FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Geno Smith was never like most kids. On the football field or celebrating holidays.
Even-keeled. Unflappable. Cool, calm and collected. That’s how the New York Jets rookie quarterback has approached pretty much everything his entire life – whether it has been touchdowns or presents. “I mean, that’s just how I am,” Smith said Wednesday. “My Mom thought it was weird. I never really got big on Christmas when I was a kid. That’s just how I was all the time.”
So, when he took the field with the Jets trailing the Falcons by a point in Atlanta on Monday night with less than 2 minutes left, his stomach wasn’t churning. His palms weren’t sweaty, either.
Smith, in fact, can’t remember the last time he felt nervous on a football field. Not in the pros, college, high school or even on the sandlot.
“I mean,” Smith said with a smile, “it’s a football game.”
But isn’t there anything that gets him excited, a little fired up?
“Life,” he said, still grinning. “I’m big on life. Waking up every morning excites me.”
The second-round pick out of West Virginia has been up and down during his first five NFL starts, but his performance Monday night was the stuff franchise quarterbacks are made of.
And, with Mark Sanchez out for the season after opting for shoulder surgery, Smith is the Jets’ clear starter — and, maybe for good. Even if neither he nor coach Rex Ryan acknowledge that that’s the case.
“I’m the starting quarterback on a day-to-day basis,” Smith said. “My job goes one day at a time. It’s still early in my career and I’m just trying to improve every single day.”
Against the Falcons, Smith was 16 of 20 for 199 yards and three touchdowns — and no turnovers. It was a performance that earned him AFC offensive player of the week honors, and people are starting to take notice.
In front of a national television audience, Smith coolly drove the Jets downfield and put them in position for Nick Folk’s winning field goal as time expired.
That came just moments after Matt Ryan, nicknamed “Matty Ice” for his knack for fourth-quarter comebacks, put the Falcons in front.
“It’s not too big for him,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who’ll face Smith and the Jets on Sunday. “I was able to follow him quite a bit prior to the draft with the close proximity to Morgantown and so forth. I was down there on his pro day. He struck me as a guy who was very even-keeled emotionally, somewhat of a flat-liner.
“I think it lends itself to that position because of the roller-coaster ride that people can have, teams can have. I just think his personality is geared toward delivering in those moments.”
Just like earlier this week, when Smith became only the second rookie quarterback to win on the road on “Monday Night Football”, and he leads the league with three go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter of games this season.
“I can’t do anything but just praise him,” Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson said. “I’m over here at a loss for words talking about the guy, but he’s doing a great job.”
The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they are improving, especially after a four-turnover performance in a 38-13 loss at Tennessee two weeks ago. He has seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions, with a so-so 80.3 quarterback rating.
But it’s the moments such as those late against the Falcons and Buccaneers, and his winning drive against Buffalo last month that have many believing that Smith can become a game-changing field leader.
And those mistake-filled performances against New England and Tennessee, the Jets hope will be looked back on someday as mere bumps in the road.
“If he learned anything, it’s that he has to stay right here and he can’t get caught up in the roller-coaster of emotions,” left guard Willie Colon said. “I think he has done a great job of that, and all he has to do is his job.
“He doesn’t have to be Superman.”
Preparation is the key, Smith said, to feeling confident whenever he takes the field and never worrying about whether he can get the job done.
And that’s whether it’s the first snap or the game’s on the line. No nerves. No wild excitement.
Just like Christmas morning.
“I’ve played football my entire life,” Smith said. “The one thing I’ve learned is never let the game change who you are, good or bad. So, I’m never going to change. I’m never going to get beside myself.
“I love the grind of it. I love every single day of practice, so that’s what I’m here for and that’s what I love about it.”