Before Steve Young was an ESPN analyst, before he was a Hall of Famer and before he was a Super Bowl MVP, he was a very gifted player who wasn't quite sure how to funnel all of his gifts into touchdowns and victories.
It took trial and error, hard coaching and about four NFL years for Young to figure it out.
So when Young looked at Jets rookie Geno Smith and saw a player who reminded him of himself way back when, he gave him a call. The two had a phone conversation about a month ago, and Young, at the request of Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, tried to impart some wisdom.
"I encouraged him to do the hard work, take the right path," Young said. "A lot of times, they don't want to take that journey. But Geno is laser-focused on doing the most difficult things for a quarterback. He knows it doesn't take weeks or months, but years. He has to treat it like med school, or a graduate degree. He knows it is a long haul, and he is willing to pay the price."
Smith says he sees himself as a pocket passer who does not give in to the temptation of running too easily. But he is tied for eighth most runs in the NFL by a quarterback, while ranking 18th in pass attempts. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he believes from studying Smith for their meeting this week that only seven of his 28 runs were designed runs. The rest were improvisational.
Smith has the ability to make plays with his feet. And young quarterbacks with that ability often are over-reliant on it.
"I love the way he attacked the line last week," Young said of Smith's six runs against the Patriots. "But the goal is not to end up with the ball in your hands. I think he understands that … he is doing things now that he can't do forever. But some of those things, you can build on what you do forever."
Morninwheg—who also has helped bring out the best in Young, Brett Favre, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick—has walked a fine line between developing Smith and trying to win games. And he's walked it pretty well.
Smith has led four game-winning fourth-quarter or overtime drives in the first seven games of the season. No other quarterback since 1970 has turned that trick.
"He has great poise, certainly for his experience and age," Mornhinweg said. "There is rarely a day that goes by I'm not impressed with the young man both on and off the field."
What is especially impressive is Smith had a significant transition coming out of West Virginia, where he lined up almost exclusively in shotgun and directed a simple offense. There were whispers about his work ethic and football character, and Smith fell to the second round of the draft.
With the Jets, he apparently has been a model quarterback, even asking receivers to meet with him a few times each week with no coaches present. "Geno has the mentality and work ethic to get better every day," Mornhinweg said. "He's extremely diligent in his preparation, so some great things have happened. There also have been some backfires. He tends to learn from mistakes and move on pretty quickly. He's very mature that way. He's rarely made the same mistake twice."
About those backfires... In one game, there were three interceptions in the fourth quarter. In another, there were two interceptions and two fumbles. Not coincidentally, the Jets lost both of those games.
That might lead some to conclude this team can go only as far as the rookie can take them. Mornhinweg, however, is trying to make it so Smith does not feel that burden. In the Jets' 30-27 overtime upset of the Patriots last week, 12 of the 13 Jets' offensive plays in overtime were runs.
"I'm trying not to put too much on him," Mornhinweg said. "However, he's so skilled that we want to utilize his strengths. And part of his strength is his ability to drive the ball down the field."
Young said that he sees Mornhinweg asking more of Smith each week, and that he sees a greater level of trust developing between coach and QB. Given the Jets are a surprise contender (they face another stern challenge Sunday in Cincinnati), they really have no choice but to let the rookie fly.
"He's progressing at a pretty high rate, and he has kind of been forced to do that," Mornhinweg said. "His challenge now is to put those games at a high level back to back to back, consistently."
If Smith can keep flying, the Jets could be the NFL's biggest surprise.
• One player who is not likely to be traded before the deadline Tuesday is Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. And the reason is the Falcons don't want to send a message to their fanbase that they are giving up on the season. The team likely could not get enough in return to justify moving Gonzalez. Trading Trent Richardson for a first-round pick is one thing. Trading Gonzalez, who is in the final months of his career, for a late-round pick would be something else. The Falcons have worked hard to build their fanbase. A move like this could erode trust in the organization.
• On the subject of trade possibilities, one veteran front-office man pointed out it's buyer-beware with Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, a subject of rumors. Why? "No team would trade a guy with that much talent unless they knew he was a screwball," he said.
• Don't be surprised to see the Jaguars unload Maurice Jones-Drew before the deadline. It hasn't helped them that Jones-Drew is averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry. But the thinking of one high-ranking official is Jones Drew could help a contender down the stretch—if he is acquired by a team that has a solid offensive line and another back who could share the load.
• Numerous NFL front-office men were not surprised to see the Texans part ways with defensive end Sam Montgomery, a third-round pick just last April. Two of them said Montgomery wasn't even on their draft board. Lack of talent was not his issue. Some scouts thought Montgomery had borderline first-round ability. But he never even got on the field during the regular season. And seeing Montgomery was not producing, he wasn't worth putting up with. Montgomery was the talk of NFL teams at the scouting combine last February, as his team interviews set off alarms. Scouts said Montgomery had a very different personality, and they were concerned about his willingness to conform in an NFL setting.
• Seeing how Randall Cobb of the Packers and Dustin Keller of the Dolphins were injured on low hits this year, the NFL competition committee is planning on re-examining rules about where defenders can and cannot aim. Some have argued that defenders are more likely to go low and injure ball-carriers' legs because they are so wary of being penalized and fined for hitting high. Eliminating the low hit would be difficult to do, however, because it would put smaller defenders at major disadvantages.
Remember the Name: Dre Kirkpatrick
The apprenticeship of Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick may have come to an abrupt halt as the Achilles tendon of Leon Hall was tearing last week in Detroit.
It is ironic that Kirkpatrick will be getting a chance to play because of an injury, as it has been injuries—one after another—that have prevented the 17th pick of the 2012 draft from playing much up to this point.
He missed his rookie training camp, the first seven games and the last two with a knee injury. He also sat out two games last year with a concussion. This season, he missed a pair of games with a hamstring.
Missing all that time is hard on a young player. "With the way this game has changed and all the spread-out systems, you have to get adapted to the techniques we use," Bengals secondary coach Mark Carrier said. "You can't afford to miss time, to miss camp. Any time you have an injury, you have to heal yourself, get yourself in playing shape and at the same time he is learning the system."
Bengals coaches say they have not determined if Kirkpatrick will start or merely play on nickel downs against the Jets on Sunday, but he will be on the field more. And Carrier believes Kirkpatrick is ready now.
"He's a lot longer than people think," Carrier said. "He's very quick. He has quick hands. Once he's on you, he's a pain in the butt. You can't get rid of him. You can tell this kid loves to play. He is very competitive."
Kirkpatrick had a rough game in the preseason against the Cowboys and didn't play much in the regular season until last week after Hall went down.
But Carrier said Kirkpatrick has shown the ability to put bad plays and bad days behind him. "The biggest thing is guys like Terrance Newman and Leon and myself and other guys have talked about situations like that," Carrier said. "Everybody has had those situations. It makes you a better player. It can't be great all the time."
If you want to know why Tom Brady isn't producing quite like Tom Brady this year, take a look at his wide receivers.
Patriots receivers have 24 drops—most in the NFL, according to STATS LLC. Leading the way with a league-high seven is Kenbrell Thompkins. Aaron Dobson has six, Julian Edelman has five and Brandon Bolden has three.
Brady has had 13.2 percent of his catchable passes dropped. That's the highest percentage among quarterbacks who have been starting all season.
So even though Brady ranks third in the NFL in attempts, he ranks 10th in completions, 14th in yards and 30th in yards per attempt. His completion percentage of 55.4 is well off his previous career completion percentage of 63.7.
Anybody seen Wes Welker?
• Which is worse: a fantasy football player threatening to kill Brandon Jacobs, or Brandon Meriweather apparently trying to kill opposing receivers? And if Meriweather isn't actually trying to kill receivers, he has absolutely no idea how to tackle in this day and age, and he has no business being a professional football player.
• Rodney Harrison thinks Vikings quarterback Josh Freeman is pretending he has a concussion. That is more palatable to Minnesota fans than Freeman pretending he knows the Vikings offense.
• NFL scouts think LeBron James could deliver in their league too. But only if he could take his talents to South Beach.
• The Rams called Brett Favre recently. They must have had some questions about how to collect Social Security.
• The NFL last week lost Bud Adams from the ranks of team owners. But the league might be gaining Sean "Diddy" Combs. Do you suppose times are changing?
• Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan was fined 10 large for putting his hand on his crotch after an interception return for a touchdown. He could have bought a tube of Tinactin for about $9,987 less.
Dan Pompei, who has covered 26 Super Bowls, writes a weekly NFL column for Bleacher Report.
Note: Photos by Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports, Getty Images, Rich Barnes/USA Today, Steve Mitchell/USA Today, Tim Heitman/USA Today.