The criticism of Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith has been blistering and unrelenting, from questions about his work ethic to doubts about his mental toughness to skepticism about whether he'll ever be a big-time NFL quarterback. But the withering critiques and gratuitous shots haven't deterred the former West Virginia star from maintaining a single-minded focus.
"I understand it comes with the territory, and I just focus on what really matters to me, and that's being a good teammate and focusing on my football and getting better daily," Smith said after his first practice with the Jets' rookies on Friday. "Obviously there's been a lot of talk in the media, but for me, it's being my normal old self, just handling business the way I have."
Big-time prospects have always been subject to pre-draft scrutiny, but Smith endured more than most. And with unnamed NFL people supplying almost all the criticism, it felt like piling on after a while. Did he seem distant in some pre-draft meetings? Did his disappointment at not being drafted in the first round suggest that he might not be able to handle on-field misfortune the way a champion should? Did he really pay more attention to messages on his cell phone than to team officials he met with before the draft?
Last we checked, Smith had an impressive enough college football resume to be considered a worthy candidate in last month's draft. And if there is a prospect to come into the NFL without any faults picked apart by pro teams examining them in microscopic detail, then he'd be the first.
There's something to question in everyone who draws interest from the NFL, and general managers, coaches and executives are quick to point out the flaws. But it sure did feel over the top with Smith, maybe because of the position he plays and the team he now plays for. The Jets have been rightly ripped the last two years for failing to do things the right way, as evidenced by their failure to reach the playoffs both years and the screaming headlines detailing the circus-like atmosphere that has enveloped the team during that span.
But with new general manager John Idzik bringing back a sense of normalcy to the personnel operation, and with the Jets in need of an infusion of talent at the most important position, Smith at least deserves the benefit of time to determine whether the criticisms are valid.
It may turn out that Smith isn't up to the challenge and will become the latest in a series of misfires at quarterback for a team that hasn't gotten it right since Joe Namath. In fact, Smith might be no more capable at turning around this offense than Mark Sanchez has been during his stunning regression over the last two years. But can we at least see what the kid has to offer before pronouncing him a bust, even before he takes his very first snaps in training camp?
Fortunately for Smith, he seems well-equipped to handle the torrent of criticism that has already come his way, although it is still very early in the process. And you know how things can snowball out of control in the New York market, especially with the Jets, who have become masters at the art of creating bad press.
"I don't read into [the criticism]," he said. "I don't pay attention to it. I don't focus on that. It's not my job to do it."
And what about the seemingly unending stream of negative reactions to Smith's chances of making it big in the NFL?
"I think it's been a more eventful few weeks for the media," he said. "I've just been my natural old self. I haven't changed. I could care less about it. My only job is to focus on what I have here and to get better."
He plans to solicit advice from everyone around him, and that includes his coaches and teammates, particularly veteran quarterback David Garrard, who is anxious to be a mentor to the rookie quarterback while the two compete for the starting job along with Sanchez, the favorite to be No. 1 going into the season.
"I'm all ears," Smith said. "I'm an open sponge. I'm learning from everyone. It's learning on the job. I'm a rookie. There's going to be ups and downs. It's just about weathering that storm."
Head coach Rex Ryan seems unfazed about the criticism, suggesting that other teams might have been looking for faults simply because they didn't feel inclined to draft Smith.
"With us, we just go by what we see," Ryan said. "For us, we were impressed with Geno. All the other stuff's behind him. The guy was a pretty darn good quarterback [at West Virginia]. I don't understand [the criticism]. I think the kid's a pretty decent kid."
It will all come down to what he does on the field, as it always does in these matters. Four years ago, Ryan couldn't say enough nice things about Sanchez, who was looked upon as the franchise quarterback for the next dozen years. It didn't turn out that way, of course, which is why Smith is now here.
But as it was with Sanchez then and as it is with Smith now, the answers will come soon enough. Maybe the criticism Smith now faces will be justified, maybe not. He at least deserves the benefit of time to see whether the skeptics are right.