FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets' extreme chemistry experiment is playing out this summer in a suburban living room.
There, Geno Smith, the Jets' once and future starting quarterback, will call out a play and the tall receiver with the wide catch radius will get up off the sofa to walk through it. Smith will run his own passing camp with his wide receivers and tight ends this summer in Chicago, but it is here -- in the comfort of the home Smith has opened to his new teammate Brandon Marshall -- that the foundation of a season that could define both of their careers, and make the Jets' playoff contenders again, is being laid.
"We're growing every single day," Marshall said. "I look at it like a little brother. Rooming with him has really speeded up that process. We look at each other a different way. It just makes you want to fight that much harder. We have our ups and downs as far as trying to learn the offense -- he wants me to look for a back-shoulder and I'm running down the field -- but I've got to say, in the last two weeks, we've made a pretty significant jump. We're starting to see the game the same way. It comes from hours and hours of communication, or walking through it at the house."
The Jets have undergone one of the most radical makeovers of the offseason. In addition to hiring a new head coach (Todd Bowles) and general manager (Mike Maccagnan), the franchise brought back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in the secondary and traded for Marshall. Then Gang Green drafted defensive lineman Leonard Williams, whom many talent evaluators regarded as the best overall player in the draft. While the lack of a contract extension for Muhammad Wilkerson figures to loom as an issue, his appearance at mandatory minicamp lowered the heat on what might be considered the only questionable action (or inaction) of the new regime.
There is renewed optimism -- built on the back of what is expected to again be a top defense and improved offensive weapons -- that the Jets can be a playoff team again, particularly if Smith's growth can smooth out the bumps he has experienced in his first two NFL seasons. That is a big if, though, for a franchise that has failed to develop a quarterback since Chad Pennington more than a decade ago and that now has Smith learning his second system in three years.
Marshall handpicked the Jets as his fourth team earlier this year, when the Bears hired a new general manager (Ryan Pace) and a new head coach (John Fox) and it was clear that Marshall's time in Chicago was up. The five-time Pro Bowler went shopping, calling quarterbacks of teams he thought could use his services. The Jets certainly fell into that category. Their offense was notably moribund in 2014 -- they finished 28th in points scored and dead last in passing offense -- in large part because it was bereft of dynamic playmakers.
Depending on your viewpoint, Smith was either the victim of, or the root cause of, the offensive struggles. In his second season, he was intercepted 13 times while throwing 13 touchdown passes. Rex Ryan knew going in that his spare secondary would struggle to cover anyone, but he also must have known that the listing offense would never be enough to overcome a defensive weakness. As the season spiraled to its 4-12 conclusion, and Ryan and GM John Idzik were fired, Smith became the lightening rod who remained, a problem of undetermined depth and -- with a new brain trust brought in -- for an undetermined length of time.
So it might come as a surprise to know that Marshall chose the Jets -- he essentially asked the Bears to trade him there, he said -- precisely because of Smith. Marshall spoke to other quarterbacks of receiver-needy teams, including one who, when Marshall told him he was pondering asking to be traded to his team, responded, "Oh, that's good" -- a lack of passion that caused Marshall to cross that team off his list. That was not his feeling about Smith.
"I was really shocked at the intelligence, how smart he was," Marshall said. "I had known him as a player from afar. I didn't know his football IQ was so high. He had crazy passion. When I talked to him, I fell in love with the conversation. I said, this is a real opportunity, we have a great defense, great pieces on offense. If we can come together and gel, we may not be the best in Year 1, but if we can be effective and not turn over the ball, we can be in every game."
On the first day of minicamp this week, Smith hit a leaping, arms-stretched Marshall on a deep sideline pass. And then threw three interceptions, two in the red zone. That practice began Jets fans' handwringing anew, until Smith corrected course on Day 2 with a clean outing, and it was explained by Marshall that two of those interceptions weren't Smith's fault anyway -- one was on a tipped pass, another was because the receiver was not where he was supposed to be.
The inconsistency, though, is part of the bargain with Smith. His first two seasons have been so uneven that even the significant upgrades made around him can't erase the gnawing sense that the Jets, who signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to compete with/back up Smith, might have failed to do enough this offseason. Fitzpatrick already knows new coordinator Chan Gailey's offense from their shared time in Buffalo, but it's clear that Bowles is invested in Smith, for now at least. When he was asked about that three-interception practice, Bowles quickly mentioned Smith's improved decision-making and leadership. And he closed minicamp Thursday by saying that all of the quarterbacks have to be more consistent. When offensive lineman Willie Colon made his comments comparing the Jets to a Porsche that Smith cannot crash, he meant -- he said by way of quelling the brushfire the comments caused -- that the Jets now have better talent around Smith, so the growing pains should be over.
"I was trying to protect him," Colon said. "I felt he got so much heat for not being his best at times, and in actuality, I thought he did play well in his rookie year. Last year, I felt he finished on an incline. A lot of times people want to think a rookie quarterback is like RGIII or Andrew Luck. We have to respect his time, respect his process, and not assume he should be like Andrew Luck or RGIII in his first year."
Smith did his best to diffuse the controversy this week.
"I do need to be on top of my game," Smith said. "I believe that's true. What he said, in that regard, wasn't wrong."
None of it was wrong, including the sense that Smith, who infamously missed a team meeting the day before a game last season, has to grow as a player and as a team leader for New York to have a chance this season. Marshall wonders if the unique dynamics of the Jets undermined Smith initially. He was thrown in as a rookie starter when Mark Sanchez was hurt in the preseason, on a team where Ryan's big personality and defensive veterans held sway.
"How do you become that guy?" Marshall wonders about Smith. "Now he is the guy. We're expecting him to lead the way for us, for the whole organization. He's up for the challenge. We're around Geno every day and we see his work ethic and his approach. He's the first one in now -- that's changed from previous years. He starts watching film as soon as the season ends. Back in March, he was watching the Patriots and trying to tell me they do this on third down. I'm like, 'Bro, I'm just trying to know the offense.' "
Marshall and his wife, who recently had twins, are closing in on finding their own home in the area, and so the living room walk-throughs will probably end by the time the season starts. For the sake of a team badly in need of a rebound, a quarterback on perhaps his last chance to seize the starting job, and a 31-year-old receiver possibly on his final team, they better hope Marshall knows the offense by the time he moves out. Then maybe Smith will be on his own again only in his home, not in his games.