Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith: Turnovers key in Jets' QB battle

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Mark Sanchez knows he can't commit turnovers and keep his job. He just can't.

And the 6,000 New York Jets fans who showed up Saturday night for the annual Green & White scrimmage provided a reminder, loudly booing after a long pass from Sanchez sailed toward the left pylon and was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie.

After the scrimmage, Cromartie reacted to the jeers by chastising the crowd. "If you're going to be a fan, be a fan," he said.

Sanchez answered the boos with a shrug. "Oh, shoot, I don't care," he said. "That's the way it goes."

Meanwhile, 10 days into training camp, rookie Geno Smith had yet to throw a pick in team drills, and he didn't throw one in the scrimmage.

"I don't care about it. I'm not worried about it," Smith said of his interception-less streak. "As a quarterback, my job is to take care of the ball, and that's what I try to do."

Let's put the whole "I don't care" thing to rest when it comes to ball security. Because everyone in the Jets hierarchy, beginning with general manager John Idzik and coach Rex Ryan, cares. Deeply.

Ball security will matter to the Jets when they name a starter. And it will matter in the weeks that follow. And, for sure, it matters now. Because in two short months, the Jets' quarterback battle has changed. A lot.

Let's rewind: In June, Jets quarterbacks coach David Lee handicapped the battle between Sanchez and Smith as a stiff competition. The rookie figured to have a lot of learning to do, while Sanchez had to outplay his recent past by avoiding what Lee called "disaster" plays.

"(Smith is) just struggling with the basic things, snap count at the line of scrimmage; delivery in the huddle can be more consistent," Lee said then. "Little things are really what's killing him, but he's competed well and he's shown us he's got a really good arm. He's in the thick of this thing, there's no question. He gets better every day."

As for Sanchez: "Fifty-two turnovers in two years is not conducive to winning in our league," Lee said at the time. "Mark can win in this league. He's proven that. (But) I've told him, 'Hey, the best thing you can do to help our football team, the No. 1 thing you can do to help our offense and our team, is take care of the ball.' "

Fast-forward to training camp: Smith appears poised. Teammates laud his command in the huddle. Sanchez is an enthusiastic leader, occasionally encouraging teammates by clapping. He said he believes he is in command.

All of that set the stage for the scrimmage, which represented the first step up in competition between the two quarterbacks.

Smith led the offense on an impressive initial drive that stalled because of penalties. He finished at 9-for-16 for 77 yards and no touchdowns, putting his unit in position to score a field goal. He said afterward that, no, he wasn't nervous.

Sanchez's night was more eventful. He tripped once on his dropback, landing on his backside with blitzing safety Dawan Landry several steps away. (Beat writer Brian Costello of the New York Post was the first, we believe, to call dibs on the term "butt stumble.") Sanchez missed receiver Clyde Gates in the end zone -- he was wide open -- and later was picked off.

Sanchez did rebound, however, throwing a perfect spiral down the right sideline to Stephen Hill for a 57-yard touchdown on the final play of the night. Sanchez went 6-for-11 for 93 yards and led the offense to 10 points.

"I think both of them did a great job," Cromartie said. (It is worth noting here that Jets players have been told to focus on their own jobs, and not on breaking down the quarterback competition for the media.)

As for Ryan's reaction, an observer might find considerable temptation to read between the lines.

"He was absolutely tremendous in the first drive, and that's something we have to learn from -- penalties kill you," Ryan said of Smith's performance. Ryan absolved Smith of blame for the flags, saying, "He knew the snap count."

Of Sanchez, Ryan said, "I think there were some good moments and bad moments." Ryan grew weary of Sanchez's turnovers last season, finally benching him in December.

When asked about Sanchez overthrowing Gates in the end zone, Ryan said: "He missed him. He wasn't perfect. That's for sure. ... Gates came open, ran a great route, was open, and we had to deliver the ball."

Make no mistake, Smith is being given every opportunity to win this job. What Lee thinks of all of this isn't known; per a Jets media policy that curtails availability to assistant coaches, we can't ask him. But after Saturday night, it seems clear that whatever gap there was between Sanchez and Smith has closed.

The next chapter in this competition comes in Friday night's visit to the Detroit Lions, the preseason opener for both teams. Smith's goal should be continuing to progress. Sanchez's goal has to be avoiding turnovers. At all costs.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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