smith is nothing like Sanchez because he has a very high ceiling but needs to develop consistency.
It's still very early in his career, but there is little comparison between Smith and Sanchez so far.