On a freshly groomed football field in Cortland, New York, the fight to become the starting quarterback of the New York Jets is finally underway.
Over the next month, in front of vociferous fans, controversy-starved members of the media and eagle-eyed coaches, Geno Smith and Michael Vick will duel for the right to be under center in Week 1 when Gang Green take on the Raiders.
It’s more than just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill offseason competition at quarterback. It’s the single-most important battle in any NFL training camp.
For the sake of the Jets and their coaching staff, Smith must claim the job and look strong in doing so.
If he doesn’t, the result of the competition will send shock waves throughout both the Jets organization and the rest of the NFL.
The Result Could Determine Coach Rex Ryan's Future
Consider some of the other high-profile training camp competitions set to occur. Whether it’s Brian Hoyer trying to fend off Johnny Manziel for the starting quarterback job in Cleveland or Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno duking it out to determine who starts in the Miami backfield, the result likely won’t have a cataclysmic effect on either franchise.
But for Jets coach Rex Ryan, the battle between Smith and Vick means everything.
The bottom line is that if Smith plays well throughout training camp and the preseason, it means Ryan can rest a little easier as it pertains to his always-fickle job status.
Under that scenario, Ryan would become tethered to the fortunes of his young passer, and assuming Smith makes strides in Year 2, Ryan would be virtually guaranteed another season in the Big Apple.
But if Smith face-plants and Vick wins the job, it will spell doom for Ryan.
Regardless of his personal feelings, Vick, 34, is not the same player he once was. Not by a long shot. He’s no longer capable of being “The Guy.” Any team that hands him the keys to the franchise for 16 games is asking for trouble.
Vick hasn’t completed more than 60 percent of his passes over a single season since his MVP-caliber campaign in 2010. He also hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2006, as he’s seemingly always battling various physical maladies.
If Vick wins the job, it will mean Smith has completely and utterly failed, and Smith's confidence could end up being destroyed.
If that happens, take a moment and imagine the reaction of the Jets fanbase if and when Vick crumbles to the ground. Conjure up the horror on Fireman Ed’s face as the trainers rush out onto the field while Smith straps on his helmet and begins throwing passes on the sideline.
Smith will be booed out of the building. It’s a certainty. And the last thing Ryan and the Jets need is the fanbase turning against them.
Ryan needs Smith to win the job because his football team will be better off for it. They’ll have a better chance of making the postseason, a feat that would ensure Ryan returns.
No other training camp battle could literally determine the fate of a head coach.
Will the Jets Need to Hit the Reset Button at Quarterback?
When the Jets drafted Smith in the second round of the 2013 draft, he assumed the mantle of the club’s “quarterback of the future.”
Smith authored an uneven rookie campaign, tossing only 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions. There were points where he looked as lost as Justin Bieber at a Mensa gathering.
But Smith emerged from the primordial slop that he dredged through for most of the season and played well down the stretch, throwing four touchdown passes against only two interceptions over the team’s final four games, winning three of them.
His magnum opus came in Week 17 when he completed 17 of 27 passes for 190 yards and no turnovers as the Jets knocked division rival Miami out of the postseason.
Smith needed to build on last season's strong finish, and to his credit, it appears he's done just that, as he told Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:
Coming into this year, I'm a lot more confident in my reads and my footwork, and delivering the ball a lot stronger and a lot more accurately -- all good signs of progress, but we have a long way to go. I have a long way to go.
It’s vital to the team’s success—both in 2014 and beyond—that Smith continues to ascend as a leader and a pure passer.
If he doesn’t, it’s very likely that the Jets will miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive season and hit the reset button on the quarterback position next offseason.
And in all likelihood, that will mean they'll be another two-to-three years away from legitimately contending in the AFC.
Impact on the AFC East and AFC Playoff Race
Go ahead and print the t-shirts now: the New England Patriots will win the AFC East for the sixth consecutive season.
But outside of the boys from Foxborough, the AFC East is wide-open. One could construct a legitimate argument for the Jets, Dolphins or Buffalo Bills finishing in second place and mounting a significant challenge for a playoff berth.
The difference between the Jets and the Dolphins/Bills? Both Miami and Buffalo have young quarterbacks (Ryan Tannehill and EJ Manuel, respectively) who are locked into the starting gig. Neither man will face competition in training camp, and both are expected to play well.
When pondering the seasons of the Dolphins and Bills, one can do so by projecting the seasons of Tannehill and Manuel.
Conversely, as it concerns the Jets, the Vick variable throws everything in flux.
We’ve already established that Vick is no longer a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL. So if he wins the job and plays a significant portion of the season, write off the Jets in the division. It would also provide quite the boost to the Dolphins and Bills as both teams seek to end lengthy postseason droughts.
But if Smith claims the job with gusto and can build a rapport with new receiver Eric Decker and rookie tight end Jace Amaro—and find success handing the ball off to running backs Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory—the Jets loom as a potentially scary team in the weak AFC.
WR David Nelson after practice: "I think Geno (Smith) looked better than I've ever seen him." #nyj— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) July 24, 2014
Ryan’s defenses always deliver, and on paper, the unit looks solid. Above-average quarterback play from Smith would go a long way toward sending the Jets back into the tournament.
But if it’s Vick, forget about it. The Jets will have zero chance.
So much is riding on each pass thrown this summer in Cortland. No coach, team and fanbase has more to lose on a training camp competition.
And it’s imperative that every Jets fan under the sun busts out their No. 7 jerseys and prays to the football gods for Smith to convincingly take the reins.
If he doesn't, it's going to be another long season for the Jets under the bright lights of Broadway.