The New York Jets went back to practice Sunday, the rookie quarterback who many in the organization dearly hope can win the starting job limping along as surely as their chances for a clean resolution to a competition that has been tellingly tight.
Whether Geno Smith can recover from the ankle he rolled in Friday night's preseason loss to the Detroit Lions in time to put up more of a fight remains to be seen -- he practiced with the first team Sunday and threw the ball well, even on roll-outs, although he admitted later to soreness. Coach Rex Ryan said he had not yet determined the plan for Saturday's preseason matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, allowing that some factors -- presumably injuries -- could alter his thinking. Any time missed by Smith could cripple his shot to seize the job. But then, as one longtime scout who has closely watched the Jets for more than a decade noted, a competition between a rookie and a five-year veteran "shouldn't even be close."
Certainly not. That it is is a testament not so much to Smith's progress as to Mark Sanchez's foibles. Before the ankle injury put him on the sideline Friday night, Smith was not aggressive in pushing the ball downfield. He also held it too long for comfort, a source of concern as he learns an offense that is very different from the shotgun-based attack he ran at West Virginia. He was, in his first brief NFL appearance, a work in progress, albeit one whose progress has accelerated sharply since the spring.
The competition remains alive because that unfathomable screen pass to nowhere that Sanchez threw on the Jets' first drive was such a vivid replay of so many of the 52 turnovers he has been responsible for in the past two seasons. While ball security has been an issue for Sanchez since college, this type of turnover-spawning brain freeze is simply untenable for a team with no margin for error.
Of course, it also became apparent -- and undoubtedly distressing for Jets fans -- that this team is still so in the throes of rebuilding that the player who sometimes seems to connect with opposing defensive linemen nearly as often as he does with his own wide receivers might remain the best option to start the season. Sanchez might not be running away with the job like the longtime scout thinks he should be doing. But as the Jets sort through the detritus of a failed regime, they must settle for baby steps. Throwing a pick-six would deep-six most quarterbacks' chances. Their quarterback can throw a pick-six and emerge from the night receiving kudos for making improvement.
The longtime scout said that if the competition were to remain close, he would want to see if Sanchez had made progress -- in ball security, certainly, but also in leadership.
"Has he turned a corner?" he wondered.
Sanchez failed to protect the ball -- nearly tossing a second interception on his second drive -- but he displayed surprising resilience. On his third drive, he was 5-of-5, notching a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland that displayed Sanchez's timing and anticipation with the tight ends.
"If you can divorce yourself from that one play, he looked far better," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said after studying the quarterbacks. "He was throwing on time, aggressively going down the field. He's just got to find a way to get rid of that one bonehead play that always happens."
That, of course, is what the Jets have been waiting on for two years, and Ryan's time as head coach might be running out as a result. But there are other issues that have bedeviled Ryan and Sanchez -- and which might eventually trouble Smith, too -- and these were exposed in the harsh glare cast by the Lions.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford and Sanchez were separated by just four spots in the 2009 NFL Draft -- Stafford went first overall, Sanchez fifth. Sanchez had the greater early success, but lately, Stafford has flourished while Sanchez has floundered -- in large part because of the circumstances they are in. Stafford is surrounded by playmakers like Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew -- and the Lions gave him another one this offseason in Reggie Bush, who offered a glimpse of the dynamism he provides when he hurdled a defender on a 6-yard run. Ryan, meanwhile, is so focused on defense that the Jets have largely let their offense wither, a problem that became obvious with their struggles to score last year and which they have taken precious few steps to correct this year.
The Jets have little talent on the outside, and the timing of Santonio Holmes's return from a serious foot injury remains undetermined. The Jets' running game is so muddled that the back they signed with great fanfare, the back who might have provided the kind of out-of-the-backfield versatility that Bush does -- Mike Goodson -- has been absent from camp for unexplained personal reasons following an arrest on drug and weapons charges. And the offensive line is in transition, giving up pressure after pressure and providing little of the push that the running game needs, whoever the ball carrier ends up being.
The Jets entered the game hoping to learn more about their quarterbacks. Being on the field with the Lions gave everyone a cold view of how much else is missing, too, no matter who gets the starting job. The Jets' brain trust feels like it is making smarter decisions with John Idzik as the general manager. But it takes time to recover. And, of course, it takes a quarterback.
Back when Ryan was a defensive coach for the Baltimore Ravens, during the years that Kyle Boller was at quarterback, he used to say that even if the offense punted on each drive -- without committing turnovers -- the Ravens could still win, because his defense would produce a score. Since then, Ryan has been diminished by the Jets' travails, having shed his bluster as surely as he did his bulk; he has seen, up close, the damage that an incompetent offense can do.
In an increasingly rare moment of candor, Ryan admitted after the game in Detroit that he did not watch all of the quarterback play -- particularly Smith's -- because he was tending to the defense. That Ryan -- who must surely care -- had his back turned while the most important position battle of his tenure played out just a few yards away might have seemed curious. But who could blame him for averting his gaze, however briefly, from a competition that is closer than the Jets wish it were, from the quarterbacks whose pick-sixes and rolled ankles might determine if he keeps his job?
"You're going to have growing pains," the longtime scout said, summing up the decision that the Jets will face. "Would you rather have them with a rookie or a veteran?"
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.