FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Having worked under Bill Parcells in Dallas, Jets quarterbacks coach David Lee is quite familiar with the Hall of Fame coach's philosophy about rookies struggling to adjust.
Parcells had a stock quote about first-year players trying to pick up an NFL system: "He's like a ball in tall grass . . . lost."
Well, you can apply that quote to Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who is still somewhat overwhelmed by the switch from West Virginia's wide-open, quick-strike offense to the Jets' more disciplined, technique-oriented West Coast system. Even the snap count is a challenge.
"He's just struggling with the basic things," Lee said on Wednesday of the second-round draft pick. "Snap count at the line of scrimmage. His delivery in the huddle can be more consistent. Little things are what's really killing him."
It's not that Smith has been awful. It's that the apprenticeship of being an NFL quarterback in a new system is complicated. He took every snap out of the shotgun at West Virginia, but under coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast approach, Smith is under center a good deal of the time. That means his footwork on dropbacks still isn't close to being second nature. The post route isn't quite there yet.
"It happened to him [Wednesday]," Lee said. "He double-hitches instead of a single hitch. But we've installed so much with so many plays. He answers it in the [written] test, but we get out here in the heat of the battle, and there are six or seven [defenders] coming and he's got a hot [read] and he loses his footwork. He's got to do it over and over and it will come."
Now, before you get the idea Smith is so overwhelmed that he's a hopeless case, remember there's still plenty of time before the Sept. 8 opener against the Bucs. And it's not out of the realm of possibility that Smith will overcome the rookie mistakes to win the job over Mark Sanchez, who also has struggled with Mornhinweg's system.
"It's not unrealistic at all," Lee said when asked if Smith can be ready to start by September. "It's realistic."
No one's ready to say just yet, though. The likely scenario is that the Jets will get through most of training camp and a preseason game or two before making a final determination about a starter. Who's ahead? Sounds like it's just about even when you listen to Lee.
"Both of them have had days where they both look good, and the next day they both look real good and then the next day, they don't look good together," he said. "They don't make it easy. They won't separate right now. The greatest way to evaluate them is in a ballgame."
Just the fact it's this close is a testament to how far Smith has come, even with the expected rookie mistakes. If he can be in a dead heat with a five-year veteran, that tells you the job eventually will be his. Whether it's from Day 1 is the only remaining question.
If Sanchez does start, Smith still might be involved. Wildcat quarterback, anyone?
"I know what everybody's thinking: 'Oh, didn't we try that last year?' " Rex Ryan joked, referring to the failed Tim Tebow experiment. "But certainly, that's a possibility. We'll let this thing pan out and we'll see."
Smith will do whatever is asked, but make no mistake: He wants the No. 1 job.
"It's a competition, and I'm trying to compete and outdo the man next to me," Smith said. "Every single rep I get to move the offense, I try and do to the best of my abilities."
Lee believes the time between now and the start of training camp will be crucial for Smith, even when he's away from the training facility.
"If you knew how much stuff was in his head right now," Lee said. "But when he sits back, calms down, the next five to six weeks, he studies in the quiet and he comes back and says, 'Yeah, I know this.' "
Lee said it will come down to another Parcells truism. "He said, 'You learn about the quarterbacks in the games.' We've got some preseason games. But right now, we don't know."