On Wednesday, the New York Jets were once again the laughingstock of the NFL, firing their general manager only after he had already spent nearly $200 million in free agency and controlling yet another draft with a pick in the top-10. Not that what Mike Maccagnan did was all bad — Quinnen Williams is not someone I would bet against — but how could the Jets manage to top themselves in mismanagement once again?
Because they’re the Jets, I guess.
The problems stretch back for decades of course and include the 2013 draft, in which New York ended up picking three times in the top 40: Dee Milliner at nine (thanks to the Darrelle Revis trade), Sheldon Richardson at 13, and Geno Smith at 39, a quarterback who some had projected as a top-five pick at one point and then as the draft approached — former Seattle Seahawks front office-man John Idzik’s first with the team — it became clear that no quarterback would emerge as “franchise.” Even the Buffalo Bills selection of E.J. Manuel in the middle of round one seemed — well, let’s just say that the Jets and Bills fall far from the (Bill Belichick) tree and that’s why the AFC East is what it is.
We know that Richardson’s been a fine-to-great player during his career but Milliner and Smith weren’t long for starting positions in New York.
After a shoulder injury forced Mark Sanchez to miss the start of the season, Smith opened the year as the number one and remained that way for all 16 games. The results were not great despite the Jets staying somewhat competitive and finishing at 8-8. Smith threw 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions with 6.9 yards per attempt. By almost any account he was a bottom-five quarterback that season (along with Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Brandon Weeden, and Terrelle Pryor or so) but Smith was also a rookie thrust into a starting job in Week 1. At least he had gained experience, but wow there were some rough stretches.
In one four-game stretch, Smith failed to complete 10 passes in any one start.
In one nine-game stretch, Smith threw 13 interceptions against only three touchdowns, completing a hair over 50% of his attempts.
Still, Smith survived the season and the onslaught of the New York Post I’m sure and was the starter for 2014. Some fans even liked him! But at 8-8 the team opted to not make many changes. They kept head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Their big free agent addition on offense was receiver Eric Decker, but Idzik also traded for Percy Harvin from his former team midseason and tight end Jace Amaro was selected in the second round.
Things only got worse, however. Well, for the team as a whole at least, as the Jets fell to 4-12 and another cleansing (goodbye Ryan, goodbye Mornhinweg, goodbye Idzik) could begin again. Smith may have gotten better.
His completion percentage rose by four points, he threw one more touchdown on 76 fewer passes, lowered his interception rate by more than one point, and maintained a 6.9 yards per attempt figure. Good? Not at all. But Smith did quietly rise out of the bottom five. In his final start of that season, Smith posted a perfect passer rating against the Miami Dolphins:
20-of-25, 358 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, one lost fumble. At one point they scored 23 unanswered in the second half to win 37-24.
Though the team acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason, Smith seemed to be in the lead to start in his third season and maybe he’d be able to build something off of his first two and under new head coach Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, and with Brandon Marshall added to his weapons. And maybe IK Enemkpali could have remained an unknown figure in the sports world in another universe.
After Enemkpali broke Smith’s jaw in a locker room brawl, Fitzpatrick won the starting job by default. Fitzpatrick posted career-best numbers, including 31 touchdown passes, and New York went 10-6. Smith got into one game all season long, throwing for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick against the Raiders.
What would have become of Smith if not for Enemkpali or unpaid debts we’ll never know.
Things fell off for the Jets and Fitzpatrick in 2016, but Bryce Petty started four games to Smith’s one. He spent the next season with the New York Giants backing up Manning and he started one game, again against Oakland. Then last year he moved on to be the backup for the guy that Manning was traded for on draft day 2004, throwing just four passes for the LA Chargers in 2018.
Now he’s on the Seahawks.
Of course, we never expect or want to see Geno Smith start a game for Seattle. But he’s with the team now, so what should we know about him? Well, one thing that I think has to be considered is that even if Smith will never be “good” by NFL standards — even with a bum opportunity, greatness typically emerges regardless — it would have been quite something if he had been a success with the New York Jets.
The 2013 team was awful. Bad coaching and bad players around Smith everywhere except parts of his offensive line. The running backs were Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, the top receivers were Jeremy Kerley, older Santonio Holmes, David Nelson, and Stephen Hill, and the tight ends were Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow.
In 2014, Chris Johnson was added to the running back mix long after his high-impact effectiveness. Decker was indeed a good receiver but not a number one. Neither was Harvin. Amaro’s career was short and forgettable if not for being a second round pick. Oday Aboushi was the full-time starter at left guard, a 31-year-old Willie Colon at right.
We can say that Smith was also bad, but it would have been so, so, so impressive if he was any good given the team around him.
Since then he’s spent four years as a backup with a couple moments of “huh interesting” mixed in. With the Chargers last preseason, Smith was considered to be one of the more surprising and successful players on the team in August, including a good showing against Seattle in relief of Philip Rivers. He also speaks like a pretty good teammate despite really only being known for one locker room related thing during his time with the Jets — which, let’s be honest, is not the best environment for anyone to shine.
“I’m blown away by Philip,” he said. “Every single day I learn something new. Just being able to see how competitive he is, how smart he is, the way he treats the game is similar to how I treat the game. I’m a little feisty, and he is (too). I love that about him. I love being in the room with him and all the guys, Cardale (Jones), Nic (Shimonek), Shane (Steichen) and Whiz (Ken Whisenhunt), we’re all one big group and we’re all working together.”
Now imagine if Smith did have to start any number of games for LA last season. He’d go from his last start with the Giants or Jets to playing with: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Melvin Gordon, Tyrell Williams, Austin Ekeler, Mike Pouncey, Russell Okung, and Antonio Gates. That’s a different beast than Ivory, Decker, Stephen Hill, etc.
I hope to not find out if Smith is actually better than the reputation that precedes him. Not this year. Not with the Seahawks. But just in terms of talking about a player and separating him from whatever possibilities may lay ahead, only examining what was behind him, I think Smith’s best efforts were never seen or given a chance to grow.
Maybe being in a better environment this year will cultivate some of that growth in the moments ahead.