FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Look, I don't know if Geno Smith is going to be a capable long-term NFL starter the Jets are so desperately seeking. No one knows, not after just 13 games in which he has enjoyed some promising moments and some hideous ones, too. It's just too soon, even in our need-an-answer-now world of instant analysis.
But after watching Smith operate for the better part of eight months since being drafted by the Jets, I do believe Smith has the one attribute that is essential for any competent starter. It's not an easily definable quality -- I like to use the "it" factor -- but it's something that any decent quarterback in this league needs. And if you don't have it, you don't have a chance.
Call it consistency. Call it accountability. Call it dependability. Whatever you want to call it, Smith has it.
Again, that doesn't mean he'll go on to be a reliable quarterback over the long haul; only his talent, his durability and his ability to grasp the game at this level will determine whether he's what the Jets are looking for. But there is a trustworthiness about Smith that his teammates gravitate toward, a genuine feeling about the guy that gives him credibility inside his locker room and his huddle.
Some guys have it, some guys don't, but most times, it makes all the difference about whether a guy will last at this level. You see it in Smith when he responds to the adversity he has faced during the difficult stretches, which is why you often get a better idea about a player by how he gets through the hard times, not when he's riding the wave of success.
"I've seen a lot of guys want to fold under pressure with the kind of circumstances [Smith] has faced, and Geno hasn't,"" veteran backup quarterback David Garrard said. "He has a strong mind, and that's very important. When you have a guy that has that strong mindset, that strong will, he's not easy to break. The game is tough, and there are going to be moments where it seems like, 'Here we go again' or the world is coming to an end. But the guys with strong minds, they withstand it, they stare it right in the face and keep right on moving. I've seen other guys get glassy-eyed and the game appears like it's bigger than them. Geno doesn't do that."
Smith has experienced plenty of good and bad so far. The good: He has beaten the Patriots and Saints, put in a transcendent performance in a Monday night win at Atlanta, and outdueled fellow rookie EJ Manuel at MetLife Stadium. The bad: He lost three straight after the bye, and went more than a month without throwing a touchdown pass. At one point, he had just one scoring throw and 11 interceptions over a seven span before he finally broke the embarrassing skid in Sunday's win over the Raiders.
But through it all, Smith has shown poise and composure, making his teammates appreciative of his even-keeled demeanor.
"He's someone you can rely on to be consistent with that attitude," wide receiver David Nelson said. "If he's down and frustrated, then the whole offense is frustrated. I really appreciate the way he's handled that. Usually young guys wear their emotions on their sleeves. Body language is a big thing. If they make a mistake, you can see their frustration. But with Geno, there's been none of that."
Players know when a guy is a genuine leader, and they'll always sniff it out if there's even a trace of phoniness in their quarterback.
"In this line of work, if a guy looks like a rat, smells like a rat, he usually is a rat," said Matt Simms, who replaced Smith after he was benched at halftime of a loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 1. "People like that get exposed quickly. But Geno's not like that. He does a tremendous job, especially in this [New York] area, being a rookie. Here's a guy that's struggled, had to deal with the whole thing with me [replacing him against Miami] and came back and played a great game against Oakland. Right there shows you how tough he really is and how he can handle the situation."
Smith knows people are watching for any little hint of weakness. He also knows that what he' showing on the outside is also what's on the inside. He's no phony.
"I don't fake it," he said. "I'm just going to come in and be myself every single day. I think it's very important at the position of quarterback to always remain that even-keeled, steady guy. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs, things aren't going to always go your way, but the thing is you have to work hard and be even-keeled. I think that evens out the team and keeps guys level-headed. For what it's worth, it also keeps me levelheaded and allows me to put things in better perspective."
Again, it's too soon to know if Smith will make it at this level. Only time and talent will make that determination. But it's not too soon to see that Smith does have what it takes when it comes to leadership, poise and accountability. And no quarterback, no matter how talented, can win without that kind of inner strength.