How starved are the New York Jets for a franchise quarterback? Hungry enough to use a top-50 selection, endure 16 games of ups and downs and fake a competition to put Geno Smith on a pedestal no man since Joe Namath has stepped on.
The fact that the Jets are willing to bend their own mantras of “competition” for the sake of starting a certain player speaks to how much they are hinging on Smith to take the job and never look back. The real question is: How will they handle his failures?
Smith’s rookie year is now behind him, but the inevitable periods of adversity that follow NFL quarterbacks are hardly a thing of the past. At the same time, the Jets are in the business of winning—how many games can they afford to throw away at the expense of developing one player?
At some point, Smith will struggle—how Rex Ryan and the Jets respond can be the difference between moving forward as a franchise with an established quarterback or find themselves in rebuilding mode next spring.
Of course, the Jets have put themselves in a particularly sticky situation by signing the league’s premium backup quarterback (based on price), Michael Vick.
He's just a couple years removed from his breakout 2010 season, in which he threw for over 3,000 yards in just 12 games. Healthy and still capable of playing at a relatively high level, it is difficult to imagine a player of Vick’s caliber riding the bench for the entirety of the season.
How will the Jets manage to balance their long-term interests in Smith while still maximizing the value of their $5 million backup insurance policy?
No Hesitation in the Short Term
As the Jets found out the hard way, two quarterback systems never work in the professional ranks. NFL offenses need timing, rhythm and leadership from the most important position in professional sports—inserting Vick as a “change-of-pace” player would disrupt all of those essential qualities.
At the same time, the Jets need to stay away from the opposite end of the spectrum. Sticking with Smith through all adversity, ignorant to the consequences, could be even more damaging than taking him out every few plays.
There will be times in which Ryan will have to grin and bear the tough times Smith brings about. However, choosing to roll with Smith through the leanest of times could wind up costing Ryan his job if the Jets don’t win enough games.
When the Jets brought in Vick, it signaled two things: First, they were not content with the way Smith played as a rookie and improvements were necessary.
Second, Vick gives the Jets a chance to save their season if things start to go south under Smith’s watch.
Last year’s regime change made it “acceptable” for the Jets to miss the playoffs. Their 8-8 season in 2013 was celebrated as if they had won a division title:
A year later, the stakes are raised. Idzik and his brass would love for Smith to succeed, but not at the cost of yet another season. The worst thing the Jets can do is be timid in making their decision to bench Smith.
Essentially, the Jets should use Vick as a relief pitcher. There will be games when Smith is simply not playing up to standard—instead of riding Smith for the sake of getting through tough times, replacing him with Vick could help get the Jets through rough patches to keep their win total high.
The Jets, specifically Ryan, should learn from the mistakes they made in Mark Sanchez's development. When Sanchez hit a rough patch—and there were plenty of them—Ryan chose to make Sanchez work through them on his own, in part due to the simple fact that they did not have a backup on the roster that was capable of playing at a respectable level.
Until he was finally benched for the final two games of the 2012 season, Sanchez endured all of his ups and downs without any temporary relief. We know how that story ends.
These periodical benchings for Smith (if necessary) do not have to be permanent. Substituting a struggling player with lost confidence for a few quarters does not have to mean abandoning him as a quarterback altogether. If anything, it could help preserve his confidence as he avoids regressing further and further as a bad game gets more and more out of hand.
Plus, the more often the Jets bench Smith, the more numb to the idea the team and public will be to such events. As long as Ryan is matter-of-fact about the concept of occasionally swapping quarterbacks when necessary, his team’s attitude will follow suit.
When Does A Permanent Change Begin?
In the short term, Smith should be given a relatively short leash. As soon as Smith starts to hand out interceptions like expired vacation brochures, Ryan should not hesitate to warm up the bullpen.
At the same time, Ryan and the Jets cannot lose sight of what is going to allow them to succeed in the long term. Sending out Vick to clean up Smith’s mess over and over will beg the question as to why Vick isn’t running the show on his own.
In order for the Jets to make an irreversible changing of the hands (at least for this season), not only will Smith have to play poorly for several weeks in a row, but the Jets will still need to have a season to play for—otherwise, they may as well ride out Smith for all he’s worth.
A full-blown benching of Smith requires an unlikely scenario where Smith is playing extraordinarily poorly, but the Jets still have a season to play for.
Benching Smith permanently for a slow start would essentially throw everything they have been working toward with Smith all summer out the window. After handing him the starting job before the start of camp, the Jets already made the decision to move forward with Geno, for better or worse.
Idzik and/or Ryan have chosen to marry themselves to Smith’s success this year. Barring a total collapse in the first month of games, Smith’s season-long leash will have plenty of slack.
The Jets have created an interesting dynamic between Smith and Vick that is unlike most youth-versus-veteran quarterback duos. Either player would be worthy of starting in any given week based both on their merit, upside and ability to win games now.
As odd as it sounds, Vick is almost too good for his anticipated backup role. To this point, the Jets have been fortunate to evade the disgruntled-and-overqualified employee dynamic. By the looks of things, the relationship is more than just professional—it's humorous:
It may be all smiles and jokes now, but the positive vibes could change if Smith's play brings down the rest of the team.
To simplify his strategy, Ryan should not be hesitant to insert Vick into a game when it means the difference between winning and losing. Players across the league are benched and return to their normal roles on a weekly basis, and Smith should be treated no differently.
He should, however, be very careful of a permanent switch. Such a move would not only undermine his general manager, but it would presumably signal that the Jets are back to square one at the quarterback position for the up-teenth time in their history. For self-preservation, Ryan can at least show he has some vested interest in the long-term health of the franchise, not just this year’s playoff picture.
The actual length of Smith's hypothetical leash does not have a specific number of games, losses or interceptions attached to it. What is more relevant is the nature of the benching and how quickly Smith is inserted back into the lineup, if he is at all.
No matter what their contingency plan is, the Jets hope they never have to utilize a dollar of the $5 million they spent on Vick.