Normally, when injuries befall athletes, the world mourns. When linebacker IK Enemkpali broke Geno Smith’s jaw a few weeks back, the world cheered.
As if waking from a nightmare, New York Jets fans drew a collective sigh of relief. Without hesitation, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey promoted his former steed, backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. The team suddenly has playoff aspirations.
Days later, current Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, the guy who selected Geno Smith in the second round of 2013’s NFL Draft, signed Enemkpali. And, not only did he sign Enemkpali, he vouched for him, for the backup linebacker who sucker punched his former quarterback over a measly 600 dollars.
“That’s not a worry,” Rex Ryan proclaimed. “I think this is an isolated thing. I think I have a great locker room here, so I don’t think anything like that would happen. I’m sure the Jets feel the same.”
That last part is especially intriguing. How exactly do the Jets feel about Geno Smith? Will Gang Green finally give Smith the opportunity he deserves, in a stable environment and a professional-level offense? Because, let’s be honest, no one could succeed in the circus act performed by the Jets these past two years.
Following a disastrous 2012, the Jets desperately needed a quarterback. Mark Sanchez’s butt fumble forever marred his reputation and the team mismanaged Tim Tebow worse than a blind man guiding traffic.
Originally pegged as a top-10 pick, the Jets saw great value in selecting Smith 49th overall. “We drafted Geno Smith because he has exceptional talent,” then Jets General Manager John Idzik said after the pick. “Let’s get him into a situation where we can help him develop that and let’s see where he goes.”
That “situation” never materialized. Football is a team sport. Quarterbacks need weapons and a modicum of protection in order to “develop.” In 2013, the Jets allowed defenses to sack Smith 43 times, the fifth highest total in the league. When you take total drop-backs into account, his 8.32% true sack rate ranked fourth among quarterbacks with over 350 attempts. Throw in another 98 QB hits and Smith received quite a beating on the year.
Breaking down the sacks, only 10 resulted from good coverage – either the quarterback held onto the ball for too long or his targets simply couldn’t get open. Given Smith’s paltry group of receivers, the latter seems far more likely.
An aging Santonio Holmes highlighted the group, producing more tantrums than meaningful plays. Potential Calvin Johnson-esque star Stephen Hill, a 6’4’’ Georgia Tech product, played so poorly that the former second-rounder landed on a practice squad the following year. Jeremy Kerley, never starter quality, now finds himself in his proper place, fifth on the depth chart.
Asking Smith to succeed in these conditions is like asking Messi to score in the Champions League while wearing construction boots or asking Roger Federer to finally win another Wimbledon with a badminton racquet.
Yet, despite a shaky offensive line and virtually no one to throw to, Geno Smith still led the Jets to an 8-8 record. Where did ESPN rank him the following year among NFL quarterbacks? Dead last!
If you think 2014 was any better, it wasn’t. WR Eric Decker, a quality #2 who served as the sole major offseason acquisition, spent most of the year hurt. Meanwhile, a revolution brewed within the organization. Jets fans flew “Fire John Idzik” banners over practice and their head coach, Rex Ryan, was hung out to dry.
“I knew we weren’t going to have a good team when we never did anything in free agency. I knew that,” Ryan told HBO’s Real Sports. “Oh, I was done. One-hundred percent, I knew I was done. One-hundred percent.”
Following a 4-12 season, Rex Ryan did lose his job, for all of a month. On the other hand, Geno Smith once again landed on the bottom of ESPN’s preseason QB rankings, cementing his role as a laughing stock of the league.
“It was hilarious last year, too,” Smith told NJ.com regarding the rankings. “That doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to work on us as a team. That’s why I hate to talk about individual stuff, because it’s a team game. No matter what they rate me, wherever we finish at the end of the year is what’s most important.”
Regrettably, the world isn’t laughing with him, they are laughing at him. The saddest part of all, he is 100% correct.
This is a team game and, for the first time his career, he actually plays on a good team. The new regime added all sorts of weapons, from stealing WR Brandon Marshall and RB Zac Stacy for late-round picks to drafting talented rookie speedster, WR Devin Smith. The defense is all sorts of good, likely to finish the year in the top five. Unfortunately, Geno Smith may never get his chance.
Enemkpali’s punch did more than shatter Smith’s jaw. It stole the young quarterback’s shot at redemption. After two years of borderline torture, this appeared as Geno Smith’s year to shine, a chance to finally show the world how much it misjudged him. No one deserved this chance more, and no one had it so cruelly snatched from his hands. If Ryan Fitzpatrick succeeds in his absence, a likely scenario given Fitz’s knowledge of Gailey’s schemes, Smith looks like a long shot to play this year.
Is Geno Smith a top-tier quarterback in the league? No. Does he have plenty of room for improvement? Absolutely. That doesn’t me he deserves this level of ire at the hands of fans, pundits, and the overall football community. Many have struggled under center their first two years, with better targets and less precarious circumstances. Yet, the world usually expressed a level of understanding, providing support for the neophytes.
Not in this case. Everyone wants Geno Smith to fail and, it is likely that he will.