Jon Gruden says it's too early to pass judgment on Geno Smith

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass. (Sept. 14, 2009) (Credit: AP)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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Sure, Geno Smith is in a tough spot, learning on the fly at the helm of a flawed Jets offense. Jon Gruden understands that, and sympathizes. He also knows it is part of the job.

"It was hard for Brett Favre,'' the ESPN analyst said Thursday during a break in preparing for the Jets' game against the Falcons Monday night. "It was hard for [Chad] Pennington. Vinny Testaverde lives next door to me ; it was hard for him, too.

"Unless you're Joe Namath and you win the Super Bowl, it is probably pretty hard . . . The most difficult training ground in sports is being a quarterback in New York City."

It hasn't helped that Jets fans, not to mention the team's coaches and executives, want answers soon, the better to assess whether Smith can be the solution at quarterback.

But Gruden said making that decision is muddled by a team on which "you really don't know which direction they are going offensively," one with a banged-up receiving corps and struggles at guard.

(When I asked Gruden about Smith's attempted behind-the-back pass to himself in Nashville on Sunday, he said, "It would help if the left guard touched somebody.")

"I don't want to be a cop-out, but I don't think you're really able to judge him clearly yet," the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach said.

Although Gruden played quarterback at Dayton, he does not have the professional playing resume of his Fox and CBS counterparts, Troy Aikman and Phil Simms. But he has bonded early with some of the game's rising stars at the position through his popular "QB Camp" series, in which he sits down with top prospects before the draft.

One of this year's visitors was Smith. A key discussion point, Gruden recalled, was the need to dial back from the frantic offensive pace of his West Virginia offense as he transitioned to the NFL.

"The point we were trying to make was we don't want to go so fast and treat every play in a hurry to get to the next play," Gruden said.

A related notion: safety first. "I hope he can go back and get a handle on ball security," Gruden said. "Don't make every play a great play. Sometimes the best play is a throwaway; sometimes the best play is hanging on to the ball and taking a sack."

Smith knows that, and he has said so ever since his four-turnover meltdown against the Titans. But these things take time, and one element working for Smith and the Jets is that the defense mostly has been reliable.

"That doggone Rex Ryan, he can draw them up," Gruden said. "You don't know where they're coming from."

Speaking of Ryan, Gruden called the Jets' overall circumstances, featuring a new GM, a rookie quarterback and a lame-duck coach, "a strange situation, a strange dynamic, that's for sure."

Gruden and his "Monday Night Football" friends must hope all that is enough for an intriguing set of story lines, and also that the Jets can be competitive against the disappointing 1-3 Falcons.

As Gruden sees it, it is a distinct possibility. "This is a winnable game for the Jets," he said. "I don't think anyone believes me on that. But I wouldn't want to have backup [offensive] tackles playing against Rex, that I do know."

Gruden is in his fifth season with ESPN and his second in a two-man booth beside Mike Tirico after the network removed Ron Jaworski. He said he misses Jaworski personally and professionally but that with only two announcers, "we probably do a better job of dribbling the ball, passing the ball and not over-talking."

The smart money is on Gruden eventually returning to coaching and his name often comes up for college and pro openings. But he is happy where he is for now.

"I like it, and I love being around the game," he said. "Certain days I miss it, and certain days I like to get as far away from it as I can."

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