It feels like we watch a different Geno Smith every Sunday. One week sees him leading the Jets offense on a last-minute field-goal drive on the road to secure a victory while another shows him throwing two pick-sixes in a shameful blowout loss. In Sunday's 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints, Smith took on his latest identity: game manager.
Smith attempted only 19 passes, and had only eight completions. He did not throw a touchdown (although he did scramble for one), and he avoided any turnovers for only the second time this year. He finished with a 14.8 QBR, the second lowest for any winning quarterback so far this season, according to ESPN.com. Smith summarized his ability to avoid setbacks on offense, saying, "Not having so many negative plays and negative yardage really helped us," according to Greg Logan of Newsday.
His reduced role is partially a response to last week's 49-9 loss to the Bengals, in which he tossed two touchdowns to opposing defenders and none to his teammates. The disheartening performance led to him being pulled in the fourth quarter so that backup Matt Simms could get some reps. The Jets gameplan adjusted accordingly this week, giving Smith limited moments to impact the outcome.
But the Jets' decision to take the ball out of Smith's hands and put it in the paws of bruising running back Chris Ivory go beyond a reaction to the rookie's inconsistent play. It's also a return to the strategy that got the Jets to the AFC Championship Game in consecutive years. During those regular seasons and subsequent playoff runs, the Jets leaned heavily on their running game. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez was asked to make several key plays but never to independently carry the team.
In the years that followed, the Jets tried to embrace a more dynamic air attack, and watched Mark Sanchez wilt under the added responsibility. Now that they have several capable running backs and another stout defense, the Jets may return to the idea of making their quarterback, now Smith, into a game manager, at least for the end of this season.
In the short term, it might be a solid idea. At 5-4 and with a relatively easy schedule to finish the season, the Jets may only need four wins to separate themselves from the muddled list of AFC contenders. They have home games against the Raiders, Browns, and Dolphins, all beatable teams, and away games against the struggling Ravens and Bills. The Jets may not need to reinvent their formula to find some victories.
That being said, the Jets reluctance to rely on Smith almost cost them the game against the Saints. Needing one first down on two late possessions to seal the victory, the Jets handed the ball off on first and second downs both times, despite the Saints defense's evident plan to sell out for the run. The Jets gained no net yards on those plays, setting up third-and-long in both cases and eventual three-and-outs. Jets fans couldn't exhale until Drew Brees' last-ditch pass to Pierre Thomas on fourth down fell incomplete on the ensuing drive.
Plus, the long term capability of such a plan is less reliable. Smith and the Jets have been lauded for their efforts against the Saints, but lost in the celebration if an assessment of the bigger picture. Yes, there have been game managers at the quarterback position that have steered their teams to Super Bowl titles. Trent Dilfer, who threw only 12 touchdowns for the champion Ravens during the 2000 regular season, is often cited as an example.
But the game has changed since then. The NFL, employing new rules that protect and promote the passing game, arguably requires teams to have a prolific and successful passer to win a title. Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Brees are the last four quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl, and they didn't do so by handing the ball off and watching the play.
After the game against the Saints, head coach Rex Ryan didn't seem concerned about the conservative playcalling, noting that Geno is "not worried about his stats or anything else. He's worried about wins," according to the team's official site. But these days, the guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who put up the big numbers are also usually the ones playing deep into January.
It will be interesting to watch the Jets variable game plan moving forward. They could fool everyone and bring Smith out firing in Week 11 after their bye. Or they might stick to the strategy that won them the game against the Saints and several playoff matchups this decade. The question remains, though, whether the Jets will need to embrace Smith as an ultimate passer to fulfill their Super Bowl dreams.