The good news from the New York Jets' loss in Detroit on Thursday night is that their starting quarterback didn't throw a pick six on the first offensive series of the season, as happened the last time the Jets opened the preseason in the Motor City. Then again, that's because the Jets' starting quarterback was spending the night in the hospital, the various pieces of his jaw held in place with plates and screws.
Mark Sanchez didn't survive that preseason two years ago any better than Geno Smith survived the pre-preseason this week. A few weeks after Sanchez threw that interception -- which Rex Ryan, in a moment of mercy, didn't even see because he was talking to his defense at the time -- Sanchez was famously inserted behind backup linemen to try to win the Snoopy Bowl against the Giants. Because this is the Jets, Sanchez immediately tore his labrum when he was knocked to the ground by a Giants defender who didn't even make their team. It's helpful to remember that moment when considering the absurdist epoch that found its latest installment this week. Ryan's confounding decision to throw Sanchez into the maw after Smith had played so poorly earlier in that game that Sanchez had all but wrapped up the starting job set Gang Green's current misfortunes in motion.
Sanchez's injury forced Smith into the starting lineup as a rookie, almost certainly before he was ready for the job. His career trajectory and, perhaps, his maturity have been paying the price ever since. It says something about recent Jets history -- basically everything that has come after Joe Namath -- that when Smith was clocked by a teammate whom he apparently owed $600, I had two thoughts:
1) It was not entirely surprising that Smith was reportedly behaving childishly in pointing a finger at a backup linebacker's face while declining to simply pay up a relative pittance of a debt.
The Jets have given the football world plenty of giggles, from the late owner Leon Hess' admonition to his players to show the nation they were not a bunch of horses' behinds to Sanchez crashing into the behind of an O-lineman on national television, thus giving the sport a new category of offensive ineptitude: the butt fumble.
But there is nothing particularly funny about the Jets' predicament right now. The quarterback they thought was ready to make a leap, who had spent much of the offseason forming a bond with receiver Brandon Marshall, whom the team had acquired specifically to help Smith progress, is now out six to 10 weeks. Even if it winds up being on the shorter end of that spectrum, even if Ryan Fitzpatrick plays so poorly that Smith somehow regains his job as soon as he returns to good health, the incident speaks to a bigger problem at the position and to the issue that risks undermining Todd Bowles' initial efforts to remake the franchise's culture.
Smith certainly didn't deserve to get a fist to the jaw, no matter how much like a middle school punk he might have been behaving. But there is not much question that his already-limited stature in the locker room took a hit from the incident, too. It is telling that in the immediate aftermath of the punch that rocked the Jets, on Tuesday and then on Thursday night in Detroit, Smith's teammates did not strongly defend him and were already talking about moving on.
The bizarre interlude, coupled with some sloppy tackling by the first-team defense Thursday night, quickly zapped a throw-open-the-windows-and-breathe-the-fresh-air optimism that had surrounded the Jets this summer. Truth be told, Smith had been having a good training camp, and combined with the presence of so much defensive talent and Bowles' no-nonsense approach to his job, the Jets had been infused with the hope that they might make a run to a playoff spot this season.
Once the initial urge to mutter "same old Jets" passes, that expectation of better days shouldn't change now. As poorly as the Jets played Thursday night, they already have started life after Geno. There are those who suspected reliable Ryan Fitzpatrick would start at some point this season even if Smith were in one piece. And once the veteran has had a chance to practice regularly with the starters, maybe the fact that Gang Green is no worse off with Fitzpatrick under center will become even more apparent.
Fitzpatrick, after all, had already been laying the groundwork for a career on Wall Street while a student at Harvard -- the classwork in economics followed by the planned internship at a hedge fund -- when a fortuitous conversation with his college coach changed the course of his summer and his career. The coach suggested he spend the weeks before his senior year at the Manning Passing Academy, so that he could see how he measured up against quarterbacks from the elite college conferences.
It was there that Fitzpatrick absorbed what his college coaches had told him: quarterbacking is about accuracy and decision making. Smith, alas, has proven to be lacking in both and it has been his undoing -- both on the field and, ultimately, in the esteem of his teammates.
Fitzpatrick's 63.1 percent completion rate last season with the Houston Texans was only a few notches better than Smith's Year 2 mark of 59.7. And at 32, Fitzpatrick, of course, does not have the potential upside that Smith has. Fitzpatrick's ceiling has almost certainly already been established, and even after he is fully in shape following his recovery from a broken leg, he will likely not be able to provide the downfield passes that Smith could have.
So the Jets will have to do without some offensive firepower -- at least early in the season. That's fine. The defense surely will be sounder than it looked Thursday night. Fitzpatrick will fit in like a "smooth groove," as Willie Coloncalled it to ESPN.com. And the Jets could do with a few less fireworks anyway.