The up-and-coming New York Jets are playoff hopefuls in 2014, but their potential run at a wild-card berth depends entirely on whether second-year quarterback Geno Smith can take his game to the next level.
The Jets' surprising 8-8 season in 2013 was fueled by their 11th-ranked defense, which led the league in fewest rushing yards allowed for a decent chunk of the season.
For the Jets to take the next step toward becoming a perennial contender in the relatively mediocre AFC, Smith needs to rise to the occasion.
According to a poll conducted by ESPN Insider Mike Sando (subscription required), anonymous coaches, coordinators and executives believe Smith is incapable of conquering that challenge.
Smith was ranked 32nd in a four-tier system that was headlined by none other than New England Patriots QB Tom Brady.
On paper, Smith's ranking appears somewhat accurate—that is, judging by his relative inaccurate throwing ability. The Jets signal-caller completed an inefficient 55.8 percent of his pass attempts in 2013, throwing just 12 touchdown passes against a whopping 21 interceptions.
Smith's struggles often derailed the Jets' chances of winning.
He chucked three ill-timed passes into solid downfield coverage in the fourth quarter of the Jets' Week 2 contest against the Patriots last season to put a bow on the first ugly game of his career.
Smith recorded multiple interceptions seven times in 2013, registering a cumulative 66.5 quarterback rating on the season.
There was a lot of bad to consummate Smith's arrival in New York, but there was also plenty of good. Smith showed moments of excellence at times, showcasing the type of poise that a championship-caliber QB needs to have in clutch situations.
He orchestrated five game-winning drives on the season, including a thrilling 55-yard march to victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football with a little under two minutes to play.
Smith enjoyed the most efficient game of his rookie season under the bright lights of Monday night against the Falcons, completing 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns. The most important stat of the Jets' 30-28 win that night was zero—as in zero turnovers.
That's the kind of performance the Jets need from Smith if they're going to shock the world and register a double-digit win total in 2014.
Assuming Smith claims the starting job in training camp, which seems likely despite imminent competition from veteran Michael Vick, the Jets will be expecting their second-year QB to operate the offense with more authority.
The Jets flaunt a more capable group of playmakers on offense this season, which should in theory ease the pressure on Smith.
Meanwhile, electrifying running back Chris Johnson might not be the CJ2K of 2009, but he will supply Smith with a viable checkdown option in the face of solid downfield coverage—a luxury the Jets didn't have in 2013.
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The biggest concern regarding Smith before the 2013 NFL draft was his seeming inability to operate a pro-style offense. Many wondered whether Smith was capable of excelling under center as opposed to in the shotgun, where ESPN Stats & Information's Sharon Katz noted he took a high percentage of snaps at the collegiate level.
The Jets don't necessarily need to dumb down the offense in order to enable Smith to succeed at a higher level, but it would be wise to incorporate a high number of short pass patterns to help cultivate confidence and efficiency.
They should have the personnel in place to do that.
Rookie tight end Jace Amaro figures to be an immediate impact player, assuming he's able to prove himself capable of being an adequate run-blocker.
Amaro will be a weapon over the middle of the field whereas the aforementioned Johnson will supply the offense with pass-catching ability out of the backfield.
In 2013, Smith recorded 43 passes of 20-plus yards, the highest number of plays of that sort from a Jet since Vinny Testaverde converted 44 passes of such distance in 2001.
Smith's strong arm will continue to enable the Jets to drop big plays over the top of opposing defenses from time to time, but dialing up 20-plus-yard plays shouldn't be a big part of the offense in 2014.
Smith completed 71.2 percent of his pass attempts during his senior season at West Virginia, throwing an FBS-best 42 touchdowns.
His incredible passing efficiency was indeed a product of the system, which is partly why he dropped into the second round of the draft in 2013. Smith will never reach that type of efficiency at the pro level, but he's more than capable of developing into an effective starter.
As Randy Lange of NewYorkJets.com points out, Smith has the aptitude to succeed, a reality that some numbers serve to illustrate.
Smith led the NFL in 3rd-and-long passing conversions in 2013, recording 11 in situations that required 11 or more yards to move the chains on third down.
While Smith undeniably committed several questionable throwing decisions throughout his rookie campaign, he demonstrated the ability to know when to run.
Who should start at QB for the Jets in 2014?
Smith recorded six rushing touchdowns last season, all of which occurred in Jets wins. That figure tied Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton for the league lead.
On the surface, Smith's numbers do indeed resemble those of a league-worst QB, but it's also important to realize the good the Jets QB put forth as part of an offense that often featured David Nelson as its No. 1 receiver.
The Jets should expect steady improvement from Smith in his second season. While he's assuredly going to frustrate Jets Nation at times, he's also going to showcase moments of brilliance.
Smith's path to potential stardom is much different than that of former first-round pick Mark Sanchez, who was essentially bottled up in a game-manager role throughout his tenure in New York—for good reason.
Smith is much more athletic than Sanchez, although he was just as turnover-prone in his rookie season. The Jets are willing to take their licks with Smith because they understand QB development is a process.
If Smith can demonstrate the ability to complete roughly 60 percent of his pass attempts while throwing more touchdowns than interceptions in 2014, the Jets will likely finish the season with a winning record and earn the playoff berth they seek.