The New York Jets have spent the last six months tirelessly reworking their roster to put the franchise back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
However, all of their efforts will be for nothing if the development of Geno Smith stalls. If Smith fails, the entire organization will take a massive leap in the wrong direction. Even if Michael Vick can salvage the season by himself, a failed Smith will leave the Jets right back in square one at the quarterback position next offseason.
Based on his scheduled time with the first team in training camp, Smith will be getting the keys to the franchise this season with the Jets all but forgoing the idea of an open competition.
This decision may cost the Jets a few wins in the short term, but it will allow them to see once and for all if Geno Smith can be the quarterback they can mold their franchise around. Smith's up-and-down 2013 season was nothing more than a tease of what was to come. The only way to find out for sure if Smith is their franchise player is to let him prove it on the field.
What makes Smith such a confusing case study is that he showed both ends of the quarterbacking spectrum. At times, it was difficult to distinguish Smith from a seasoned All-Pro. The following week, he would look like he still belonged at West Virginia.
When taking a closer look at Smith's performances, it is easy to derive the fact he was usually as good as his environment would let him. When given time and space to make throws, he made them. When he had to compensate for poor play from his teammates, he came up short.
For a rookie quarterback, this is to be expected. However, in his second season, Smith needs to show the ability to not just do his job—but to elevate the play of those around him.
Early in the season, Smith's ability to throw the deep ball was his most glaring strength. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was at his best when throwing in the intermediate-to-deep levels of the field, particularly near the sidelines.
Pro Football Focus
This ability allowed them to pull out several wins they otherwise would have lost, particularly in Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills.
Smith made a living off of deep passes like this below example at the end of games to give the Jets the edge in close contests. As you can see on this throw, Smith has plenty of time and space to let the play develop and read his receivers—anything but a perfect delivery would have been unacceptable in these circumstances.
However, to say Smith was sitting back and hitting open targets would be selling him short. When given the time and space—the one constant he needed for success—he made otherworldly throws at times.
On this touchdown in Week 5 against the Atlanta Falcons, Smith shows off great anticipation, accuracy, touch and timing to fit this ball in a tight window in the gap of a zone defense.
This is the type of throw average, career-backup quarterbacks do not make with any kind of regularity. These types of throws are signs Smith just may be the franchise quarterback the Jets need after all.
However, for every step Smith would take in the right direction last season, he would take another step back the following week—which would partially explain the win-loss-win-loss pattern the Jets followed for the majority of last season.
Smith was a huge part in many of the Jets' wins in 2013 by simply taking advantage of solid play around him—but he was unable to pull them out of a funk when things got ugly.
Whether there were breakdowns in protection or inconsistent routes being run by the receivers, Smith's performance took a steep decline when his supporting cast was less than stellar. Any offense is going to decline when there are breakdowns outside of the quarterback position, but the decline in Smith's play from game to game was incredibly drastic.
This tendency was best exemplified in the Jets' horrendous offensive showing against the Baltimore Ravens.
On this play, Smith has a chance to hit his receiver running up the seam. However, he feels the pressure and takes his eyes off the field for a split second.
As a result, Smith misses the opportunity to hit his open receiver, and the play results in a sack.
This sack was not all Smith's fault—after all, had the protection held up properly, he would have been in perfect shape to generate a big play through the air.
On the other hand, breakdowns and other imperfections in an offensive play design are a part of the game. Top-tier quarterbacks who establish themselves as "franchise" players turn these would-be negative plays into positive ones, elevating the overall play of their team.
The good news is that these types of errors are common amongst rookies and are correctable with time. Time, however, is hardly on Smith's side as he faces a do-or-die season to prove his worth as the Jets' franchise player.
The Jets already know the strengths and weaknesses of Smith. For them, the next step is taking huge developmental strides in Year 2 to avoid these types of articles from ever being written about Smith again.
It is impossible to tell whether any player will have a successful season based on the results of OTAs, but the sheer fact the Jets have all but ditched any idea of a quarterback competition in training camp speaks volumes for how much trust they have in Smith.
The final part of the ever-so-complex franchise quarterback equation is the off-field demeanor. In 2013, Smith was limited in his ability to establish himself as a leader because of the fact he was a rookie.
Now armed with a year's worth of experience as a starter, Smith has earned the right to call out younger players for stepping out of line—which he wasted no time doing to talkative first-round pick Calvin Pryor, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports.
Jets rookie S Calvin Pryor likes to talk trash; QB Geno Smith says Pryor hasn't really earned the right to do it http://t.co/5tBbWp7JR4— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 19, 2014
There is no question Smith's age and upside (as well as the fact they used a second-round pick on him) give the Jets a lot more incentive to hand him the job over Michael Vick. Nonetheless, the Jets need to play to win in a year with heightened expectations. Rex Ryan would not put his career in jeopardy for the sake of the Jets having more intel on their young quarterback if he was not confident in him being able to win a sufficient amount of games.
The unfortunate aspect of Smith's weaknesses is that while they are correctable, they are far from being easy to correct. Film study and practice habits only go so far when it comes to making instinctual plays on the fly to bail your team out of trouble.
Smith has the tools to be the franchise quarterback the Jets have been starved for—whether he becomes this player will depend on the speed of his development. The faster he can convince the Jets he is the long-term answer at the most crucial position in American sports, the less time doubt will have to creep into the minds of the Jets' brass.