NEW YORK – The formal announcement was a surprise to no one.
Not the New York Jets fans. Not the media. And, especially, not Geno Smith.
Rex Ryan finally made it official after the Jets’ 35-24 preseason loss to the Giants Friday night, declaring Smith will be the starting quarterback in Week 1.
“Did I have any doubt? I wouldn’t let doubt creep into my mind,” Smith said after punctuating a solid preseason with his sharpest performance of the summer. “I always come in with the mindset that if I do what I have to do, I can be the starting quarterback and lead this team.”
Now comes perhaps the toughest part for Smith – keeping the job. Especially with a still-effective Michael Vick on the sideline, who accepts his backup role but is hungry for any opportunities.
While Ryan refused to publicly acknowledge Smith would be the starter, it was evident for months. Since Vick signed with the Jets in March, he repeatedly said this is Smith’s team and he’s here to push him and help him improve.
There was some debate over whether the Jets were truly holding a competition for the job, but Smith took about 80 percent of the first-team snaps in training camp. As long as Smith didn’t wither in the face of a great opportunity, the job would be his.
He proved he was more than up to the task.
“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him,” Ryan said. “This is no slight to Mike Vick because, believe me, I wanted to come out of this with two really good quarterbacks that we can win games with, and in my heart, I feel that we have two that we can win with.”
Smith capped his final preseason appearance – he won’t play at Philadelphia next Thursday – by going 9 of 14 for 137 yards, including a touchdown pass to rookie Jace Amaro. He also looked confident and poised, taking command of the huddle and never looking hesitant.
After a shaky rookie year, Smith looked the part of a seasoned veteran.
“He’s coming out with a different swagger, like he’s taking control of this offense,” said running back Chris Johnson, who signed with the Jets in April. “You can tell that he’s grown so much from last year. He’s just in there doing the right things.”
Smith is also saying all the right things. Rather than celebrate that he’s officially the starter, he made it clear he’s still a work-in-progress.
“Everything needs to improve,” he said. “I’m not going to pinpoint one thing because I think my game has to evolve and every single year and every single day, it has to get better.”
He has focused on his footwork, getting Marty Mornhinweg’s offense down pat, reading defenses better and using his legs to make plays as well as his arm. Smith has shown progress in all of those areas, especially with his overall decision making.
“I’m not surprised with it,” Ryan said. “That’s how he’s been playing. He had one pick this preseason that was more of a timing issue. I was really happy with him. I think he’s taken off from where he left off.”
“I expect great things in the future from him.”
While Ryan acknowledged that the starting quarterback is a “week-to-week” decision because, well, things can happen, Smith can make himself the easy choice for all 16 games with solid play. And, if he does struggle, the Jets have a proven backup who can come in and get things back on track.
“It’s a great situation to have,” Ryan said, “and one I feel blessed to have.”
Vick was complimentary of Smith all offseason, and the two appear to have a terrific working relationship without any animosity. Vick has accepted his role, one that was explained to him as soon as he got here, but he’s not complacent.
He knows he can still be effective in this league, and he would like to be starting. That’s why he took offense to a story in Sports Illustrated’s MMQB.com that said some Jets coaches privately were disappointed Vick wasn’t “more hell-bent on winning the starting job.”
“That’s not true at all,” a miffed Vick said. “Me and my coaches, we have great conversations. We have open dialogue, and that was far from the case.”
Vick got few opportunities to run the starting offense and that’s because the Jets wanted to put Smith in position to prove himself. He’ll need to keep that up, and by Week 17, the Jets will know if they’ve got their quarterback of the future or if it’s back to the drawing board next offseason.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal,” Smith said of Ryan’s announcement. “But I’m going to keep working the same as I’ve been doing, keep leading this offense and getting better.”