Geno Smith question looms large amid New York Jets' makeover

The turnstile finally stopped spinning for the New York Jets, allowing the doors to open Monday for the start of Todd Bowles' first offseason program as the head coach. With 13 new players added so far -- including Jets redux like Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie -- and nearly $90 million in guaranteed money already committed, the goal, said players after those first meetings and weight-lifting sessions, was building chemistry.

But the real aim this offseason for the new-look Jets has to be about something far less ephemeral if, for Gang Green, maybe just as unpredictable: finding a productive quarterback.

Geno Smith, who remains the starter for now, said on a conference call Monday he had been working with quarterback coach Tom House in California. Among other quarterbacks that House, a former major league pitcher, has worked with: Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

This franchise would take just a sliver of those quarterbacks' production, but having House eying Smith's mechanics can only help. Despite the house cleaning that has happened -- to the roster and the front office -- since the 2014 regular-season finale, the Jets seem to be clinging to Smith's performance in that game, when he completed 20 of 25 passes for 358 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against the Miami Dolphins, as evidence that there is still a flicker of hope for Smith to become the franchise quarterback this organization desperately needs.

"There's a ton of potential there," center Nick Mangold said.

Maybe so. But the Jets have only seen it in spurts, sometimes very brief ones, over Smith's 30-game NFL career.

Bowles has spoken pointedly about trying to figure out why Smith has been inconsistent and making sure he understands that his propensity for turnovers has to be curbed. On Monday, Smith was in no mood to reflect on past seasons or his role in the Jets' precipitous slide. When he was asked if he is disappointed in the first two years of his professional career, he responded, "I think we definitely fell short as a team." How about his own performance last year? "We were 4-12 as a team and it wasn't good enough."

Receiver Jeremy Kerley takes hope from that game against the Dolphins, too. The fifth-year pro wants to see more of that Smith this season.

"It's his third year; the game has hopefully slowed down for him a little bit," Kerley said. "He can see things a little better. Last game of (the) season in Miami, it seemed like he was having fun, he was comfortable. That's what I expect, just go out and have fun."

Unsaid, of course, is that nothing was on the line for the Jets in that game -- the season was already long lost and everyone knew massive changes were imminent.

It's difficult to look at the Jets' extreme makeover and not imagine that they don't have something else in mind at quarterback, though, because the defense is constructed to win now. They traded for veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he is recovering from a broken leg, and Bowles said Smith will start out with the first team in training camp (although the coach also said Fitzpatrick could certainly take Smith's job). The Jets, of course, did not have a legitimate competition last year for Smith, and on Monday, the young signal-caller talked around the question of whether this is his job to lose now. Smith talked about how important Fitzpatrick will be as a sounding board and advice-giver, but not necessarily as a potential threat to take his job, even though Fitzpatrick has much more experience in New York's new offense.

The Jets have brought in Chan Gailey as their offensive coordinator, and Smith said he is only now starting to get an idea of what Gailey -- who used elements of the spread at his last stop in Buffalo, where he was head coach and Fitzpatrick was his quarterback -- has in mind. And there isn't much question that the addition of receiver Brandon Marshall will help Smith -- or whoever is taking snaps -- because he presents a big target with a wide catch radius and can go up for passes even when covered by the opponent's top cornerback. Smith certainly hasn't had a receiver of Marshall's caliber before.

But for as much scrambling to catch the New England Patriots as has taken place across the AFC East, the Jets (and Rex Ryan's Bills) might still be on the shakiest ground at the game's most important position among the four teams. They certainly have other issues -- superb defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson is unhappy with the pace of contract-extension negotiations and is skipping the start of the offseason program -- but nothing since the days of Chad Pennington has been as closely aligned with the Jets' futility as their failure to find and develop a long-term quarterback. General manager Mike Maccagnan and Bowles have boldly and aggressively remade the roster, but if they don't do better than the prior regime did with Mark Sanchez and Smith, they will almost certainly be consigned to the same fate as Mike Tannenbaum/John Idzik and Ryan.

Although Bowles said last month at the NFL Annual Meeting that there are other ways to win, the first-time head coach knows better than anyone how critical the quarterback is. He worked magic with the injury-depleted Arizona Cardinals' defense last year, but when Bruce Arians ran out of viable quarterback options, the team's postseason prospects were doomed.

The Jets have made no secret about the possibility they could add another quarterback. The lack of enthusiasm for Smith was obvious in Bowles' comments about the state of the position last month in Phoenix.

"Until you get your hands on (Smith), yes, he had a good last game and he finished up well, but you see the mistakes," Bowles said. "Whether it's Geno or any other quarterback, you don't want to turn the ball over.

"We have a plan in place, and right now, Geno going in, with Ryan hurt and not being able to participate in OTAs and everything, Geno's going to take the majority of all the reps. He finished off last year and there's nobody else we have. We're still evaluating quarterbacks in in the draft, not saying we won't add or will add a guy. But right now, with Ryan being down and Matt (Simms) coming back, Geno, he's our guy right now."

That's a limited endorsement at best. Until Smith earns more or the team moves on, the Jets' prospects might be limited, too, by the one position they haven't made over yet.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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