Geno Smith's Last Stand in New York: Will He Succeed?
Nature versus nurture. The debate has gone on for decades now. Are you largely influenced by your genetics, or is it your environment that shapes your development and future? Following the vote of confidence by new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and the New York Jets coaching staff, quarterback Geno Smith will get the chance to put these theories to the test this season.
Geno Smith has left much to be desired as a starter for the Jets. Since joining the them as the second signal caller selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, Geno has thrown together an 11-18 record with a sub-60% completion rate and a 25-to-34 touchdown-to-interception ratio. To put this into perspective, the top five quarterbacks of the 2012 draft class -- Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Nick Foles -- averaged a 16-12 record, a 61.0% completion rate, and a 40-to-20 touchdown-to-interception ratio over their first two years in the league.
So when Chan Gailey announced that there would be no quarterback competition this summer and that Geno was his man, the NFL community responded by collectively asking, "Are you sure?"
Many analysts around the league argue that in his two seasons in the NFL, Geno has failed to show us any reason to believe he can someday become an elite option at quarterback, and that perhaps it just isn't in his nature to be more than a replacement-level talent. Others -- like Todd Bowles and Chan Gailey -- believe that Geno can be nurtured into a starting-caliber player if given the right opportunity and surroundings.
As the 2015 season gets under way, and with a new coaching staff and improved personnel in place around Geno, we'll soon see which camp is right.
The Right Stuff?
Lauded for his superior athleticism entering the 2013 NFL Draft (Geno ran a 4.59 40-yard dash, to go along with a 33.5-inch vertical and 124-inch broad jump at the NFL Combine), Geno's athletic ability has yet to translate into superior quarterback play for the Jets. Instead, Geno has showcased a number of fundamental flaws that have caused many to openly wonder whether Smith possesses the innate ability to thrive at such a demanding position in the NFL.
One area where Geno has shown clear deficiency is in his decision-making. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Geno Smith averaged 3.10 seconds between the snap of the football and his decision to throw it. This was nearly a full second slower than Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning, who managed to release the ball at an average of 2.24 seconds after the snap. And in the NFL, that extra fraction of a second makes a world of difference. Despite playing behind an offensive line that ranked eighth last season in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus, Geno's inability to get the ball out of his hands in a timely fashion resulted in a dismal 71 sacks over the last two seasons.
Beyond his slow release, Geno has also exercised poor judgment on the throws he has managed to get off in time. Smith has accounted for 41 turnovers -- including 34 interceptions -- in just 39 starts. Contrast this with the five signal callers from the 2012 draft class that were thrust into starting positions as rookies that have averaged just 30.4 turnovers over their first two years in the league.
Geno's accuracy at all levels of the field has also taken a knock. While offensive coordinator Chan Gailey recently spoke glowingly of Geno's abilities, saying he thought Geno could "make every throw in the book", his play in the NFL so far suggests otherwise.
Geno has only managed to complete 30.5% of his pass attempts flying more than 20 yards through the air over his two-year NFL career, and has averaged an interception on one out of every six of these throws.
So, if we're judging Geno Smith's prospects in the NFL solely on the on-field talent he's shown us thus far, the above analysis paints a less than rosy picture for Geno's chances. The two key attributes one looks for in a franchise quarterback -- quick decision-making and accuracy -- also happen to be two of his biggest weaknesses.
The Right Staff?
The Jets suffered an embarrassing 43-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 6 of last season thanks in large part to the play of Geno Smith that day. In the team's first four possessions, Geno managed to throw just eight passes before finding his way to the bench. And while he connected on five of these attempts, three of them were actually caught by members of the Bills defense.
When backup Michael Vick was named the starter for their Week 7 matchup against Kansas City shortly thereafter, many proclaimed the end of the short-lived Geno Smith era in New York.
But then something as equally ugly as Geno's Week 6 blunder occurred. Starting in the next three games, Vick threw for a laughable 135 yards per game to go along with just three total touchdowns and one interception.
It was at this point that the Jets front office must have said to themselves, perhaps it isn't Geno that's the problem. Smith was quickly reinstated as the team's starting quarterback, and following the end of their disappointing 4-12 season, the Jets quickly got to work revamping their offense.
The Jets aggressively pursued talent at all levels of the offense, luring Todd Bowles out of Arizona to be their head coach, installing Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator, trading for a reliable stud in Brandon Marshall, signing Stevan Ridley, and drafting speed demon Devin Smith to stretch the field.
The front office made certain that if Geno is indeed getting one last chance to salvage his career, then he should at least have the proper tools around him to once and for all put the debates regarding his talent at quarterback to rest.
You only have to go back to Chan Gailey's career in Buffalo to see the effect he has on his quarterbacks. Chan assumed the head coaching role for the Bills in 2010, and it's no coincidence that this also happens to be quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's breakout season.
Under Chan Gailey's first season there, Fitzpatrick saw his Passing Net Expected Points (or NEP, a measure of a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation) go from a ghastly -63.7 and -39.0 in 2008 and 2009, respectively, to a respectable 10.39 in 2010. And this increased efficiency in the passing game allowed Ryan to register his first 3,000 yard passing season as a pro as well as more than double his previous high in touchdown passes (23).
And Gailey's ability to elevate the play of his offensive personnel has been echoed in the praise heaped upon from his former players.
C.J. Spiller, who saw his most successful season as an NFL running back under Gailey's watch said of his old coach, "He's going put his players in the best situations to win matchups. Just a humble guy. First class. Goes about his business the right way. He's going to treat his men like men."
Kordell Stewart, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback whom Gailey most famously molded an offense around rather than the traditional vice-versa approach, spoke on his expectations of Geno under Chan's tutelage stating, "I guarantee you -- I think Chan Gailey is going to put him in a position to make him understand himself."
Never one to limit his team with conventional methods -- Gailey pioneered the regular use of the shotgun formation in the NFL two decades ago with the Steelers -- there's no doubt that Chan will use his creative genius to devise a game plan that will maximize Geno Smith's skill set and potential.
Prior to the 2014 season, the Jets acquired the talented Eric Decker in free agency and drafted the athletic, pass-catching tight end Jace Amaro to pair alongside their young slot receiver, Jeremy Kerley. Clearly for Geno Smith last year, this wasn't enough.
So during this offseason, the Jets redoubled their efforts on this side of the ball in both free agency and the draft, trading for a true number one wideout in Brandon Marshall, drafting a deep threat in Devin Smith, and trying to bolster the running game with new additions Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy.
While Brandon Marshall had a down 2014 season in large part due to injury, his ability to influence the outcome of a game was still apparent. The Bears averaged an Adjusted Passing NEP of 1.21 per game in competitions in which Marshall suited up, versus an abysmal -7.60 Adjusted Passing NEP per game in the three matches Marshall missed. In other words, Marshall's absence from the lineup resulted in nearly 9 fewer points for Chicago's passing offense on a per-game basis.
The hope for the Jets this year is that if Marshall can stay healthy, the large catch radius provided by his 6' 4", 230-pound frame can give this offense a boost by giving Geno a reliable possession receiver to move the chains and dependable weapon in the red zone.
Another option that Geno has lacked so far in New York is a true deep threat to complement the strong arm he displayed during his days as a West Virginia Mountaineer. Indeed, Geno has thrown just 26 total passes sailing more than 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage as a Jet (connecting on just four of these throws).
The Jets rectified this problem this past May by selecting Ohio State Buckeye Devin Smith to stretch the field. A true deep-ball maven, in Smith's final year at Ohio State, Devin amassed 931 yards on just 33 receptions for a remarkable average of 28.2 yards per reception. So now with arguably the best deep threat in this year's draft class at his disposal, Geno has the personnel necessary to effectively challenge defenses with the deep ball.
Along with their focus on the passing game, New York's front office has also made a concerted effort to upgrade their rushing attack to alleviate some of the offensive burden from Geno's shoulders. As our own Joe Redemann alluded to in his analysis of Stacy's arrival in New York, while Ivory, Ridley, and Stacy may not be the most efficient early-down backs in the league, what they lack in quality, they make up in quantity. This stable of running backs can perhaps help keep defenses honest in coverage and reduce some of the defense's attention away from their still developing quarterback.
It's evident that with changes to the coaching staff and upgrades in offensive personnel, the Jets have done everything in their power to put Smith in a situation to succeed.
When it comes to the opportunity now in front of Geno this season, Jets guard Willie Colon said it best when he said "We bought the Porsche. We've given him the keys. He can't crash it. Bottom line. He can't crash it."
You get the sense that with the quality of players and coaching now surrounding Geno, and with a couple of seasons of NFL experience under his belt, he's all out of excuses. This is his last chance to show the league what he has.
But even with the lost season that was 2014, Geno has flashed us glimpses of what could be better days to come. Geno closed the last four games of the year with a 65.1% completion rate (71 of 109), to the tune of 250 passing yards per game, and an impressive six touchdowns against just two interceptions.
So now with momentum on his side, an offensive coordinator with a reputation for getting the most out of his quarterbacks in his corner, and more than capable teammates alongside him in the huddle, Geno has something he hasn't necessarily had his first two years in the pros: he has the chance to take his fate into his own hands and show the league exactly what he's capable of.