Geno Smith, embattled rookie quarterback for the New York Jets, has a league-high 20 interceptions through 13 games this season. He is keeping decent company. Ben Roethlisberger,Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Jay Cutler also threw 20-plus picks to this point in a season in their careers. Stafford actually had a lower passer rating and similarly dismal Total QBR score back in his 2009 rookie season, a reminder that first-year players tend to struggle, particularly when paired with vastly undermanned rosters.
Of course, some young quarterbacks never seem to recover from harrowing experiences suffered early in their careers. The fact that Stafford improved after struggling early assures nothing for Smith. The key for the Jets is to figure out how to improve their team in general and, specifically, their quarterback situation. Is Smith the long-term answer in New York? ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson and NFL Insider columnist Mike Sando diagnose the Jets' problems and offer solutions.
Can Smith improve?
Williamson: It's time to worry about whether Smith is going to deal with David Carr syndrome. There are so many things working against him. The Jets even put Matt Simms in the game a couple of times this season, because they don't have anyone else. To give Geno the benefit of the doubt, this really should have been a redshirt year for him. He was probably less ready for Week 1 than any recent QB I can remember. He was highly productive in college running a spread system from the shotgun and throwing to small, quick guys, but he never took snaps from behind center. Everyone has a hard time as a rookie adjusting to the pro game. He had never taken the drops from under center in what is more or less a timing-, rhythm-based West Coast offense the Jets are running. I'm not saying he was a bad fit, but it's a rough transition.
Sando: The Jets got the worst of both worlds this season. The guaranteed money Mark Sanchezis earning dissuaded them from pursuing another veteran, but then Sanchez suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, putting all the pressure on Smith -- with no safety net underneath him. I was of the mind that the Jets really couldn't do much worse than Sanchez, who had pretty much been a replacement-level player. And I'm not really convinced Sanchez would be doing better under the circumstances. The Jets so clearly need a viable veteran backup.David Garrard fills some of the void in terms of what he might be able to offer as a sounding board, but he's not much of an option in terms of taking snaps to give Smith a chance to breathe a little.
Williamson: I don't think the Jets are very well coached offensively, either. Smith is very athletic, but he isn't a run-first guy who is going to take off when his first read isn't there. Running is really a last resort for Smith, and that is a strength in many ways (he can be a pocket passer). But we've seen so many of these young QBs who are super athletic, and their ability to run is such a great tool to help them get through their first seasons as starters. Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick all thrived on it. The Jets have so few weapons in their offensive arsenal, but they at least have that threat with Smith's legs. Still, they never use it. They never call a QB run. At this point, it's clear that Smith is struggling, but they aren't even letting him do what he is capable of. Also, they run a lot of Wildcat formation plays with running backs; they should at least let Geno do that.
Sando: We have Smith with 14 carries for 59 yards and two touchdowns on zone-read rushes. To get a sense of the bigger picture, I was conducting some research this week and discovered the Jets have gotten 50 starts this season from their 2013 draft class. That is by far the most starts any team has gotten from its current crop of drafted rookies. San Diego is second with 39, followed by Tampa Bay and Jacksonville with 37 apiece. None of those teams are exactly lighting it up. I think it's important to remember that the Jets were 32nd in everyone's power rankings coming into the season. We shouldn't be surprised to see them lose four of their last six games. It's far too early to write off Smith, but it's also clear the team needs alternatives. Finding one needs to be a priority this offseason.
Williamson: I do have some questions about Smith. There was some chatter before the draft about whether he had the leadership skills to be an NFL QB. Times are tough now and he is not dealing with adversity well. Without knowing who the player might be, it would go a long way if Smith had a confidant, a guy who has been there and who can say to Geno, "I know what you are going through," and frankly someone who can play the game. They need a Kyle Orton-type veteran. Smith has all of these things going against him, but he is still very bad and inconsistent. You can't get around the fact that guys are wide open and he throws it out of bounds. There are a lot of bad decisions, a lot of turnovers that are his fault and a lot of poor pass-rush recognition. He is a rookie who has played 13 games and he never should have been in there. It would have been different if the Jets had a better team around him. Back in 2009, when Sanchez was a rookie, they had a strong offensive line, the defense was fantastic and they could win low-scoring games. Smith is too inconsistent for that to happen right now.
What should the Jets' plan be for the offseason?
Sando: General manager John Idzik was with the Seattle Seahawks when I was covering the NFC West for ESPN.com. Seattle was the most aggressive team in the league at churning the bottom of its roster when Pete Carroll and John Schneider started building that team. It acquired a long line of players such as LenDale White, Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, Marshawn Lynch,Chris Clemons, Leon Washington, etc. Some of those guys had zero chance. A couple of them really took off. But the point was that the Seahawks kept churning the roster. Their current right tackle, Breno Giacomini, was someone they signed off Green Bay's practice squad. They got a starting corner, Brandon Browner, in the CFL. I would think Idzik will want to be similarly aggressive this coming offseason. This roster needs work.
Williamson: The Jets need to address every position on offense but running back, and even that position is not good. They had a great line with Alan Faneca, Brandon Moore, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold a couple of years ago. Ferguson and Mangold remain, but they are not playing well at all this season. The Jets have a couple of guys who are scheduled to become free agents. You could make the case that the Jets need five new starting linemen because their two best guys are getting old and a couple of others might not re-sign. They are running a 3-4 defense without having good pass-rushing outside linebackers. They could use help there. Plus, the secondary is terrible -- and it sounds as if Antonio Cromartie could be gone for salary-cap reasons.
Sando: The Jets do have needs everywhere, but upgrading the offensive weaponry has to be the No. 1 priority as they seek to get better value from their quarterback investment. Every QB needs weapons and the Jets simply don't have enough of them. I know you've mentioned how much better Smith seems to have played when receiver Jeremy Kerley has been on the field. This is true. I took it one step further to see what Smith's numbers look like when both Kerley and tight end Kellen Winslow have been on the field. With both on the field, Smith has completed 42 of 69 passes (60.9 percent) for 517 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a surprisingly high 66.8 QBR score. Without either on the field, Smith has completed 34 of 74 passes (45.9 percent) for 460 yards with zero touchdowns, seven picks and a 3.6 QBR score. That doesn't mean Smith is in the clear if the Jets can keep Kerley and Winslow on the field, but it does paint a compelling picture for his ability to succeed with a couple of playmakers.
Williamson: Besides their defensive line, the Jets more or less still need help at every position. And Smith hasn't proved capable of elevating the play of those around him. He needs a strong supporting cast. Simply put, he does not have it right now. One offseason probably will not provide Smith and the Jets with ample talent to take the next step. This is going to be a multiyear process.