A year ago at this time, the New York Jets' quarterback situation seemed dire. Coming off a 6-10 season in which they'd floundered with the likes of Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow filling the depth chart, they had to do something. So they picked Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Just a few months later, Sanchez went down in a preseason game with what proved to be a season-ending injury, opening the door for Smith to become the starter -- and a roller coaster of an 8-8 campaign ensued, filled with dizzying ups and downs. While Smith had his moments, doubts surely still remain about the West Virginia product's ability to be the long-term solution in New York.
As the rest of the NFL looks toward free agency and the draft, the casual observer would be forgiven for wondering just where the Jets stand at one of the game's most important positions. Should Gang Green press forward with Smith or hit the reset button once more?
With that in mind, let's break down the Jets' quarterback picture, one question at a time.
How did Geno Smith really do last season?
The simple answer is that he helped a Jets squad that was hampered by a woeful lack of receiving talent win eight games, including three of four to close the season. Of course, he also threw almost twice as many interceptions (21) as touchdown passes (12), finished with a league-low passer rating of 66.5 and was sacked 43 times. He had highs (throwing for 199 yards and three touchdowns while recording a career-best passer rating of 147.7 in a 30-28 win over Atlanta in Week 5) and definite lows (completing 38 percent of his passes while giving up six picks and eight sacks in a momentum-killing three-game losing streak that stretched into December).
Overall, I saw him grow a lot during the season. I think he was underprepared for the NFL coming out of college and made some careless mistakes with the football in the early going. He had to learn how to better read opposing defenses -- which one can really only do by way of experience. But I think he cleaned things up as the year wore on and seemed to play with enthusiasm even into the final weeks of the season. He also showed an encouraging ability to be a threat to run. I talked to several people in the Jets organization who think the guy made giant strides, and I have to agree.
What's the next step with him?
I would imagine the Jets will put a lot of energy into working with Smith this offseason. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who is very good, will spend a lot of time with him, although most of the work won't come via the blackboard -- it'll be about actually doing it. Organized team activities and training camp will be key; Smith must really pay attention and continue learning so that he's ready to take a huge step forward in the preseason.
Smith has talent, as one could see at West Virginia, where he completed 71 percent of his passes in 2012; he merely needs to keep developing it. Ninety percent of a quarterback's chance to succeed comes down to his work habits. If Smith keeps working hard, mastering where to throw the ball and when to toss it out of bounds -- as opposed to forcing it -- he has a future in this league.
So the Jets shouldn't blow everything up and start over?
I don't think so. In fact, I don't even think this is necessarily a make-or-break season for Smith, who has a lot of things going for him -- like, for example, his mobility, without which he probably would have been sacked about 10 more times last season, or the presence of Mornhinweg, who knows all the intricacies of footwork and ball placement.
Remember, I think a lot of Smith's struggles in 2013 stemmed from factors beyond his control, like the dearth of offensive weapons and the learning curve that comes with throwing the football in windy MetLife Stadium. Yes, he needs to show improvement, like bringing his touchdown-to-interception ratio in line, but I have faith that he'll make progress. Ultimately, I'd be patient with him until we're deep into his third year, though I wouldn't be surprised if he helps turn the Jets around sooner than that, especially if New York has a great draft.
Speaking of the draft, should New York add a young QB to compete with Smith?
No, I wouldn't do that at this point, either -- and I don't think they're going to. I wouldn't want to have Smith looking over his shoulder, fearing that he might be benched as soon as he makes a mistake. Very few people in Smith's shoes would be able to truly thrive under such circumstances. Whenever you bring in a young quarterback as your No. 2, he automatically becomes the fan favorite, as the Jets likely saw to some degree when Smith himself was drafted last year.
I might consider taking a late-round flier on a developmental prospect like Southern Methodist quarterback Garrett Gilbert, but I wouldn't want to spend a high-value pick on someone with the idea that he'll be able to challenge Smith for starts in 2014. The potential drawbacks would outweigh the benefits at this juncture.
But the Jets have to bring in someone to help, right?
Yes, as we saw last season, when the Jets had no one to turn to but Matt Simms as an alternate to Smith, quarterback depth -- preferably of the veteran variety -- is crucial. The team would do well to meet this need via free agency. That said, the Jets should be looking for the right personality, someone who wants to contribute in the league but whose ego won't prevent him from embracing a role as Smith's mentor. This player must have a special feel for this sort of thing, enabling him to engender chemistry -- not friction -- with Smith. The realities of this role might limit New York's options somewhat.
Consider Matt Cassel. On the one hand, he'd be the perfect choice, as he can step in and play if necessary, and he's also the kind of quality individual who wouldn't be second-guessing anyone about roster moves. Of course, while he might be capable of serving as a solid veteran backup, I don't think he's interested; I think he wants to start. The same could be said for Michael Vick, who wants to be out on the field and not sitting on the bench.
Josh McCown would seem to be the best fit for what the Jets should be looking for. The 34-year-old played well when called upon to fill in for an injured Jay Cutler last season, and he didn't balk at the prospect of giving the job right back to Cutler as soon as he was healthy. He's a very smart guy who knows exactly how he can help his team. Provided the Jets could lure him to New York to play that role, he'd be the perfect choice to help Smith learn the nuances of the game.
At the end of the day, are the Jets better off at QB than they were at this time last year?
Yes, absolutely. As the Sanchez era continues to recede into the past, the Jets will be moving forward with a quarterback who has real potential. Geno Smith definitely has what it takes to become a solid player for New York one day. In fact, I could even see him leading Gang Green to a winning season in 2014.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.